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Ravenswood Winery

Ravenswood Winery

We know. You’re hip. You’re not the Sonoma County-newbie who asked, “Where are the white Zinfandel vineyards?” But are you so hip to the cult of Zinfandel that you’ve got the Ravenswood logo tattooed on your person? Free wine tasting for life, for those who do — and there are so many of them, believe it or not, the winery throws them an annual party and poetry slam.

Inked or not, if you like Zinfandel, this is your one must-stop: Say you’re a Harley rider, you’re on vacation, and you’re driving through Milwaukee. Sure you stop.

Fly like a raven

While the white Zinfandel boom of the late 1970s actually gave a temporary reprieve to some of the state’s tottering old Zinfandel vineyards, their real champion came along at the very same time. It’s not particularly original to note that Joel Peterson, then a long-haired, motorcycle-riding, clinical lab worker and wine connoisseur — since his teens — was a natural fit with the grape.

Peterson applied his experience in Burgundian-style winemaking earned at Joseph Swan’s little Forestville cellar, making a now-familiar, iconoclastic brand identity out of Zinfandel’s then-tenuous, underdog status.

Some things have changed up at “G-Road,” the rustic winery that houses the tasting room. Today, only a small demonstration batch of wine is made here. The main facility is south of town, and the popular, inexpensive Vintner’s Blend — that first hit that gets the white Zin drinker hooked on the darker, spicier side of the wine aisle — is made elsewhere.

A few years after Ravenswood offered public stock in the late ’90s, a big wine and spirits corporation bought out the company. But “Joel’s still a warrior for the brand,” my host tells me as we duck out of the summer heat, into the coolness of the cellar where spillover crowds are often led on impromptu tours. After all, here’s a guy who didn’t quit his day job for 15 years, until the winery turned a profit. Where? He’s at his desk up there in the old supervisor’s office overlooking the cellar, taking nothing for granted.

New wines from old vines

Ravenswood doesn’t play the “reserve bar” game anymore; the new focus is on offering visitors only the limited, single vineyard wines. Good news — I can’t remember seeing the legendary “Old Hill” Zin on the menu before. Otherwise, it’s the same old, laid-back place where the guy behind the bar might be wearing tie-dye, and the patron next to you might have a parrot on his shoulder. Saw it once.

I hate to say it, but the one-of-a-kind 2010 Old Hill Sonoma Valley Zinfandel ($60) is a Zin to win over your Cab lovers: brooding Christmas spice aromas, bright, intense dark red plum jam on the palate. The 2009 Pickberry Sonoma Mountain Red ($50) is a Cab-based blend, straight up: Fruitcake! Sangria!

The 2010 Icon Sonoma County Red Blend ($75) is now made with Zin, Carignane, Petite Sirah and “mixed black grapes” (it used to be a Syrah-based blend), and, if you’ve still got a hankering for light, sweet wine, take in the view from the patio lounge chairs with a glass of 2011 Moscato Leggero ($22). They’ll have you know that Ravenswood has made Moscato since “pre-Jay-Z” times.

Nerd out

Joel Peterson collaborates with UC researchers and the group Zinfandel Advocates and Producers to create a Heritage Vineyard project examining different Zinfandel clones. “We’re really on the verge of a new era for people who choose to plant Zinfandel,” says Peterson.

Hit the G-Road

Good Zin, now where’s the pizza? Head back into town to the Red Grape to get Tre Funghi.

Ravenswood Winery, 18701 Gehricke Road, Sonoma. Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tasting fee, $15. Blending seminars available.

More info on Wineries & Wine in Sonoma County.

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