Always known for its Zinfandels, this Sonoma Valley wine region is worth a visit for friendly tasting rooms pouring Rhône varieties and the quirky charm of Healdsburg.
Drivin’ Dry Creek
Only 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, Dry Creek is easy to tour. Two days should do it, one for each of the roads that traverse the valley’s length. There are about 50 wineries in the AVA (see the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley’s Web site, www.wdcv.com, for details). Overnight, you’ll want to stay in Healdsburg.
The west is the best West Dry Creek Road offers the greatest visual bang for your buck. Here are Everett Ridge, Forth, Pezzi King and Lambert Bridge. Just beyond Lambert Bridge is A. Rafanelli, which requires an appointment. Around the corner is another Dry Creek pioneer, Quivira. A few miles north is Preston. A final stop on West Dry Creek, up in the hills before it dead-ends, is Zin specialist Bella Vineyards.
The leisurely east A drive up Dry Creek Road brings you to Zinfandel producers such as Deux Amis, Wilson, Nalle and Mauritson. Just beyond, you’ll see the old Dry Creek Store, a convenient place to stop for lunch. Don’t forget to turn onto Lambert Bridge Road to visit Dry Creek Vineyard—in many ways the valley’s mother ship. To the north is Unti Vineyards. Also on Dry Creek Road is the Family Wineries tasting room, shared by six wineries. (See www.familywineriesdrycreekvalley.com.) A few miles on, Yoakim Bridge offers very good Zinfandels and Syrahs. One of the final wineries on Dry Creek Road is Ferrari-Carano. Their wines are good, but most bear a Sonoma County, not Dry Creek Valley, appellation. The same is true of the last winery on Dry Creek Road, Lake Sonoma, worth a visit for its value wines and incredible down-valley view.
Also worth visiting are Mazzoco and Ridge/Lytton Springs, both well east of Dry Creek Road, and Seghesio, which is closer to Healdsburg on Grove Street. Gallo of Sonoma’s tasting room is in Healdsburg.
It’s a warm spring day in the Dry Creek Valley. Sébastien Polhan is outside the winery at Unti Vineyards, where he’s winemaker. He’s looking downvalley, where the nearly treeless valley floor undulates gently along Dry Creek, which, in rainy wintertime, rushes down to the Russian River, 12 miles southeast.
Polhan, who was born in the south of France, looks up at the sky. "It seems to me, knowing the Languedoc-Roussillon and the southern Rhône Valley, that the climate is similar to here," he observes. "Not a huge temperature difference between winter and summer, and fairly dry."
Dry Creek Valley has had a long history of grapegrowing and winemaking. The Native American Pomo people called it Mihikaune, or Dry Creek Valley, for the stream that’s nothing but an arroyo seco, a dry wash, by high summer. The first grapevines were planted by California-born Mexicans in the 1830s. Following the Gold Rush in the 1850s, Americans who had failed to strike it rich in the Sierras emigrated toward the coast. They planted the Mission grape, which made "a rude wine," according to an 1879 history of the region. At some point, probably during the Civil War, someone planted the noble grape that would establish Dry Creek’s reputation: Zinfandel.
Zinfandel’s delicate balance Dry Creek’s heat makes Zinfandel dependably good. Days are warm to hot, and almost totally rainless, throughout summer and harvest. The best fruit doesn’t come from the bottomlands, where soils are generally too fertile. Instead, it is grown in the benchlands and up into the foothills and mountains; here, yields are low, and flavors are intensely concentrated in the well-drained, nutrient-poor, gravelly clay loams, whose red color testifies to their volcanic origins.
