Life as a Winemaker: Joel Peterson

For many, the idea of being a winemaker is glamorous, romantic & full of popping bottles. To outsiders they live a life of leisure, but it is a lot of work and grit involved in the process of growing grapes & turning it into wine. Some days winemakers are completely soaked, waist-deep in stomped grapes, while other days they are in the tasting room selling wine & promoting their brand, and in between those days they are pulled in a completely different direction. 

I went out and asked some of the great winemakers of our time, from large organization to boutique winemakers I have had the pleasure to meet, all of which had amazing stories of how they ended up in wine. In the next few articles I will interview these great winemakers & explore the different jobs that winemakers fulfill in their jobs, the many hats they wear in their organizations and how it is they began to make wine.

Joel Peterson - "The Godfather of Zin"

How did you get started in the wine business? What made you decide to become a winemaker?

I was trained as a wine taster when I was 10 years old by my father who ran one of the early wine newsletters in the San Francisco bay area, The San Francisco Wine Sampling Club. I had an opportunity to taste many of the great wines of the world when they were still relatively affordable, by the time I was 18. I saw wine as an avocation not a vocation. I had grown up in a scientifically oriented family; my mother was a nuclear chemist, my father was physical chemist, and I became an immunologist. I continued my interest in wine and when my father died suddenly in 1971, I got an honorary memberships to the Vintners Club in San Francisco, which he had helped to found. That put me in the company of a number of winemakers like Dick Graff, Joseph Swan, and David Bruce among others, which peaked my interest in winemaking. It turned out that Joseph Swan needed some help building his winery and with crush so, in 1972, I took all my weekends and vacations and spent them with Joe Swan in Forestville and learned the nuts and bolts of winemaking. With what in retrospect seems like a fair mount of hubris, I decided that I could start a winery. In 1976, I crushed my first grapes at Joel Swan's winery and made 327 cases of Zinfandel.

Do you have a degree in winemaking? Or are you self-taught?

I do not have a degree in winemaking. All my experience is practical, obviously I learned a great deal from Joseph Swan who's consultant and friend was Andre Tchelistcheff who also gave me some guidance. Certainly my degrees in science have been helpful as well.

Are there any memories / lessons you learned in your training that have stuck with you?

I think the primary lesson was that to make good wine, you have to keep the process simple and pay attention to the vineyard.

How would you describe your winemaking style?

When I started out, my winemaking was very simple; small open top fermenters, punched down by hand, native yeast fermentation and small cooperage of French oak elevage. As Ravenswood got bigger, my winemaking encompassed all sorts of machinations associated with the process of making more wine. At its peak, Ravenswood was nearly one million cases big. So, much of it involved blending different vineyards together in order to make the best wine possible. I now have started another brand called Once & Future which takes us back to early days of Ravenswood. I guess I'd describe the winemaking as Burgundian; small lot, carefully crafted, hand made wines.

What does your day-to-day actually look like as the winemaker?

This is a difficult question because there is no typical day. It varies from season to season. It varies depending on the sales and marketing needs of the organization. Typically during crush, I spend a lot of time in the winery. If I'm at Ravenswood, I write offers and instruct people on what I need done for each fermenter after I've tasted through all them. If I"m at Once & Future, I am punching down and emptying fermenters, barreling down wine and doing much of the physical labor. I'm also spending a good deal of time in the vineyards determining ripeness and picking dates. If it is not crush, We work with the vineyards improving the soil conditions, pruning vines and doing general vineyard work. Also, in the non harvest time, there is much sales and marketing to be done . You can't make wine if you can't sell it. So I spend a good deal of time traveling to different markets to talk about my wines and do things like seminars and winemaker dinners and distributor demonstrations. For Once & Future, we also maintain the website and do release letters as the majority of that wine is sold direct to consumer.

What has surprised you most about being a winemaker?

I guess what surprised me most is that I've been able to do this for 45 years, make a living and still love the job.

What is your favorite varietal to work with and why?

It is not for nothing that I am known as the Godfather of Zin. Zinfandel is California's most important variety. It certainly has been a staple of the California wine business since the 1850s. California's oldest vineyards, some considerably more than 100 years old, are Zinfandel and mixed blacks that are co-planted with Zinfandel. The grape makes superlative wine in California that is highly responsive to location and is completely unique to California. When the other grapes that are grown with it , Carignane, Alicante Bouchet, Petite Sirah and Mataro are part of the blend, it is totally unique to California.

In the world of wine, who do you most admire and why? Who influenced you?

Obviously Joseph Swan and Andre Tchelistcheff. There are many other winemakers that I admire but from the world of wine, people who have done some of the best outreach are Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson.

How involved do you get in the vineyards?

Very involved. I work my own fields & winegrapes. I also am involved with about 100 northern California grape growers, consulting on irrigation methods, cultivation practices, cropping levels and a slew of other vineyard management issues.

Do you have a favorite wine or vintage that you have made?

I have made so many vintages that you'd have to ask that question in reference to decades, and in reference to a particular vineyard. Something like Old Hill Ranch has had great vintages in 84, 86, 91, 93, 95, 99 - lovely wines that are delicious. And, we have had a number of very good wines from recent vintages, 2012, 2014, and 2015 just to mention a few. Of course, I make many other single vineyard wines of at least equal status and complexity.

What is one of the hardest things about winemaking year in and year out?

Being flexible enough to modify your winemaking to match the vagaries of any particular vintage to allow for the best possible result.

What is one of the most rewarding things about your job?

The interactions that I have with my colleagues and my customers.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

I am partial to wines from the Rhone.

If you could drink wine anywhere, in any region or country, where would it be and why?

Piedmonte, Northern Italy. The wines are very interesting but ultimately it is the match of food and wine in this region that is exciting and satisfying.

What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?

The redevelopment of the small winery. Once I had a small winery, and in the future I will have a small winery.