Columnist, Food

The National Museum of American History’s exhibit “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” includes a photo of Joel Peterson using a long metal tool, sort of like a hoe with an extra-long handle, to punch down fermenting zinfandel grapes in a wooden vat. The photo — and the tool, also on display — represent the frontier spirit of California wine in the 1970s, before it became an industry.

Peterson was the winemaker behind Ravenswood, the Sonoma winery that helped revive zinfandel as a California flagship with wines from old-vine vineyards around the state. His “No Wimpy Wines!” slogan solidified a take-no-hostages perception of California wine that persists to this day.

Peterson is no longer the lone artisan struggling to steer his wines through fermentation to bottling. Today he is a vice president of Constellation Brands, the drinks conglomerate that bought Ravenswood in 2001. Constellation is one of three companies that produce or import more than 50 percent of the wine sold in the United States, according to a recent study by researchers at Michigan State University. As I wrote in last week’s column, those companies — E. & J. Gallo and the Wine Group complete the troika — dominate our wine buying choices with brands such as Barefoot Cellars, Corbett Canyon and Arbor Mist.

No one would begrudge Peterson his success. Starting a company from scratch and then cashing in is the modern American dream. For him, the story is a happy one; others rue the corporate touch. In wine, with its dominant image of the artisan vigneron creating a unique product from a combination of sun, soil and sweat, cashing in can be seen as selling out.

“There is no doubt that acquisition by a larger entity negatively impacts the reputation of a smaller winery,” Peterson said in a recent e-mail interview. “Frequently this opinion is unjustified. The wines that Ravenswood produces now are as unique . . . as they have ever been. The corporate input is strictly budgetary.”

In “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-200,” a photo of Joel Peterson is a snapshot of artisanal winemaking in the 1970s. (National Museum of American History)

Peterson said the Vintner’s Blend Zinfandel, the most widely available Ravenswood wine, has grown under Constellation’s ownership and is now available in Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. The single-vineyard zinfandels, however, are still sourced from the same vineyards and made in the same quantities as before the winery changed hands, using the same methods he employed during Ravenswood’s early days.

“It is important to distinguish between the brands and the wineries in the various portfolios,” Peterson said. “Brands like Rex Goliath and Black Box on the one hand, and wineries like Robert Mondavi and Ravenswood on the other, are very different in philosophy and execution.” While the wineries aim to remain true to their traditions, “the brands are made to fit perceived holes in the market where there is believed to be demand,” he said. “Witness the explosion of moscato and sweet red blends.”

Is big bad? Corporate ownership has not ruined Ravenswood’s single-vineyard zins, which are distinctive and show the various expressions of old-vine zinfandel throughout California. And the Robert Mondavi wines from Napa are still excellent. I said as much to Margrit Mondavi, Robert’s widow, when she visited Washington last November for the opening of the American History Museum exhibit.

“It’s the same team making the wines” as before the 2004 takeover by Constellation Brands, she replied. (Well, except for the absence of Mondavis.)

For most consumers, the corporate ownership of a wine brand might not matter, as long as the wine tastes good. Those of us who spend too much time thinking about and drinking wine still prefer the small-scale ideal of the winemaker toiling over the fermenting juice with purple-stained hands, wielding makeshift tools that someday might be on exhibit in the Smithsonian.

That ideal resonates with some winemakers as well.

“We went from family winemakers to family winemakers making a consumer product,” recalls Michael Mondavi, who co-founded Robert Mondavi winery in 1966 with his father, then helped grow it to a publicly traded company with brands such as Woodbridge and Robert Mondavi Private Selection before its takeover by Constellation. Today, he is “founder and coach” of Folio Fine Wine Partners and Michael Mondavi Family Wines, with his son, Rob Jr., as a fourth-generation winemaker, and he’s determined to keep his new company small.

“It’s more fun to meet with the guys at Calvert Woodley and Pearson’s,” Michael Mondavi said, referring to two leading Washington retailers, “than to report to corporate headquarters.”

McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.