Diversity and true excellence in Sonoma’s Dry Creek

Welcome to our first AVA Spotlight. This is a new series that will focus on different American Viticultural Areas including history, wineries, climate, soil, and other interesting facts. Our first is the Dry Creek AVA in Sonoma California.

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The Dry Creek Valley AVA came onto our radar only very recently while working
on our Sonoma Supermarket Finds showdown. While researching that piece, we found a tasty Fume Blanc and very nice Cabernet from Dry Creek Vineyards. Both had very nice price points and were quite food friendly. As we began looking deeper into this Sonoma AVA, we found a yearly event called Passport that allows wine fans to visit and sample wines from each winery in a festive atmosphere. We’ll dive into the event in a bit but first, some history.

Dry Creek History

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Sonoma Plaza in the mission days

The first recorded vineyard in Sonoma was planted in 1824 by Father Jose Altimira at the newly constructed Mission Sonoma. However, it wasn’t until 1870 that viticulture was established in Dry Creek. Early pioneers fueled by the gold rush had discovered Dry Creek’s fertile valley by 1849 but were dedicated to crops such as wheat, hay, vegetables, and fruit trees. Englishman Thomas Winter, a former sailor from Nottingham, began raising vines on his ranch in Dry Creek but it was Frenchmen George Bloch and Alexander Colson who founded the first Dry Creek winery in 1872. Colson soon left the endeavor but Bloch along with his brother carried on founding the Colson Brothers Winery. By 1888, they were producing 175,000 gallons each year. This put them among the largest Sonoma producers at the time and the reviews were very positive.

An 1878 article from the Healdsburg Enterprise proclaimed: “The wine produced by Bloch and Colson has finer flavor than from almost any other winery in the country. It has none of the bitter taste found in many wines.”

Pioneer Spirit

Stamer & Feldmeyer Winery 1889

Stamer & Feldmeyer Winery 1889

Although Dry Creek is famous for Zinfandel, to characterize it as pure Zin country is to overlook the great diversity of varietals and wine making styles found there. Zinfandel was first planted by Bloch in 1865. By 1900, waves of immigrants from France, Germany, and Italy were growing varietals and making wines that reminded them of home. From Bordeaux varietals to those of the Rhone and Italy all thrived and created noteworthy wines for the time. This boom lasted until the early 1900’s when a major Phylloxera infestation wiped out a large portion of the valley’s vines. Prohibition soon followed leaving only a handful of wineries left standing.

Rebirth in the 1970’s

Although prohibition was repealed in 1933, the valley had already switched over to orchard crops and remained that way until the 1970’s resurgence. Dry Creek Vineyard led the way in 1972 followed shortly by Mill Creek Vineyards and A. Rafanelli Winery in 1974. Preston Vineyards, Lambert Bridge and Lytton Springs Winery began operations in 1975.

The Dry Creek Valley received its official AVA designation in 1983 and now boasts over 9,000 acres of vineyards and more than 70 wineries. Although the Zinfandel from the valley is well-known, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet and Merlot are outstanding. Perhaps as a testament to the pioneer spirit of the early settlers many other varietals are grown here. Rhone wines such as Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre are exceptional as are the Italian varietals such as Barolo and Sangiovese. Lesser known wines such as Arnais, and Montepulciano are also impressive.

Soil, Climate, and Character

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The climate and soil makeup of Dry Creek is ideal for a great many varietals. Located 70 minutes (or much more in rush hour) north of San Francisco and only 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the AVA has a perfect blend of heat and cold. During the day, the valley heats up nicely but cools considerably at night due to the marine influence to the west. During the growing season, daytime highs average in the mid 80’s with the lows in the mid 50’s. Winters are mild and snow free with plenty of rain in normal years.

Growing regions consist of two distinct types. In the low areas gravelly and sandy loam rich in nutrients are predominant. In the rocky benches, red gravelly clay loam is dominate the soil landscape. It is this diversity that allows so many different varietals to thrive.

Events and Tasting

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Tasting is available year round either by appointment or during their normal tasting room hours.

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The biggest annual tasting event is their Passport Tasting Event held in April. This event covers two days of tasting at all participating wineries for one fee. Participants receive a passport, map, and commemorative glass and are invited to taste at as many wineries as they wish. Food, music, and plenty of great wine is available.

This was our first year attending and we were very impressed with the event.

Alice in Wonderland table display at Bella Winery

Alice in Wonderland table display at Bella Winery

From the all out Alice in Wonderland fairytale theme at Bella Winery to the fun dance music at Seghesio, this was an event to remember. Each winery also had plenty of great food. Grilled oysters at Stephen & Walker, pulled pork with the best buttermilk biscuits I’ve ever had at Bella, and amazing meatballs at Unti were the highlights. In a later post, we will give scores and details but here’s some of our favorites at a glance:

Bella Winery
A lush Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc from their second label and the Lily Hill Zinfandel were all outstanding.

SBragia
A lush Savignon Blanc and array of Zins were great. As our regular readers know, we love their Rancho Del Oso Howell Mountain Cabernet. Fantastic!

Quivira
Their Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, and Zin were wonderful but it was their Rosé and Syrah that really knocked us out.

Unti
Amazing light Rosé and a Montepulciano were the standouts.

Seghesio
Rockpile Zin, a lovely bright white varietal called Arneis, and their Italian varietals: Barbera, Sangiovesi, and reserve Sangiovesi (named Venom) as well as their red blend called Defiant were the highlight of the day.

Unti Winery

Unti Winery

Overall this was a beautiful day and a very fun event! We will indeed give this a go again next year!

Conclusion

You would be hard pressed to find a more diverse wine growing region than Dry Creek. It really does have something for everyone. The wines are world-class, the people very friendly and passionate about great wine, and..  the best part: the moderate prices make this AVA one to watch and one to patronize. Use the link below to see all of the wineries and get out there at taste!

For more information:
Dry Creek Valley AVA

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