‘End of an era’: Sonoma’s Ravenswood tasting room to close

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Longtime winemaker and founder of Ravenswood Winery Joel Peterson was packing up his office at Ravenswood when reached by phone on Thursday. He confirmed that rumors were true - the winery’s Gehricke Road tasting room would be closing its doors next month after almost 30 years; its staff will be let go in mid-May.

“I am really sad to see it close,” said Peterson.

“Oh no!” yelped Platypus Wine Tour driver Walt Williams when he heard the news. “That is one of our home-run tours and it’s one of my favorite spots in Sonoma.”

Ravenswood was one of 30 brands of New York-based Constellation Brands purchased April 4 by Modesto-based E&J Gallo. But Gallo only bought the brand.

Constellation retained Ravenswood’s 12-acre eastside property and its tasting room. And earlier this month, employees of the tasting room say they were informed that they are being let go as of May 15.

Constellation spokesperson Alexandra Wagner declined to confirm or deny the tasting room’s closure, but told the Index-Tribune that, “every decision we make regarding our business is done with a great deal of careful thought and consideration.”

“Constellation’s top priorities are the long-term interests of our business, our people, and the communities where employees live and work,” said Wagner.

Attempts to make an online reservation beyond mid-May result in the message: “Ravenswood Winery accepts reservations up until Friday, May 17, 2019.”

Ravenswood was founded by Peterson in 1976. Its tasting room opened at 18701 Gehricke Road in 1991. Known as the Godfather of Zin, Peterson made Ravenswood successful with its whimsical tagline, “No Wimpy Wines.”

In 2001, two years after going public, Ravenswood was bought by Constellation Brands for $148 million. At its heyday, the winery sold one million cases a year. Today, the number has dropped below 300,000, according to industry sources.

Constellation sold the Ravenswood brand, along with 30 more of its less expensively priced wine and spirits brands to Gallo for $1.7 billion last month.

“We had lots of good years here,” said Peterson. “We have had a wonderful staff, really dedicated people who have been so loyal to us.”

The Ravenswood staff is job hunting now, he said, adding that Constellation is attempting to place some employees at one of the more than 100 other wine brands in its portfolio.

Constellation’s plans for the winery building, and the 13 acres it sits on, are a mystery to Peterson.

Constellation has a long-term lease at Ravenswood’s large Quarry production facility at 26200 Arnold Drive in Carneros. Peterson speculated that Constellation might use the production facility for its other wines and possibly put another brand in the tasting room down the road.

Also unknown is Gallo’s plans for Ravenswood brand name.

A Gallo spokesperson was not able to comment on specific plans for the Ravenswood brand as the company’s transaction with Constellation still requires regulators’ stamp of approval.

The Gallo spokesperson said: “We plan to respect the legacy of these brands while devoting our efforts to revitalizing them and continuing to make the highest quality wines and spirits.”

Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau executive director Tim Zahner said he had heard murmurings of the news.

“The wine and hospitality industry are constantly in flux,” he said. “We look forward to hearing what their plans are and hopefully they are positive for Sonoma Valley.”

Maureen Cottingham, executive director for the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Association, described the news as “sad for us, sad for the industry and sad for the Valley as a whole.”

She described the Ravenswood tasting room closing as the “end of an era.”

“It has been a special destination for wine lovers for almost 30 years and attracted (people) from around the world to Sonoma Valley,” she said. “The tasting room gave guests the opportunity to taste old-vine varieties and many single-vineyard designate wines from iconic vineyards around the Valley. As the doors close, we can’t help but give a nod to Joel in appreciation of his leadership and vision on behalf of the Sonoma Valley wine industry.”

A Sonoma source inside the wine industry voiced concerns that Gallo will drop the Ravenswood brand entirely. “Gallo has a very specific business model and when you crunch the numbers, Ravenswood just doesn’t fit that model.”

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com

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