Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery, isn't exactly the sort of winemaker to veer off the conversation track into lilting conversations about the similarities between playing the bagpipes and making wine. Rather, Peterson is well-known as a savvy winemaker-turned-businessman who has long excelled at choosing top quality grape growers like the Teldelschi family rather than getting into the emotive side of the wine business. He is so adept at talking about exactly what he wants to (his wine brands), circling back to those unanswered questions in between Peterson's well-scripted announcements winds up being all part of the interview fun — particularly when the conversation suddenly turns to atomic bombs, Elizabeth David and Alice Waters.
In a recent interview, just after pausing for effect in the midst of a literal 5K marathon story about scoring a top vintner's grapes, Peterson slipped in this little nugget: “Well, my mother, not my father, was actually who got the family into wine – she was a nuclear chemist who worked on the atomic bomb. She also re-worked recipes for Alice Water's first cookbook.” What?! Tell us about that.
And he did. After he finished his wine sermon agenda.
Squid Ink: Your mom was a nuclear chemist?
Joel Peterson: Yes, but let me finish tasting through these [wines] first. [Thirty minutes on current wine release conversation follows.]
SI: So about your mom….
JP: Yes. So as I was saying, my mom was a nuclear chemist who worked on the atomic bomb. But then when she had to stay home with me when I was a baby, she got really bored [laughs]. That's part of why she got into cooking. She'd say cooking kept her out of trouble, plus that my father loved it.
SI: What was the Alice Waters connection?
JP: Well that came later. First we have to back up. My mom [Frances Peterson] was a very particular woman. She's actually the one who got the family into wine to begin with even thought it was my father who took it further. It started with my grandmother, who literally got an education because her father thought she was so homely, she'd never marry.
JP: She went to college and became a teacher, and soon caught the most eligible bachelor in town. So my grandmother believed in education with her children from the beginning.
SI: And thus her daughter — your mom — becomes a nuclear chemist.
JP: Yes. She was the kind of mom who taught me how to scramble eggs by explaining how to de-nature a protein: The primary de-naturation is soft with eggs, the secondary is firmer, then you break down the sulfides. In other words, she was a great cook. She also got us into wine.
SI: How so?
JP: When I was young, she started reading Elizabeth David's cookbooks. She read that the French drank wine with their meals, so one day she wanted our family to try it. But back then [in Berkeley], it took two weeks to find a bottle of French wine anywhere. She finally went to City of Paris in San Francisco, a French-themed department store where a Neiman Marcus now is. Anyway, in the basement of City of Paris there was a French wine seller.
SI: When was this?
JP: 1951, around Thanksgiving. She wanted something to go with the turkey and ended up with a 1945 Chateauneuf du Pape. They liked it and liked the idea of drinking wine with meals, but back then getting to San Francisco on the train took several hours.
SI: So she found wine elsewhere?
JP: No, she left the wine shop owner her card, and several months later she got a Llords + Elwood wine catalog in the mail. It was June 1952. I still have the catalog. My parents bought 12 wines, a mixed case for $15.40 that was a survey of wines from France, including a 1929 Chateau D'Yquem that was $3.40. It was by far the most expensive bottle in the case… they could have sold it at auction [years later] for $7,000.
SI: Or more.
JP: So from there, my Dad really was the one who took over, who got more into wine. The problem though was still how do you educate yourself about wine back then? He was so excited he flew down to L.A. to meet Mike Elwood [of Llords + Elwood wine importers]. Mike got my parents into trying German wines. But actually, in spite of the fact my father actually got more wine crazy in the end, my mother always had the best wine palette. [Peterson's father eventually founded the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club, where a pre-teen Peterson began regularly tasting wines alongside his father.]
SI: Palettes and tastings get us back to food. And Alice Waters.
JP: Oh right. That was much later, when my mom was in her 50s. My father had died and my mom and her new husband would go to Chez Panisse regularly. It was pretty clear that my mother was not a garden variety cook, and she was friends with Linda Guenzel.[Guenzel was the ghost writer behind The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook]. So Linda asked my mom to help [test] recipes.
SI: From nuclear chemist to your family's wine pioneer to a recipe tester for Alice Waters' cookbooks — and to think, all we ever hear about is you! Just kidding.
JP: [Laughs] Yeah, my mother was pretty amazing.
SI: So your mom liked French wine, what about you? Ravenswood put you on the map for California Zinfandel.
[Ah, from here, Peterson cleverly veers the conversation back to his wine portfolio.]
JP: But I grew up drinking Bordeaux, of course. So I still go there. And just to show you that I do things besides Zinfandel, I make my own Bordeaux blend, Pickberry, a meritage [Grinning, Peterson picks up a bottle and pours a glass]. It's very low yield, a cool climate, on the south-east slop you get early afternoon sun, but the grapes stay fresh, spicy….
[More from Jenn Garbee @eathistory + eathistory.com]