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Sara Peterson.

Zinfandel, a friendly four-legged creature of a reddish cast, came bounding down the drive to greet me. His warm welcome was in sharp contrast to the sign on the gate reading "Beware of Dog."

Zinfandel belongs to Sara Peterson Cooke and her husband, Charles Cooke, and he must be one of the world's happier dogs, living as he does high in the hills east of Sonoma. Just as the roots of Zinfandel (the grape, not the dog) go deep into Sonoma County history, Sara and her husband have connections in Sonoma going back to Jack London - Charles Cooke's mother was a friend of the writer - although their involvement in the wine business is more recent.

From the Cookes' home there are marvelous views over the town of Sonoma looking toward the Petaluma gap in one direction, and the steep mountains in the other direction. It was a blistering hot afternoon - the kind of heat that pushes grape sugars higher. Sara threatened to take me up on the mountain side to visit their 14-acre Zinfandel vineyard, but I declined. I preferred to sit on the patio and admire the vines from a distance, considering the temperature, although there was a cooling thermal updraft from the Valley floor. Besides, I had forgotten my straw hat.

She said that wind was a key factor in the siting of their vineyard. "We never have to spray because there is always a breeze."

Sara grew up in Ames, Iowa, where her father was a plant geneticist who specialized in corn. Noting that she had spent some time in the corn patch with a hoe so "farming is in my blood."

Her interest in wine, particularly California wine, blossomed while she was a college student in Minnesota majoring in public administration. "I loved to cook," she said. "I would plan my menu, then go to a wine shop to ask what wine would go with it." This was about 1974 and she was lucky enough to find a retailer who was enthusiastic about wines and had a good selection of California wines.

"So many of the shops would try to sell European wines. At the time, there wasn't that much interest in California," Cooke said.

Her interest in wine and farming made her marriage in 1978 to Charles Cooke seem "natural" she said. Charles Cooke grew up in the house where they now live. When they met, in 1976, they were both working in the office of Wilson Riles, who was at the time the California superintendent of public education.

When Riles lost his reelection bid, Cooke said it seemed like a good time for her to make a career change.

"I had always had it in the back of my mind that I would like to go to law school and the time seemed right to do it," she said. She applied to several different law schools because "I wanted to be sure and get in a good one." As it turned out, she was accepted everywhere she applied and ended up taking her degree at Stanford.

"I was lucky enough to be invited to join McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, one of the top firms in San Francisco," she said. "The firm has a long history of agricultural work including wineries - grape contracts, that sort of thing. It has been a plus, since we are growers, and it has helped me to understand some of the legal problems. A good lawyer will pick up a lot of information quickly, but having the vineyard has given me an extra advantage."

The vineyard was planted in 1980, at an altitude of about 1,600 feet. Phil Coturri put the vineyard in, and early vintages went to the Coturri Winery. The site is rolling hillside and very rocky with four major blocks within the vineyard with different exposures. The fact that Joel Peterson at Ravenswood Winery makes a Cooke Vineyard Zinfandel is evidence that grape quality is high. It's the only vineyard designated wine Peterson makes that isn't made from old vines.

"I think what pushed us into the vineyard business was a visit to Portugal on our honeymoon - we were married in 1978. Charley has an old friend there who has vineyards outside of Lisbon."

Sara said you could see the San Francisco financial district where her highrise office is located, from the present vineyard. "I think if I had a good telescope, I could look out my office window and spot Charley working in the vineyard," she said.

Sara said they were discussing expanding the vineyards and had several possible sites. One edge of the property extends into Napa County.

"The Zinfandel has been a great success, of course, but I would like to try a Rhone varietal down the line," she said. "But you have to be practical about it. It's necessary to figure out what the soils are like, what would grow best there and it's also very important to know who would make the wine."

The property was originally developed in the 19th century and there are traces of an old vineyard, now completely overgrown. There is also an old orchard with Gravensteins and several old apple varieties planted.

"There's an old trail through the property that used to be called the Padres' Trail. It went from the Sonoma mission to the Christian Brothers La Salle property in Napa," she said. (The old La Salle winery is now the site of The Hess Collection.)

It isn't surprising that Zinfandel is one of her favorite wines. "I like a lot of different Zinfandels - Nalle, Ridge York Creek. I also like Petite Sirah and I'm a great fan of Pinot noir."

She is especially fond of the 1990 Ravenswood Cooke Vineyard Zinfandel. In fact, she bought a double magnum of it at an auction. She's saving it for her husband's birthday. Don't say a word, OK?
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Title Annotation:vineyard owner Sara Peterson Cooke
Author:Walker, Larry
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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