Zinfandels crafted here are rarely overly alcoholic or have residual sugar. The absence of these flaws, which are so commonly found elsewhere, is a testament to the technical abilities of Dry Creek’s vintners. "Balance is what comes to mind for Dry Creek Zin," declares Scott Adams, who co-founded Bella Winery. "And they are ripe in fruit," he adds, "especially from up here [in the north]," where the heat builds with each mile further from the Russian River. That word, "balance," comes up in every discussion of Dry Creek Zin. "I’m looking for a nice, full-bodied, round, complex Zin, and above all a balanced one," says Rafanelli’s winemaker, Rashell Rafanelli-Fehlman. Instead of concentrating on single-vineyard Zins, as does Bella, she makes only one, a blend from vineyards from around the valley.
Then there’s Doug Nalle, whose Zins define an earlier-picked style that makes the wines ageworthy and, maybe, more food-friendly. He blames "market pressures" for inspiring vintners to let their grapes get riper and riper with each vintage.
Other wineries that do a consistently good job with Zinfandel include Deerfield Ranch, Forchini, Preston, Ridge’s Lytton Springs bottling, Unti, Alderbrook, Fritz and Quivira.
The E&J Gallo winery also crafts very good Dry Creek Zins under a variety of brands, especially Rancho Zabaco and Gallo of Sonoma. Gallo, in fact, has a very long history in the valley, and is by far the largest vineyard owner. They long used the old Frei Brothers brand, which was founded in 1900, for grapes for bulk wine, and have lately resurrected the brand as the source of Merlot with a Dry Creek Valley appellation. Gallo’s Frei Ranch production facility, located in terraformed hills above Dry Creek Road, is huge, and about to get bigger after the county approved plans for its expansion, in June 2005.
Top Wines of the Valley
Two notes: Wine Enthusiast will publish a Syrah tasting feature in the September issue; for that reason, we’re not including Syrah reviews in this mixed case. Also, in this article, I single out only wineries in Dry Creek Valley, and only wines made from grapes grown there. But look also for some outstanding Dry Creek Valley wines from outside wineries: Zins from Rosenblum, Imagery, Ridge and Rancho Zabaco; Carlisle’s Syrah; and Chardonnays from Clos du Bois and Handley.
93 Rafanelli 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (Dry Creek Valley); $40. Starts with aromas of cassis and black cherries—now one is the star, then the other. Finally, new oak kicks in. It hasn’t begun to come together yet, but when it does, you’ll find a rich, dense wine, with a wonderful tease of tannins. Drink 2008-2012.
92 Forth 2002 All Boys Cabernet Sauvignon (Dry Creek Valley); $18. Here’s a nice Cab that’s easy to like for its ripe berry, chocolate, olive and herb flavors and rich, smooth texture. Yet it has complexity. Drink now for the sheer exuberance of youth.
92 Unti 2003 Grenache (Dry Creek Valley); $26. With a little Syrah and Mourvèdre, this young, dark purple wine is tight, tannic and acidic. It needs time. Even as little as six months should soften it, and tease out the sweet cherry and spice flavors. Finishes with fabulous complexity.
91 Lambert Bridge 2002 Crane Creek Cuvée (Dry Creek Valley); $50. Mainly Merlot, this Bordeaux blend is enormously rich in sweet cassis, cherry and cedar. It’s assertive, yet possesses an elegant architecture of rich, dusty tannins and crisp acids. Hold for at least five years.
91 Mauritson 2001 Growers Reserve Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $33. Far more tannic and concentrated than Mauritson’s regular Zin. Its blackberry, blueberry and pepper flavors are just delicious. Still, it should benefit from a few years of aging.
90 Bella 2002 Belle Canyon Estate Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $30. This fine example of a Dry Creek Zin is very forward in ripe cherries and raspberries, but possesses great structure from rich tannins. Deeply satisfying, it has fine balance and elegance.
90 Nalle 2003 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $26. Here’s a young, dark Zin with vibrant tannins and high acids that frame blackberry and cassis flavors. With alcohol below 14%, it’s quite elegant. Should develop well through the decade.
