Passionate Old Farmer Regains Control of His Crop

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Posted: Feb 14, 2009 12:01 AM
Passionate Old Farmer Regains Control of His Crop

Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards and Joel Peterson of Ravenswood were the featured players in a book some years ago about zinfandel, that most American of wines.

The book, Angels Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel, was published in 1991 and became a sort of an unofficial bible for the growing cult of zinfandel lovers who have since grown into a mighty force.

Last month, thousands of them descended on San Francisco to attend the annual ZAP's 18th Annual Zinfandel Festival staged by Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, and to taste hundreds of examples of the dark red wine, 99 percent of which is made in California.

Ridge and Ravenswood wines were joined by 250 other producers who poured samples to attendees, and the room was heady with optimism for the opulent 2007 vintage zins, most of which were served as barrel samples. Few have yet been bottled.

Among the names of zin specialists there were Storybook Mountain, Artezin, Wine Guerrilla, Trentadue, Jessies Grove, Hook and Ladder, Kenwood, Scott Harvey, Sobon Estate, and Unti.

Also among the pourers was Haywood Estate, and few of the attendees knew of the rather circuitous journey Peter Haywood took to get back into the zin fold.

His story starts in a non-wine-like way, with Haywood earning a political science degree from Stanford University, serving in the Marine Corps, and owning a successful San Francisco-area construction company.

In 1973, seeking a greener lifestyle, Haywood bought 280 acres of rugged hillside land a mile east of Sonoma in Sonoma Valley. During that early era in Sonoma it was known that zinfandel grew well in local hillsides.

Haywood didnt realize how well until his new zinfandel plantings and his development of the Haywood brand in the early 1980s began putting bottles in the hands of zin lovers.

Calling his ranch Los Chamizal, Haywood soon was selling out of his Zinfandels -- and it was pretty much all he made.

But marketing had become a chore, and Haywood, by now really more a farmer than anything else, hated being on the road for months each year hawking his wines. At last in 1991, the year zinfandel really took off -- Haywood sold his brand to Racke International, a German company that also owned Buena Vista Winery.

But Haywood did the smartest thing: He kept the land on which the zin grew.

One of Rackes strategies was to expand production, creating a lower-priced Haywood Vintners Select tier of wines that did not make use of the fabulous Los Chamizal fruit.

This had the effect of watering down the Haywood image, and the zinfandels, even though some still came from the famed vineyard, failed to gain the proper recognition. Also, some of the quality declined.

In 2001, Racke sold the Haywood brand to international wine and spirits conglomerate Allied Domecq. Four years later, Haywood was sold to Beam Wine Estates, which in turn was purchased in 2007 by Constellation Brands, the worlds largest wine company.

And Constellation already had Ravenswood and the passionate Peterson as its spokesman and wine maker. At that moment, Haywood was able to reacquire the Haywood brand, along with inventory from the 2005-06 vintages.

Now that the 2006 Haywood wines are on the market, I tried the three key wines and found them all to be exemplary, each with moderate alcohols (ultra-high alcohol is a malady infecting many zins), each with excellent balance, and oriented toward gutsy meat dishes.

Now 71 and still as passionate a farmer as he was in the 1970s, Haywood is focusing on the quality of his wines the way he did in the 1980s.

Hell make only three zinfandels, all from his own property, and will sell unused fruit to an eager cadre of local wineries who know how prime are these vineyards.

Los Chamizal has 42 acres of terraced zinfandel in steeply sloped hillsides. There are nine distinct blocks with soils ranging from well-drained sandy loams to thin, fractured basalt soils at the highest elevations.

These gnarly vines are Haywoods prizes, and the wines evoke an earlier era of superb fruit and spice. The top wines are called Rocky Terrace and Morning Sun and sell for $35 each.

Wine of the Week: 2006 Haywood Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley, Los Chamizal Vineyard ($30) -- Superb violet/raspberry and pother berry aromas; black cherry with hints of pepper and in the mouth, and loads of flavor. And it improves with an hour in a decanter. Occasionally discounted to the mid-$20s.