by Andrew Chalk
Many readers will have visited Sonoma County in northern California wine country and sampled the Zinfandels made in the sub-region named Dry Creek Valley. The 70+ wineries there are so small (median production is only about 4750 cases) that most sell all that they make at the “cellar door” (either in a tasting room or through Internet orders). Additionally, 150 grape growers sell fruit to these winemakers and another 80+ wineries besides. This direct sales link is vital to small wineries as it vastly reduces their costs of distribution. One result, is that there are many good wines that do not make their way onto retail shelves here, or do so only at a restricted set of outlets (basically the finer wine stores in town).
To taste the gamut of Dry Creek wine making you really need to visit the area (and the ideal time is the weekend known as Passport To Dry Creek Valley each April). Notwithstanding that, sometimes the growers go out to their customers.
This month, the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley brought several Dry Creek Valley winemakers to Dallas and I was fortunate to be a guest at their media event. Overall, the quality of their signature grape, Zinfandel, is higher than ever, with the over-alcoholic over-extracted sweet style of a decade ago replaced with wines that, while certainly bristling with power, also have complexity and the alcohol and sweetness in balance with each other and the other components. In a telling change from that ‘other’ style — these wines age. Examples from 2001 and 2004 exhibited resolved flavors and reassuring but approachable tannins that young Zinfandel usually lacks.
As well as Zinfandel, Dry Creek excels at Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. These grape varieties were on show too. The variety of grapes is the product of the diverse terroir in the area. Although only about 16 miles long and two miles wide (anchored by lake Sonoma in the north and and Dry Creek and the Russian River in the south) there are three distinct territorial characters in Dry Creek Valley: the hillsides, benchland, and valley floor. Sauvignon Blanc thrives on the valley floor due to the mineral-rich sandy loam soil. Cabernet Sauvignon is especially suited to the benchlands, due to the clay loam that predominates. Zinfandel, with 2,400 of the 9,000 planted acres of vines, is grown on the hillsides where igneous, gravelly soils are found.
Separate mention should be made of the Rockpile AVA, a high altitude area with increased sun exposure that is partially conterminous with Dry Creek Valley AVA. On the map, it enters the north west corner of Dry Creek like a dagger. With only 220 planted acres this AVA is small. Its altitude (800-2100 ft) makes it cooler, and the effect of Lake Sonoma on the fog in the region makes it, ironically, sunnier than Dry Creek Valley. The loam and clay loam soils are propitious to the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot as well as Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and several varieties used in Porto.
Here are some notable producers and their wines tasted.
Dashe Cellars. Mike Dashe was on the winemaking team at Ridge Vineyards (the most esteemed winery in Dry Creek) before he and his wife struck out on their own. He makes Zinfandel in a powerful but elegant style, as well as producing the full gamut of other reds. Check out his 2010 Florence Vineyard Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley with its surrealist chimp-riding-a-fish label and his 2012 Grenache, Dry Creek Valley for good examples. As I have found with other examples of Dry Creek Valley Grenache, this wine has that grape’s characteristic pepperiness but exudes far more ripe fruit than wines from the southern Rhone valley. Maybe Dry Creek growers should take to calling their examples Garnacha rather than Grenache. Not only is that the original name of the grape but it is also more representative of Dry Creek’s style.
Dashe is also the consulting winemaker for Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves for whom he worked with winemaker Joe Healy to make a ripe and earthy 2010 Hills and Benches Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley.
Mounts Family Winery was a totally new winery to me, but a very welcome find. The fact that their web site consists of just one page gives you an indication of the artisanship of the business. A five-minute conversation with proprietor/winemaker David Mounts convinces you that he is a straight talker and source of experienced advice about Dry Creek wine making. Mounts make the full range of Dry Creek varieties (in miniscule quantities) and their 2011 Grenache, Dry Creek Valley was a winner with a wagyu steak burger at lunch.
Mauritson Wines produces under both the Mauritson label and the Rockpile label to emphasize the Rockpile AVA wines in their portfolio. Their 2012 Rockpile Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel, Rockpile is a good example of the power and refinement of wines from this AVA.. They price it modestly ($39), and consequently limit quantities (4 bottles) of this specialty wine.
Estate 1856 may be a winery, it may be a skunkworks, but their 55-case production 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is all dark fruit, spices and 100% French oak. This wine is either 97% or 98% cabernet Sauvignon (depending on whether you believe the label or the web site) with the rest comprised of Petit Verdot. Likely to age for a decade.
Hopefully one result of their visit will be more retail distribution of their wines. If they are not findable, order direct from the winery web site. Dry Creek makes exceptional wines that will add considerably to your wine enjoyment.