Stretching 16 miles north by northwest from the modern food and wine mecca of Healdsburg in Northern Sonoma County, the Dry Creek Valley is known for its beautiful rural landscape, small ranches, rich history, and one of the largest concentrations oStretching 16 miles north by northwest from the modern food and wine mecca of Healdsburg in Northern Sonoma County, the Dry Creek Valley is known for its beautiful rural landscape, small ranches, rich history, and one of the largest concentrations of old vine Zinfandel plantings in the world. At 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the climate is hot during the day and cool at night. On the valley floor, the soils are a mixture of silty and sandy loams with high nutrient content created by ancient earthquake faults, alluvial fans, ancient river beds and washout from floods. In the raised benchlands, the lifted terraces and undulating slopes are comprised of the classic “Dry Creek Conglomerate,” a magnificent mixture of well-drained gravelly clam loam, iron-rich cobbly red series soil, and high mineral content. One of the original settlers in the region was S.P. Hallagren, a Swedish immigrant who planted vineyards in the fertile soil of the valley in 1868. After establishing early plantings of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Golden Chasselas and Sauvignon Vert on the valley floor and a lucrative wine export business to Sweden, in 1884 Hallagren was the first to plant vines in the rugged high-elevation region at the northern end of the valley that would later become known as Rockpile.
By the late 1880s, the valley had nine wineries and 883 acres of vineyards. At the turn of last century, an abundance of new vineyards were started by Italian immigrants, including the Teldeschi, Stefani and Siani families, which began interplanting Zinfandel with other “mixed blacks” varietals, including Petite Sirah, Carignane and Mataro (Mourvedre), to make their own signature styles of spicy red wines.
Yet, despite having an ample amount of the grapes grown in the region used as secret ingredients in E & J Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy and other tasty red blends in the 1950s and 1960s, at the time, the main cash crop of the region remained prunes until the big grape boom hit in the 1970s.
In 1974, the Dry Creek Valley Association (DCVA) was formed by community activists concerned with local issues and adversity. But the biggest step forward occurred in 1983, when the Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma was completed, which enabled widespread planting of grapes on the valley floor. And later that year, Dry Creek Valley received formal recognition as an American Viticultural Area (AVA).
Together, these monumental accomplishments forged the way for a series of cult followings to emerge focused on the Zinfandel and Petite Sirah wines made in the AVA. This renaissance has inspired a collection of new wine pioneers to move into the region and millions of tourists, wine critics and members of the wine trade to make annual pilgrimages to taste the exciting wines the AVA has to offer.
Over the past two decades, this streak of enthusiasm has branched out beyond Zinfandel with newer plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and red Bordeaux, Rhone and Italian varieties which grow extremely well in the splendid climatic conditions and unique soils found in the region.
Currently, the AVA features 9,300 acres of vineyards and 60-plus wineries—most of which participate at Passport to Dry Creek Valley, an annual wine tasting event put on by the Winemakers of Dry Creek Valley, a non-profit organization which promotes the wines from the region to consumers around the globe. www.drycreekvalley.org.
Whites: The gem in the region is Sauvignon Blanc, which is mainly planted in the deep fertile soils on the valley floor. Other white varieties found in the region include Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio and Chenin Blanc.
Reds: Beyond the gnarly old head-trained vines dating back to the 1950s or earlier, most of the new Zinfandel vineyards are planted with budwood from old vines or popular clones such as DuPratt, Bradford Mountain, St. Peter’s Church and Primitivo (the Italian clone of Zinfandel). Many of the classic “field blends” also include portions of Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Mourvedre and Carignane. In addition to the top wines made by Dry Creek Valley producers like Ridge Lytton Springs, Nalle, A. Rafanelli, Rancho Zabacco, Peterson, Bella, Dry Creek Vineyard, Mauritson, F. Teldeschi, Talty and Wilson Family; some of the fruit is sold to star winemakers located outside the area.
But contrary to the popular belief that Zinfandel is the dominant red grape of Dry Creek Valley; there are more acres of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the region. As a general rule, many of the top Merlot vineyards are planted in drafty hillside areas and cooler areas near the Russian River; while the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown on the rocky hillsides on the eastern slopes facing the valley.
Beyond Zinfandel and Bordeaux varieties, the climate is also conducive to planting a wide range of other special European red grapes, including Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Montalcino, Barbera and Tannat.
White Wines: To capture the freshness of the finished wines, most of the Sauvignon Blanc from Dry Creek Valley is fermented in stainless steel tanks and bottled young to preserve the fresh fruity flavors. The end results are crisp, clean wines with notes of fresh cut grass, lemongrass, ripe melon, grapefruit, citrus, mango, and wild herbs; racy acidity; and a relatively low level of alcohol.
Red Wines: For red wines, Zinfandel is always a work in progress. Known for its bigger berries, thin skin, bigger clusters and natural habits of uneven ripening, it’s a grape that is hard to predict and very temperamental. But when captured correctly in a bottle, the classic Dry Creek Valley flavors of black cherry, vanilla and layers of spice can rival the finest Zinfandels of the world. While in warmer years, the flavors can be more pronounced with notes of candied fruit, pepper, and dried herbs.
Same is true with Bordeaux varietals. When ripened in optimum conditions, the annual bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux-style blends are often extremely elegant with rich flavors, refined tannins, and natural savory notes of rosemary and sage. On the flipside, the Rhone and Italian varieties tend to feature generous flavors of dark fruits, ripe berries, plum, cherry, licorice, seasoned meats, mineral, and spice.
With food, the Dry Creek Valley appellation has become a serious player in the U.S. market. To consumers looking for affordable Sauvignon Blancs and intriguing white Rhone blends the name represents refreshment, class and style. To sommeliers, the name of the appellation represents delectable Zinfandels that pair with meats served right off the grill, spicy Mexican food, gourmet chili, fresh pasta with pesto, and hearty stews. While the smooth, rich and complex versions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese and expressive red blends are best paired with fine cheeses, grilled vegetables, stone-oven pizzas, pork chops, roasted chicken, duck, veal, grilled steaks, and rack of lamb.