90 Thumbprint 2002 Schneider Vineyard Merlot (Dry Creek Valley); $30. Forward and inviting aromas of violets, black cherries, vanilla and charred oak join roasted meat and grilled wild mushroom notes, in this smoothly textured, complex Merlot. It’s gentle in tannins, with a taste of currants in the finish.
89 Preston 2003 Cavallo Barbera (Dry Creek Valley); $25. Purple in hue, this full-bodied wine has powerful aromas of plum sauce, cherry pipe tobacco and white pepper. It’s tannic but very soft, with a dry, cherry-leather finish. Try this assertive wine with bold fare.
87 Dry Creek Vineyard 2003 DCV3 Fumé Blanc (Dry Creek Valley); $25. Ripe and creamy, with fleshy peach and melon aromas brought to attention by notes of jalapeño and grass. Like the nose, the palate deals mostly ripe melon and peach flavors with touches of grass, white pepper and greens. Bulky and full.
87 Quivira 2003 Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek Valley); $16. From estate grapes, this intensely flavored wine shows citron, lemongrass and fig flavors, brightened by acid. Semillon, barrel fermentation and sur lie aging all bring a rich, nutty creaminess, and a slight sweetness, to the finish.
The Sauvignon Blanc story Dry Creek was declared Sonoma’s second American Viticultural Area in 1983 (the first was Sonoma Valley, a year earlier). Zinfandel’s success was crucial to making that happen, but the rapid rise of Sauvignon Blanc also contributed.
In 1972, Dave Stare started Dry Creek Vineyard, the first new winery in the valley since Prohibition, and one of the varieties he planted was the grape he’d fallen in love with while traveling in France’s Loire Valley. "The county farm advisor told me that nobody could grow Sauvignon Blanc here," Stare recalls, with a rueful grin. "He recommended Chardonnay, Riesling or Gewürztraminer. I ignored his advice and planted Sauvignon Blanc." It was a perfect fit: Sauvignon Blanc thrived in the vigorous bottomland soils Zinfandel didn’t like.
Dry Creek Sauvignon Blancs are made in various styles, from grassy and unoaked to creamy, barrel-fermented bottlings like Dry Creek Vineyard’s DCV3 (which they call Fumé Blanc). "You get somewhat of a range of expression, depending on picking levels," confirms Julia Iantosca, winemaker at Lambert Bridge. Iantosca looks to pick at higher brix, "so you move into more fresh alfalfa character, a sweeter green quality, and also lemongrass with hints of melon." That’s an apt description of the classic Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc, which is usually crisp in acidity, too. Iantosca likes to blend in a tiny amount of Viognier, about 3 percent, because "it enhances Sauvignon’s character and aromatics." Like many others, she recently began using the Musqué clone of Sauvignon Blanc, which adds a Muscat-like perfume to the wine.
Cab’s uphill struggle The earliest Dry Creek Cabernets generally exhibited a dusty, herbal character that was not as rich as a Napa Cab. But better viticultural techniques in recent years, as well as improved clones and warmer harvests, have tended to make the Cabs fruitier. Dry Creek Vineyard’s general manager, Don Wallace, finds "big cherries and chocolate flavors, with hints of coffee," in his Endeavor Cabernet, grown from an eastside vineyard. Rafanelli-Fehlman, whose Cabernet is arguably the valley’s best, credits hillside plantings for the wine’s balance and longevity. "The grapes have thick skins that hold up well to heat. You can let our Cab hang in the vineyard [until it’s ripe]."
Goin’ Rhône In the California-wide sprint to achieve star status with Rhône varieties, Dry Creek is right up there at the head of the pack.
"All of the Rhône varieties do well in Dry Creek Valley—Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne," declares Bill Frick, owner of Frick Winery. (He might have added Mourvèdre, which loves the heat.)
Dry Creek’s climate, as Polhan observed, is remarkably similar to that of the Southern Rhône Valley. There were probably always some scattered French varieties mixed in with the old Zinfandel vines—Carignane, Alicante Bouchet—which, as Frick points out, is one reason why Dry Creek Zins were so good from the start. "They were field blends," says Frick.
