JOEL PETERSON

Ravenswood


Joel Peterson grew up on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay during the Dark Ages when California wine was judged by the type of jug it was bottled in. However, Joel's farsighted father Walter bucked the status quo by starting the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club, which studied fine wines from all over the world. Walter allowed his son to join the group's twice-weekly tastings when Joel was nine years old, carefully measuring the wine in the boy's glass — then his spittoon — to make sure everything was expectorated.

By the time he was a teenager, Joel thus had a working knowledge of European vineyards and vintages, along with a collection of headstrong opinions about what made good wine. After graduating from Oregon State University, he followed in the professional footsteps of his parents (both of whom were chemists), going to work as a laboratory scientist. On the side, he made money through wine writing and consulting, gaining a local reputation as a gifted taster (and tasteless punster).

Eventually it dawned on Joel that he had the background (not to mention the prejudices) to be an actual winemaker. Hence, he apprenticed with Joseph Swan — one of California's outstanding craftsmen of fine Zinfandel — to learn the art of traditional winemaking as practiced in Bordeaux and Burgundy. In 1976 Joel founded Ravenswood in partnership with fellow wine lover Reed Foster (a Harvard MBA gone astray) and over the next half-dozen years, their fledgling operation moved from the rear corner of one willing winery to another. When Ravenswood finally turned a profit after a dozen years of operation, they settled on the northern edge of Sonoma, where the winery's tasting room is located.

Joel is now acknowledged as a leader in California wine — an articulate spokesman and stylistic trendsetter who helped make Zinfandel the runaway phenomenon that it is today. If there were a California Winemaking Hall of Fame, he'd be a shoo-in for early induction — not just as a home-run hitter but as one of the most popular players in the majors. (It's said that even as a Little Leaguer he could handle the spitter with aplomb.)

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