A California Love Story & Lunch with Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Wine

Ravenswood Wine - Global Dish - Stephanie ArsenaultOh, California, how I love you. I love your laid-back way of life, your beautiful coast, and all of that fresh, delicious food you’ve got goin’ on {get in my belly!}. Also, the wine. Of course, the wine! Cali, my love, you boast some of the tastiest new world wine out there, and it’s a dream of mine to come for a visit and taste as much of it as I can.

While I may have to wait a while to make my way to California, last week California came to me. Sort of. I had the pleasure of joining the “Godfather of Zin” {don’t worry, he’s not nearly as mafia-esque as the moniker suggests, he’s actually very charming}, Joel Peterson, the founder and winemaker of Ravenswood Wines in Sonoma, for lunch at Calgary’s Cellar. A few lovely members of the Ravenswood team, along with a handful of Calgary media, were there as well and we chatted, ate {an amazing lunch courtesy of Murrieta’s… speaking of which, I wonder if they’d deliver an order of steak and fries to me right now...}, and drank an assortment of Ravenswood’s ridiculously tasty Zinfandels. It was no California, but it was a pretty solid stand-in for a Thursday afternoon, wouldn’t you say?

Ravenswood Wine - Global Dish - Stephanie Arsenault Over the last couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to quite a few winemakers – all with interesting backgrounds, and many with inspiring stories. Joel’s story, however, was unexpected. He was born to a couple of chemists, his mother a nuclear chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project {an R&D project that produced the first atomic bombs during WWII. Nothing says wine more than an atomic bomb, am I right?}, his father a physical chemist. Not exactly the upbringing you’d expect of a renowned winemaker, is it?

Ravenswood Wine - Global Dish - Stephanie Arsenault Wine came into Peterson’s life in the early 1950’s, when his mother decided to leave the workforce and stay home with Joel. She took up cooking {because she liked how it was sort of like chemistry}, and “took [Peterson] around the world” with the meals she made. Her French cookbooks taught her that the French drink wine with heir meals, and, having never had a bottle of wine, she went and sought some out. Their first bottle of wine was purchased in 1951; it was a 1945 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and they bought it to go with Thanksgiving dinner. That bottle of wine created a passion within the family; Joel’s dad bought his first case of wine in 1952 {it was $14.52. For a case of wine. I’ll give you a minute to digest that.}, started a wine club {still around today!}, and had 10-year-old Joel help him with his tastings. Why? Because he wanted to get the tasting notes right. “A 10-year-old has a simple vocabulary,” said Joel, explaining that a person of that age will give simple, honest descriptions that will be understood by everyone.

Ravenswood Wine - Global Dish - Stephanie Arsenault With an upbringing like that, you’d think that entering the wine business would have been a no-brainer, career-wise. Not so much. Instead, he ended up in immunology research in Berkley, where he fell in love with the food and wine scene. It was the latter bit that brought Peterson into wine, leading him to start making it himself in 1976.

38 years have passed, and Joel has made quite the name for himself in the world of wine. Using old-world techniques, wild yeast, and small barrels, Ravenswood wines are made with love and passion, by a seriously smart man...

... and to think, it all started with a bottle of 1945 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Ravenswood Wine - Global Dish - Stephanie Arsenault