Still no wimpy wines for Sonoma winemaker Joel Peterson’s new Once & Future label
Joel Peterson doesn’t do sweet.
Joel Peterson doesn’t do pink.
Joel Peterson doesn’t do wimpy.
As founding winemaker of Sonoma’s Ravenswood Winery, Peterson was adamant about the wines he produced, and refused to make the “wimpy” white zinfandel even though it could have solved his company’s cash flow problem in the early 1980s.
Today, with four decades of winemaking behind him, 69-year-old Peterson is still intent on keeping his zin cred. He has a new wine label and a book in the making.
“The obvious title of the book would be ‘No Wimpy Wines,’” Peterson said, grinning beneath his trademark straw cowboy hat.
At a picnic table near Glen Ellen’s Bedrock Vineyard and clad in blue jeans, a checkered shirt, down vest and hiking boots, Peterson uncorked samples of his prized zin and petite sirah, the first two bottlings of his Once & Future label. The name refers to Soren Kierkegaard’s quote: “Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.”
With gnarled, old vines behind him and the Mayacamas Mountains in the distance, Peterson explained the inspiration behind his new brand.
“I wanted to do what I originally set out to do,” Peterson said. “I love to make wine. That is what is in my heart.”
Ravenswood was sold to Constellation Brands in 2001 for $148 million, with Peterson retaining the title of winemaker. But at the end of 2013, he said, “I began to look forward and look backwards at the same time.”
“When you reach your 60s, you begin to look at life a little differently. It was always there, the idea that time was running out, that I had 10 good working years left in my life,” he said. “If I was ever going to do it, it had to be now.”
In 2015 he resigned his position as senior vice president of Constellation Brands, although he continues as winemaker at Ravenswood, and introduced his second act. The first Once & Future wines were released early this year.
“I am pushing 70 years old,” Peterson said. “While I am still at Ravenswood, there will come a time when I will scale back my role. I currently have the health and opportunity to lay the foundations for the winery that I wanted to have and will have in the future.
“I will never stop making wine. I love to make wine, that is what is in my heart. I just want to do it on the scale and with the ‘personal’ care that you can lavish on a one-man winery making small lots of special wines.”
Although he started as a microbiologist, Peterson describes himself as a proud farmer who cares enough about the environment to own a Tesla, adding, “This old hippie has resisted the stratification that comes with corporate life.” But the irreverent hippie has always been a practical one.
In 1976, he founded the company with Reed Foster, a Harvard Business School graduate who warned in the early 1980s that if they couldn’t find a way to bring in more cash, Ravenswood might not survive another year.
Foster suggested they produce white zinfandel, which had taken the wine world by storm, but Peterson wouldn’t budge. He decided instead to make his cash cow a red zinfandel called Vintners Blend. At 450,000 cases a year, it made the winery flush and kept intact his cult tagline - “No Wimpy Wines.” Under Constellation’s ownership, production was eventually pumped to a million cases a year.
Peterson said he had originally envisioned Ravenswood as a small winery making vineyard designated, handmade Burgundian wines. But in those days, boutique winemaking was a pipe dream. Peterson had to pump up the volume to stay in business, growing Ravenswood way beyond his expectations.
“I would have liked to have stopped at 6,000 cases or so, and become known for really excellent unique, hand-crafted wines,” he said. “But it was difficult. I wasn’t a rich man. I couldn’t make this a rich man’s hobby.”
The marketplace is more generous these days, and the market is now ripe for his new project, he said. Once & Future Wine “is the return to the original vision I had for Ravenswood so many years ago, a small project specializing in wines from unique, older vineyards.”
He shares production space with his son, Morgan Twain-Peterson, of Sonoma’s Bedrock Wine Co. And instead of selling wine through distributors, retailers and restaurateurs, the Internet makes it possible for him to sell directly to consumers and even meet them individually when they pick up their orders.
“Effectively, I act as my own on-line retailer and, if I do my job well, will have a fairly stable fan base that is intrigued with the wines I make.”
Twain-Peterson said he is happy to share space with his father and considers it payback.