It was a dark night as I rolled into a supermarket parking lot on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. I needed a bottle for a session with my partner-in-wine, a dame with a good heart in bad straits. Two Buck Chuck would be on the menu, and I needed something to punch it up. Times like these, there's a quick fix: Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zinfandel. Sure enough, I called her number on the Two-Buck. When I'd had enough of that, I popped the Ravenswood. What was this? A thin wine, with weedy tannin, and fruit that had already called it a day. In a word: wimpy?
This was bad news. Ravenswood is something like the lodestar of Zinfandel. Winemaker Joel Peterson cut his teeth some 30 years back, and created probably the most widely recognized brand of the varietal, as well as a whole cult of Zin. "No Wimpy Wines." Sure, the VB (Vintner's Blend) is the bottom of Ravenswood's 3.4 million gallon barrel. It's a cuvée of bulk wines, with some house-made thrown in. But it's 75 percent of that barrel. What's more, it's the first hit that's supposed to get a Merlot drinker hooked on the spicy side of the aisle. Never on the bottom shelf, this robust, reliable standby meets you squarely at chest level. This wine is tested and sampled daily, and sampled again if the half-empties are left outside the lab at the end of the day. Having worked three crushes there, I can personally attest to that. So what went wrong?
I drove down solo to Sonoma to ask some questions. Maybe this raven would sing. Had corporate meddlers at Constellation, Ravenswood's corporate overlord since 2001, gotten greedy and pushed it too far in pursuit of a little extra coin? Not all that glitters is bird-scare flash tape.
I dropped in on "G-Road," nice little place with wooden cellar doors and stonework, tucked into a hillside. This ain't where VB is made. But it's a good tasting room. Still holding the line between quirky and touristy, I'll hand that to them. More ravens than in a scene from The Birds and practically overstaffed, with a variety of unstuffy, friendly professional folks. One older gentleman leaned an arm on the counter, holding forth colorfully on some point. A visitor came to taste with a parrot on his shoulder. Not a problem. But they got cagey on the subject of the VB. Seems they don't serve it there. Big wonder. Closest thing is the new Zen of Zin, a juicy beverage with the character of a lollipop, as tame but more fun than the VB.
I moved on to the reserve bar. I stuck to the Zins. A darker question begged. What about the signature wines that made Ravenswood and Peterson famous? Is the resveratrol still keeping him in the game? I went through the Big River, the Barricia, the Teldeschi. The bright Lodi, the balanced Sonoma County. Good brambly Zins, all of them. Pumped up on tannin, maybe, but not wimpy. Not wimpy, but not taking chances. In the big picture, I guess that's best left to the upstarts--and the old farts. The Vintner's Blend, still a riddle unwrapped. Who knows, maybe the old birds have got some decent vintages to come. Let's just hope that doesn't become few and far between.
Ravenswood Winery, 18701 Gehricke Road, Sonoma. Tasting room open daily,10am to 4:30pm. Tasting fees: Not for wimpy wallets, but largely worth it. 707.933.2332 or (888.NO.WIMPY).