In late 1972 I met Joe Swan and was given an extraordinary chance to learn the art of winemaking. I was a complete novice when it came to the craft, but not when it came to wine. I had grown up in a household of two chemists: my mother Frances, a nuclear chemist and my father Walter, a physical chemist. After my brother and I were born my mother applied her meticulous science skills to food (later doing much of the recipe testing for Alice Waters’s original Chez Panisse cookbook). My father became obsessed by wine, eventually writing one of the first wine newsletters in the San Francisco Bay Area: The San Francisco Wine Sampling Society. With this as a childhood backdrop, I learned about the pleasures and complexities of food and wine at an early age, along with a healthy love of science.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, with the California wine business still recovering from the hangover of Prohibition and offering few options of high quality wine (with some notable exceptions such as Beaulieu and Inglenook) my parents’ taste, and as a result mine, was informed by European wines. Many of the best were from single vineyards where the grapes were grown perfectly matched to site, the wines made by a person who had special insight into that location and a deft touch with the process.
I learned that the most interesting wines were generally made in fairly small lots, frequently relying on native flora for fermentation and more often than not, stored in wooden cooperage for some period of time to mature and concentrate before bottling.
When Joe Swan took me under his wing in the early 1970’s, his fastidious winemaking techniques, and wines, mirrored my theories and tasting experiences. Grapes from carefully selected and cultivated vineyards were harvested at ripeness but not over ripeness. They were fermented in small 3 – 4 ton open top redwood fermenters and punched down by hand. The processing was minimal and the aging occurred in small, newly imported French oak barrels. Although Joe wanted to specialize in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, he practiced his early winemaking with old vine Zinfandel. As the four subsequent decades have shown, these turned out to be some of his best wines. It was those first Swan wines that made me fall in love with Zinfandel and, in particular, with older vines. I came to see these as the most European grapes in California; mostly planted in the right locations, frequently mixed with other varieties, usually dry farmed, moderate in production (2 – 3 tons per acre), head pruned and intermixed with other varieties that were unique to California.
When I started Ravenswood in 1976, I wanted to focus on Zinfandel.
I planned to make single vineyard wines in a somewhat gothic, old world style. It was my hope to make wine similar to that made in Europe but with a Californian twist; small open topped redwood fermenters, hand punchdowns, extended macerations, native yeast, gentle transfer, minimal processing and small French oak aging – all done by hand. I thought the winery, if I were lucky, would grow to six or seven thousand cases. For a number of reasons, mostly dealing with the hard realities of cash flow and distribution and the necessity of equity partners, I found myself unable to make that vision of a small winery into a reality. Though I was able to make single vineyard wines that I hope helped redefine the qualitative ceiling of California’s old vines, Ravenswood also started to make a wine called “Vintners Blend” that proved immensely popular. Thanks to that, starting in 1983, seven years after the first vintage, Ravenswood began to grow and over the following three decades its annual production kicked up to nearly one million cases, at one point becoming the bestselling red Zinfandel brand in the world.
Both in the vineyard and in life, I have definitely learned a thing or two about vintage variation. I am enormously proud of the wines I make at Ravenswood, from those wines that sing of place - Old Hill Ranch, Dickerson, Belloni, Barricia, Teldeschi - to the more economical wines that helped turn a couple of generations of people onto the joy and deliciousness of well-wrought wine. However, after nearly 45 years in the wine business, I feel it is time to return to my roots.
Once and 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, made with a sensitivity to place and in a style that I personally love and believe in. Wines that force me to dust off the old redwood vats and get out a new punch down tool (my original is in the Smithsonian), wines that dye my hands a harvest shade of black/purple and sometimes force me to take an additional Ibuprofen in the morning. In short - wines of sweat, commitment, and love.