In 1977, vintner Lou Preston installed a couple of acres of Syrah. He’d started with the usual suspects, Zin and Sauvignon Blanc, but soon, what he calls "unusual varieties" captured his fancy. Preston did something unusual: He planted his Syrah and Petite Sirah side by side. His explanation? "The two grapes sounded alike." Today, Preston’s Vogensen Ranch Syrah-Sirah is a rich, hearty blend that’s not unlike a good Languedoc red.
Frick hopped onboard the Rhône train later, in the late 1980s. He had been growing Napa Gamay in his sparse, dry hillside vineyard, and although it made "a spectacular wine, like a big Pinot Noir, people pooh-poohed it. So I thought, what else can I grow in this kind of ground? I planted Syrah."
Unti Vineyards’ George Unti and his son, Mick, arrived a little later and also planted Syrah, to four different clones. "Zinfandel we grow because, when you’re in Dry Creek Valley, you have to," jokes Polhan. But when it came to choice, the Untis planted Rhône grapes, as well as Sangiovese and Barbera. Slowly but surely, Dry Creek vintners began to appreciate, not only the valley’s suitability for Syrah and other Rhônes, but the public’s embrace of them.
Adams, at Bella, had begun with Zinfandel, but turned to Syrah when he realized that "Zinfandel and Syrah have an affinity. Syrah has the same weight as Zin, the same bold character, with a different flavor profile." A Dry Creek Valley Syrah is a warm-climate wine. You don’t get the dark color, or the sturdy tannins and bright acids, of a Santa Maria Valley or Sonoma Coast Syrah. Instead, the best are dramatically rich and hedonistic in jammy, chocolaty fruit.
Not everybody in the valley is going the Rhône route. There are only about 300 acres of Syrah today throughout the A.V.A., compared to 2,226 acres of Zinfandel. But Dry Creek Syrah and Rhônes are grabbing the attention of sommeliers and connoisseurs. "Zinfandel will be the King of Dry Creek forever," declares Frick, "but Rhône varieties have a real future."
Hot, Hot Healdsburg
No wine town has become so glitzy, so fast, as Healdsburg.
The town’s founder, Harmon Heald, one of those failed Forty Niner gold miners, would hardly recognize his old settlement, but the Plaza he staked out is still there. Lined by redwoods, it’s at the center of a district of restaurants, antique shops, art galleries, bookstores, clothing boutiques, kitchen supply stores and tasting bars.
Longtime residents are awed by how upscale Healdsburg has become. "I’ve seen a lot of changes, and it’s great," says Rafanelli’s winemaker, Rashell Rafanelli-Fehlman, "but there are times you wish you could go back."
Downtown Healdsburg is about strolling and people watching, shopping, wine tasting—and, after all that exercise, eating.
Barndiva, 231 Center Street; tel: 707.431.0100; www.barndiva.com. Open just a year, this watering hole is packing them in. "We don’t really know what Barndiva is," says the young general manager, Lukka Feldman, whose mom owns it. Barndiva is a restaurant, lounge, cruising ground, place to hang out and listen to loud music, and most definitely a spot to drink. Open late, it’s casual-hip, attracting an eclectic crowd. The mostly-Sonoma wine list probably boasts the town’s most extensive by-the-glass selection.
Bistro Ralph, 109 Plaza Street; tel: 707.433.1380. Supposedly the first modern restaurant in Healdsburg, this small, lounge-style space, right on the Plaza, offers chops, duck, veal and seafood with Mediterranean touches. The wine list, thorough and imaginative, is all Sonoma, and cuts across all varieties and blends. Good by-the-glass selection, with many below $10.
