There’s something to be said for branding in the wine marketplace. A wine label that can produce a consistent wine, year after year, or follows a particular philosophy, makes your wine buying much simpler. We’re not necessarily talking about “formula” wines produced for the masses by huge corporations such as Gallo, Beringer-Blass, or Bolla (though those wines have their place on the shelf too). Rather, we like to find wines that can be trusted to deliver a certain expectation. Naturally, the quality of the vintage can have an effect on a wine, and we can accept that. But even in bad vintages, we like our “trusted brands” to have consistency in style — perhaps to go as far as having a trademark, or an obvious goal in mind during the winemaking process.
For instance, the Ravenswood winery in Sonoma, California has a very clear message: “No Wimpy Wines.” It’s more of a promise than a message, actually, and they deliver on that assertion throughout their range of Zinfandels, Cabernets, Merlots and other reds (I have to admit I’ve yet to try their whites). Regardless of which wine you choose, if it says Ravenswood on the label, you are guaranteed to get a plump, rich, heavy wine full of ripe fruit.
Interestingly, they don’t use state-of-the-art technology to extract gobs of jammy fruit from the grapes. Instead, winemaker Joel Peterson employs “old school” techniques, relying on the quality of the fruit to produce the wine. It’s pretty boring, really: the grapes are crushed, native vineyard yeasts are added, the juice sits with the skins for a few weeks, and then it’s aged in small French oak barrels. OK, there’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it.
Because of the “Old World” winemaking process, the hardest part of Peterson’s job is finding the fruit. The “Vineyard Designate” wines, for example, are made from grapes grown in tiny vineyards in distinct locations north of Sonoma-based winery. Each of the 10 vineyards is carefully cultivated by its owner. That’s right, Ravenswood doesn’t own the vineyards — they count on experienced, meticulous growers to produce the grapes every year. It makes for an efficient, effective operation — the growers concentrate on the growing, the winery focuses on the winemaking. And the resulting wine is very high quality, usually worthy of 5-10 years of cellaring.
But that’s the top of the line; if you can get your hands, and afford, on one of those wines — such as a Zin from Dickerson, Belloni, Teldeschi, Sangiacomo, or one of the other vineyards (it will have the vineyard name on the label) — by all means do so. You won’t be disappointed.
More likely, you’ll see the “County Series” and the “Vintners Blend” labels in your local shop. They cost less, and are ready to drink upon release, and in my experience have excellent price-to-value ratio. In other words, you get what you pay for, which to me is another key component in trusting a particular brand. As with the Vineyard Designates, Joel Peterson is not too proud to admit that the grapes for “County” and “Vintners” are purchased from farmers. The Vintners Blends are often remarkable values, because some of the fruit blended in is the “declassified” juice from the Vineyard Designates. In other words, any juice that doesn’t meet the extremely high standards of the specific vineyard bottling, ends up being part of a Vintners Blend. So you’re getting grapes grown for fifty-dollar wines in a ten-buck bottle.
The County wines are somewhere in between — both in quality and preparation. Grapes are sourced from farmers in various vineyards in the California county specified on the label. While the vineyards are good quality, they’re not on the extreme level of, say, a Rancho Salina or Big River, and therefore not worthy of “single vineyard” status. If you are familiar with the way France assigns its appellations, then a loose comparison would be that a Ravenswood Vineyard Designate is akin to a Cru, while a County Series wine would be similar to a village wine. For example, Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel would be like (in classification, not taste) a Cru Beaujolais “Brouilly” while Lodi Zinfandel would compare to a Beaujolais-Villages. Or something like that.
In the end, what is printed on the label is not nearly as important as what you like. However, if you like big, bold, rich, ripe red wines, then chances are very good that you will enjoy wines made by Ravenswood. Further, there’s a quality wine for every budget — their entry-level “Vintners Blends” start at right around ten bucks, the “County Series” wines are in the $12-18 range, and the “Signature Series” go from $25-55.
Visit the Ravenswood website (a.k.a., “Department of Zinformation”)