California’s Capital of Zinfandel

Dry Creek Valley’s Zins are the perfect summer red—as long as you want a brawny, zesty, brambly barbecue wine, not a light cocktail sipper.


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Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel holds a unique place in California. Napa Valley Zins may be more classically structured and “claret-like.” Sierra Foothills Zins are brawnier and more powerful, Paso Robles’ riper and softer. Russian River Valley Zinfandel is a touch darker and more tannic. But when it comes to the briars and brambles that give Zinfandel its inimitable mouthfeel and flavors, Dry Creek wins the honors.

Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel holds a unique place in California. Napa Valley Zins may be more classically structured and “claret-like.” Sierra Foothills Zins are brawnier and more powerful, Paso Robles’ riper and softer. Russian River Valley Zinfandel is a touch darker and more tannic. But when it comes to the briars and brambles that give Zinfandel its inimitable mouthfeel and flavors, Dry Creek wins the honors.

Perhaps no other area combines the special contribution of fruit from old vines with season-long heat and the occasional introduction of what amounts to field blending. The result are wines that exhibit powerful dark fruit flavors, distinctive spice-pepper-cinnamon notes and a hard-to-define floral undertone, the impact of which balances the high alcohol. The result is classic Zin, robust and hearty, perhaps California’s greatest barbecue wine.

It’s also important to note that the best Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels are relative bargains in the world of high-scoring California red wines, where top Cabernet goes for $60, $80, even $100-plus. One problem: they can be hard to find because production is relatively low.

This inland Sonoma County valley, at 80,000 acres, is a fair-sized American Viticultural Area sealed off by coastal hills from most of the maritime air that cools the Russian River Valley, which touches it just to the south. While folks in Guerneville and Forestville are wearing hoodies and scarves on this early Spring day, sun-warmed luncheon diners at the Dry Creek Store are looking for a place in the shade. And so it will be until November. This warmth makes Dry Creek Valley the perfect place to ripen Zinfandel.
 

Zin has a fabled history in Dry Creek. It’s been grown since at least the 1860s, and by the 1880s accounted for more than half of the valley’s 880 planted acres of grapes. Today, Dry Creek has about 9,000 acres of vines, but the number one red wine grape remains Zinfandel. (Sauvignon Blanc is the most widely planted white wine grape.)

Small production, old vines

Since the term “old vine” has no legal definition, it can be abused. In general, old Zinfandel vines are at least 30 years of age and “head-trained,” as opposed to the more modern method of wire trellising on upright stakes.

Growers and winemakers sing the praises of old vine Zin. “Because they’re so old, the vines are nearing the end of their cycle, and that makes them less vigorous,” says Chris Sterling, one of two brothers (with Eric) who own Everett Ridge Winery. This absence of vigor makes for lower yields, which increases the wine’s concentration. Sterling suggests an old vine also yields more balanced fruit; he has to acidify some of his other wines, but not his Old Vine Zinfandel.

Jamie Peterson, who makes the wines at Peterson Winery, cites the bushy sprawl of old vines as a plus factor. “We get nice shading from the natural canopy. Instead of full sunlight”—which could bake the grapes in a climate like Dry Creek’s—“we get dappled sunlight.” Adds his dad, Fred, “These vines are balanced, and so the wine has more finesse.”

One other thing needs to be noted about old vine Zinfandel: the vineyards often (not always) are planted to grapes other than Zinfandel. That’s because the farmers who installed them (usually Italian-American immigrants and their descendants) didn’t want to risk an entire harvest on the performance of a single variety. For example, Zichichi’s oldest vines, which date to 1928, include Carignan, Napa Gamay and even some white varieties, in addition to Zinfandel. This varietal complexity seems to add a hedonistic quality to the resulting blend.

Even into modern times, some vintners deliberately plant their vineyards in this mixed, or field blend, way. Unti is one; their Zinfandel contains percentages of Petite Sirah and Barbera from the estate vineyard, which is located in the northern flatlands of mid-valley and was planted in the 1990s. “Blending has a long history in Dry Creek,” explains proprietor George Unti. “It gives the wine more structure, and darkens it.”

Yet old vines are not without problems. “They tend to be uneven ripeners, with green grapes and raisins in the same bunch,” explains Robert Rex, winemaker at Deerfield Ranch, whose Buchigani-Garcia Vineyard Old Vine Reserve Zinfandel comes from 112-year-old vines. Rex believes this is because the vines’ metabolism struggles, in someill-defined way. Rex and his team used to work hard to hand-sort out the under- and overripe fruit, “but quite frankly, the wine wasn’t as good,” he says, adding, “it was one-dimensional.” So the green berries and raisins now stay in, although moldy fruit and MOG (material other than grapes) still is sorted out. “The green grapes raise the acid content, and the overripe ones give the wine jammy, complex flavors,” Rex theorizes.