Cyrus, Les Mars Hotel, 29 North Street; tel: 707.433.3311; www.cyrusrestaurant.com. Cyrus had buzz before it opened earlier this year, thanks to co-owner Nick Peyton and chef Douglas Keane, who both did stints at Masa’s, Gary Danko and Jardiniere. Then, once it opened, it moved immediately into Sonoma’s top rank of restaurants. After a caviar-and-Champagne presentation, you can order off the menu or do the tasting menu (7 courses, $85; $47 for wine). Cyrus’s wine list relies a bit heavily on famous names, but sommelier Jason Alexander says he’s searching for less predictable brands. Great cheese cart, great desserts.
Dry Creek Kitchen, 317 Healdsburg Avenue; tel: 707.431.0330; www.hotelheads burg.com. It’s remarkable how DCK has meshed with the style of Healdsburg. It feels like a veteran, even though it opened only a few years ago. Founded by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer, DCK’s food is prepared with new chef de cuisine Michael Voltaggio’s refined sensibilities. The big wine list is all Sonoma, although it could have a greater by-the-glass range. The tasting menu, especially when paired with wines selected by DCK’s sommelier, Leo Hansen (who’s also the winemaker at Stuhlmuller), offers the best opportunity to graze. Desserts are outstanding.
Madrona Manor, 1001 Westside Road; tel: 707.433.4231. The restaurant at Madrona Manor [see "Lodging" for more information] is a glamourous destination, a place locals go to for a celebration. Just minutes outside town, in a Victorian hillside mansion, Madrona offers California interpretations of classic fare, using the best local ingredients. The large, flashy wine list has a good representation of Sonoma County and Napa Valley bottlings.
Ravenous Cafe & Lounge, 420 Center Street; tel: 707.431.1302. Housed in an old Victorian cottage, Ravenous offers California cuisine in a warmly intimate, casual space. Menus change daily. Ravenous is a favorite for hungry winemakers who like big portions. "It’s not foofy, so to speak," says Bella’s Scott Adams, adding, "It’s food you might make for yourself." There is a good selection of Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma County wines, at reasonable prices.
Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar, 344 Center Street; tel: 707.473.0946. Zin’s fare is rustic and hearty. The food, served in a spartan, barn-like space, has a homemade feel, and entrees are large. The wine list is serviceable, with the accent on Zinfandel, and glass pours are generous and inexpensive. Zin is popular with a younger, blue-jeans-and-earrings crowd that includes a good number of cellar rats.
Hotel Healdsburg, 25 Matheson Street; tel: 707.431.2800; www.hotelhealdsburg.com. When HH opened, back in 2001, some people thought it was too big, too Bauhaus for Healdsburg. If you’re looking for faux-French palatial, go elsewhere. HH is about zinc, stone and steel, glass sky bridges, natural fabrics and plank-wood floors.
Morning buffet, included in the price, offers eggs, smoked salmon, yogurt, piles of fresh fuits, bagels, the whole nine yards, served in the modernistic lobby.
Madrona Manor, 1001 Westside Road; tel: 707.433.4231; www.madronamanor.com. Located 3 minutes outside town, this romantic inn and restaurant is housed in an ancient Victorian mansion perched on a hill, with a gorgeous view. B&B-style rooms are luxuriously cozy; some offer jacuzzis. The inn also has a large heated swimming pool. Rates from $245-$485 a night, for two.
Les Mars Hotel, 27 North Street; tel: 707.433. 4211, 877. 431.1700; www.lesmarshotel.com. Les Mars, which opened just last March, is the counterpoint to Hotel Healdsburg. It’s grand style in the European tradition. From the antique-filled lobby to the suites, with four-poster beds, 19th century prints, fresh orchids, Louis XVI bureaux and gas fireplaces—not to mention jars of Bulgari lotions in the bathroom—this is upscale all the way.
The suites are airy and quiet. Rates range from $495 to $995. Tout Healdsburg is talking about Les Mars, and it’s safe to say it will be a while before anything opens in the area that outclasses it.