No wimpy wines" has been the proud boast of California's Ravenswood winery since it was a small independent operation known for its mind-blowing zinfandels.
The Sonoma County winery founded by Joel Peterson plastered the slogan on bumper stickers, T-shirts and just about any other kind of souvenir you could think of. Along with what has to be the coolest logo in the California wine industry, it was a brilliant marketing decision - especially because it was true.
But now Ravenswood is no longer independent but one in a string of wineries owned by the company that brought the world Richard's Wild Irish Rose. The acquisition by Constellation Brands (formerly Canandaigua Wine Co.) in 2001 has brought Ravenswood an infusion of cash and a growth spurt, but it has also brought whispers calling Ravenswood's motto into question.
"It's a brave new world for Ravenswood," Peterson said during my visit to the winery last year.
Fortunately for Ravenswood, Peterson remains in charge of the winemaking. That's important because in many respects, he is Ravenswood. Few winemakers have done more to restore the reputation of zinfandel as one of the world's great red wines. He has also shown a sure - if less masterful - hand with other red varieties.
During last year's visit and in a series of tastings this abominable winter, I have probed for any signs of creeping wimpiness in Ravenswood's product line.
There was one disappointing merlot, but otherwise there was no wimp factor to be found. Corporate or not, Ravenswood remains Ravenswood - at least for as long as Peterson makes the wines.
Peterson said the time had come to sell the winery, founded in 1976. He had aging partners who were ready to cash out, and he himself was ready to give up some of the nonwinemaking chores.
"One of the challenges of being a smaller winery is that you're always running out of money," he said.
Ravenswood, which started out with a production of 325 cases, now makes about 400,000 cases a year - 70 percent of it zinfandel.
Peterson says Constellation, which also owns such reputable California wineries as Franciscan and Mt. Veeder, has pretty much left him alone to run the show.
The winery makes a few white wines, but they take a back seat to Ravenswood's powerful red wines.
If Ravenswood weren't getting so much attention for its zinfandels and cabernet blends, it could easily build a fine reputation on its petite sirah - that all-too-underrated varietal. Ravenswood's 2000 Petite Sirah ($22) is a big, spicy, chocolaty ball of fruit with hints of blueberry and the varietal's characteristic "dusty" finish.
Icon is Ravenswood's proprietary Rhone-style blend - and its most distinctive bottle design. The 1999 ($31) is quite good - with soft texture, generous fruit and notes of smoked meat and herbs. It's quite good, but you can buy better from Chateauneuf-du-Pape at the same price.
If there is weak spot in the Ravenswood lineup, it's merlot (a statement that could be made about dozens of California wineries). The 1999 Ravenswood from Sonoma County ($22) offers good upfront fruit, but falls off quickly to a rather thin finish. It's not so much wimpy as average among stars.
Ravenswood typically earns high marks for its Bordeaux-style blends. The 2000 Pickberry Vineyard blend ($50) from Sonoma Mountain is a spicy, soft, textured and complex wine dominated by merlot. The tannins are firm, not harsh, and it should age well. The 2000 Gregory Vineyards ($30) is a blend of considerable finesse, with hints of mint and eucalyptus to go with the black-cherry fruit and black pepper.
As good as its other wines can be, zinfandel is Ravenswood's lifeblood. It all starts with its biggest-selling wine, the low-priced Vintners Blend zinfandel.
The 2000 Vintners Blend Zinfandel ($11.69) is simply one of the best values on the wine market today. It's a medium-bodied, intensely fruity, peppery wine that many consumers will prefer to Ravenswood's more expensive blockbusters.
Those blockbusters come from a select group of vineyards with one thing in common: old vines. The old vines mean low yields and more concentrated fruit. The wines generally sell for between $30 and $55.
Last year, I tasted a series of these zinfandels from the 2000 and 2001 vintages. It was one of the most extraordinary displays of the collaboration of man and soil I have experienced.
The 2001 vintage, which Peterson called "amazing" for zinfandel, yielded several star performers. There was the 2001 Dickerson Vineyard from the Napa Valley, with its deep raspberry flavors; the Cooke Vineyard from the Sonoma Valley, with its tidal wave of wild berry and black pepper; and Sonoma's remarkably concentrated Old Hill Ranch.
The dry, challenging 2000 vintage brought an even longer parade of classic zinfandels: Teldeschi, wild and rustic; Big River, infused with black raspberry; Dickerson, like a dry vintage Porto; Barricia, structured and complex; Monterosso, elegant and penetrating; Old Hill Ranch, majestic in its concentration; Belloni, with the elegance of a great Cote Rotie of the Rhone.
Two of the best from Ravenswood's 1999 vintage can still be found on some store shelves in the Baltimore area. At 3 1/2 years, they are at an ideal age for drinking fine zinfandel. The prices are formidable, but entirely justified. The 1999 Dickerson Zinfandel ($42) is an elegant, intensely flavorful wine that displays deep cassis and black pepper flavors with hints of smoked meat and herbs.
The 1999 Old Hill Ranch ($52) tastes like a dry version of a Taylor Fladgate Vintage Porto. The huge blackberry and chocolate flavors mask its 15.4 percent alcohol beautifully. It's the perfect baritone counterpoint to the Dickerson's tenor.
No wimpy wines. Believe it.