ABV brouhaha

High alcohol and Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel are intertwined. If you’re an anti-high alcohol crusader, you’ll react in horror to a wine like Deerfield Buchigani-Garcia Vineyard Old Vine Reserve Zin, which clocks in at 17.2%. Even a more “modest” Zin, like Zichichi’s 2007 Old Vine Estate, has 15.7% alcohol. “You need that alcohol for the stuffing,” explains Zichichi’s winemaker, Mikael Gulyash. He recalls an experiment from a few years ago: “We once picked one block earlier just to see if we could go back to lower alcohol, but in a double-blind tasting, everyone on the winery team picked the higher-alcohol Zin.” He’s not a fan of high alcohol for its own sake, Gulyash says, but “my balancing act is to find that sweet spot of ripeness, without overripe heaviness.”

At Gustafson Family, whose 2007 Zinfandel also has 15.7% alcohol, winemaker Emmett Reed talks about the positives and negatives of high alcohol. “It’s not ideal to be that high, but to get that jammy fruit profile is a reflection of a higher sugar content.” Like all Dry Creek’s winemakers, Reed notes that the radical nighttime temperature dropoff of many tens of degrees, especially at his winery’s altitude of 1,800 feet, helps the grapes maintain high natural acidity, which balances the alcohol.

Of course, Dry Creek Valley is capable of producing dull, pruney and raisiny Zins, just as every Zin region can. If the vines are too vigorous, a lack of fruity concentration can emphasize hard tannins, as well as reveal vegetal smells and tastes. Lack of proper canopy management will let the sun burn grapes. Sometimes, vintners are too aggressive with acidifying Zinfandel, and the wines can taste bizarrely tart, almost sour. Some high alcohol wines just can’t pull that act off—it’s hard to say just why. And residual sugar is always a danger in wines that get as ripe as Zinfandel. All these are potential, as well as real, problems. Although they’re rarer in Dry Creek Valley than in other places, consumers still need to be on their toes.

New faces, new places

The valley traditionally has been divided into three parts: the eastern slopes, which receive hot afternoon sunshine; the western slopes, which get morning sun and are spared the scorching direct light of afternoon; and the valley floor. Then, too, as Robert Rex points out, there’s also a northwest-southeast gradient, since the lower valley near the Russian River is cooler than the upper valley toward Lake Sonoma. Good Zinfandel can come from anywhere; vines exposed to the sun can be (as we have seen with head-trained Zin) shielded from the fiercest rays by proper canopy management.

And don’t assume that the valley floor is too fertile to produce concentrated Zin. Dry Creek itself—the stream that runs down the middle of the valley—would routinely flood during winter storms, which, over the millennia, deposited deep masses of stones. The stream was dammed years ago at Lake Sonoma and no longer floods, but the rocks that remain make for good drainage. “So the soil midvalley isn’t as rich as you think,” explains George Unti. “The rocks keep the vines from being overly-aggressive.” Rex, who’s worked with Dry Creek Valley grapes for 35 years and knows nearly every square inch of the region, has dug through the soils around Unti’s place. “The soil there was washed out from the floods before the dam was built. You get a lot of river rock.”

Nowadays, a few vintners are pushing to the extremes of Dry Creek’s AVA boundaries. One is Dan Gustafson, whose Gustafson Family Vineyards is in the far northwestern mountains of the appellation. This is a dramatic, wild area where no grapes had previously been planted. Gustafson explains that, when he first saw the undeveloped property, with Rockpile’s jagged peaks on the far side of Lake Sonoma, he knew it had the makings of a great vineyard. Other spots in these wild hills, which range for 35 miles all the way to Annapolis on the Sonoma Coast, are likely to be perfect for a range of varieties, except for one major problem: water, or, more precisely, a lack of it. “That’s the issue up there,” says Rex. (Wild critters, too, such as pigs and deer, also are eternal nuisances to grapevines.) Until more sources of water are available in these isolated high spots, where everything from Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon to Pinot Noir (as you approach the Sonoma Coast) seems possible, viticulture will be severely limited.

Too bad, because America’s thirst for these wines is growing, never more so than at this time of year. As we head into the dog days of summer, backyard barbecues are being planned from coast to coast: paper plates piled high with ribs, chicken, sausages, potato salad, greens, the last of the season’s sweet corn. Zinfandel is the go-to wine for that distinctly American fare, and Dry Creek Zin may just be the best of all.

If You Go

Dry Creek is small enough to explore in a day or, if you really like tuning in on appellations, two days. Although it’s within minutes of other Sonoma County appellations, including Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley, it does possess a sense of place that makes it interesting enough, from a terroir point of view, to explore on its own. Winters can be cold and rainy, but romantic. The best weather undoubtedly is in the fall, after summer’s heat but before the rains return.

Your best bet is to stay in one of many places in and around Healdsburg. Most of Dry Creek Valley has a Healdsburg address (some are technically in Geyserville), but even Dry Creek’s farthest stretches are at most a 25-minute drive from Healdsburg’s tony inns and eateries. (For lodging, dining and shopping options as well as wineries to visit, click on Healdsburg.com.)

The valley has two main roads, Dry Creek and West Dry Creek, that run up either side of the narrow valley, occasionally connected with roads that cross the creek via scenic old bridges. Lake Sonoma is a beautiful state park, with ample opportunities for hiking and biking. More adventurous souls can head out Skaggs Springs Road and drive all the way to the sea, through Northern Sonoma’s earthquake-shattered mountains and redwood forests.

