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When Small Wineries Get Big Owners

on 06/02/13 at 9:28 am


imagesThe 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 recently, 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.