A mixed case of top-scoring Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels

95 Deerfield 2006 Buchigani-Garcia Vineyard Old Vine Reserve Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $60.
If you had to choose one Zinfandel to showcase Dry Creek Valley, it’s this one. The vines are said to be over one hundred years of age, which makes you suspect it’s a field blend with other varieties besides Zinfandel. Just superb. Has the balance and depth of a fine Cabernet Sauvignon, but with Zin’s spicy, briary, brambly personality. Erupts in wild berry, currant, cola, leather, mocha and peppery spice flavors that are so rich and deep and long-lasting. Pricey, but sets a benchmark for Zinfandel. Only 550 cases were produced. Editor’s Choice.

95 Zichichi Family Vineyard 2007 Old Vine Estate Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $36.
An impressive Zinfandel, notable for its complexity and charm. Exudes quintessential Zin character, with a mouthburst of red currants, black raspberry pie filling, wild cherries, sweet charred oak and masses of freshly crushed black pepper. There’s even a chocolaty richness in the finish. Production of 921 cases is decent in the old-vine Zin category. Editor’s Choice.

94 Gary Farrell 2007 Bradford Mountain Vineyards Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $40.
A complex, sophisticated Zinfandel, although it’s very young, and all the parts haven’t come together. Shows luscious waves of ripe forest blackberries, raspberries, red plums and nectarines, with notes of dry chocolate, sweet tobacco, balsam and cedar, finished with massive peppery spices. Notable for the purity and elegance of its tannin-acid structure, this beautiful Zinfandel should age well through 2014. Cellar Selection.

94 Seghesio 2007 Cortina Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $36. A beautiful, massive, mouthfilling Zinfandel. Impresses on every level, from the smooth, rich tannins to the dryness and above all the depth and range of flavors. Blackberries, chocolate, anise, bacon, pepper, sandalwood, the list goes on. Zinfandel doesn’t get much richer than this. The alcohol is 15.5%. Editor’s Choice.

93 Unti 2007 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $26.
Here’s a big, thick, full-bodied and extracted wine that captures the essence of Dry Creek Valley Zin. It’s marked by extremely briary, brambly flavors of wild blue and black berries and cola. Then the spices kick in, starting with black pepper, ranging through cinnamon and star anise, and then finishing with black pepper. Totally, completely bone dry and quite tannic and acidic, this Zinfandel needs rich fare, and should develop in the bottle over the next 4–5 years. Editor’s Choice.

92 Alderbrook 2007 Wind Machine Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $34.
A successful Zinfandel that shows its Dry Creek origins in the classic Zinfandel flavors and structure. Bone dry and not too high in alcohol, it offers a rich array of ripe grilled blackberries, blueberries, black pepper, Dr. Pepper cola and sweet, smoky sandalwood, wrapped into thick, fine tannins.

92 Del Carlo Winery 2006 Teldeschi Vineyards Home Ranch Old Vine Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $32. Here’s a very dry, tannic young Zinfandel that shows real depth and complexity. It has the rugged mouthfeel and extremely spicy, peppery flavors that mark a good Dry Creek Zin. The fruit suggests wild black, blue and red berries, picked along woodsy trails under a hot July sun. Drink now.
 

92 Dogwood 2007 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $30.
 A fine, savory Zinfandel that defines Dry Creek Valley, and is easy to recommend. Shows the beautiful balance of a fine red wine, with the sticky tannins and briary nature of a great Zinfandel. It’s enormously rich in wild forest berry, currant, anise, bacon, pepper and sandalwood flavors, with a very long, very spicy finish. Drink now for freshness 
 

92 Gustafson Family 2007 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $36.
Made in a superripe, high alcohol style, this Zin may be an acquired taste, but if you like this approach, it’s a sensation. Dry, soft and a little hot, it shows massive blackberry tart, black cherry pie, blueberry jam, chocolate, anise, pepper and Indian spice flavors. Almost Port-like, but never loses essential control, and a fine example of Dry Creek.
 

92 Everett Ridge 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $35.
Classic Dry Creek Zin. There’s a reason this warmish Sonoma region is so famous for Zinfandel, and here it is. The wine is strong and spicy and tannic, with profuse wild berry, pine cone, red currant, cherry liqueur and cola flavors, made piquant with Indian spices. Despite its exuberance, it’s dry and balanced. Just lovely if you’re in the mood for Zinfandel.

92 Nalle 2007 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $35.
A wonderful Zinfandel that perfectly captures the essence of Dry Creek Valley, while keeping alcohol modest and the overall structure elegant. Perfectly dry, the wine shows complex waves of cherries and cola. It’s vast in peppery spices, with notes of all kinds of essences from the rocks and soil. Just lovely, a world-class Zinfandel.
 

91 Peterson 2005 Bradford Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $32.
This is an enormously fruity Zinfandel that offers a flood of flavor, making it instantly likeable. Dry, full-bodied and tannic, it’s powerful in briary blackberries, cherries, currants, cola, anise, pepper and cinnamon, with an edge of sweet, smoky oak and cocoa. Should develop over the next 6–8 years.

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