“In spite of rock and tempest’s roar, in spite of false lights on the shore, sail on, nor fear to breast the sea…”
|~ Welcome to Dry Creek Vineyard ~
It was mid morning as we arrived in Healdsburg, in the northern corner of Sonoma Valley. The sun was only just beginning to reach it’s highest point and the serene landscape seemed to welcome its warmth. A small vestige of mercurial fog had burned off earlier in the morning and the valley seemed to be slowly stirring from its lazy, rural slumber.
We were to be guests of Dry Creek Vineyard and were placed in the trusted and capable hands of Ian, who shepherded us through tour and tasting
Here in Sonoma, the pace feels slower, more rural. Most wineries are small family owned operations, and the intimacy permeates the experience. As a long standing member of the Vineyard Select Club, I was acutely familiar with Dry Creek’s hospitality; but on this occasion, they exceeded any expectations.
As we passed through the tasting room, we were handed a glass of the newly released 2012 Chenin Blanc. Despite Dry Creek’s notoriety for Fume Blanc, this delicate wine is fast becoming my favorite white from their stable. Filled with flinty mineral, exotic notes of tropical fruit and hints of steely lemon, this is so crisp and refreshing that it excels as an aperitif but easily has enough complexity and structure to accompany light seafood dishes. Pair with Oysters and you’ll see what I mean. 90 points.
|~ Chenin Blanc at the Tasting Room Bar ~
Making our way through the tasting room and wine shop, Ian lead us on a history of both the winery and the valley. An extensive display case holds not only pieces of Dry Creek Vineyard history, but also older wine bottles that feature the signature sailing motifs that Dry Creek Vineyard has become synonymous with over the years.
|~ Vintage Label from the Dry Creek Vineyard Archives ~
Ian then took us to one of the estate Zinfandel vineyards planted adjacent to the winery. The view is worthy of a postcard, but with closer inspection, and a few well placed comments from Ian, the greater depth of the vineyard comes to life.
|~ Adjacent to the Winery, lies the Heritage Clone Zinfandel Vineyard ~
The Zinfandel vines are densely planted, the ground between them unmanicured and wild with weeds and hay. The sandy brown dirt is poor and cluttered with rocks and stone. The clumpy dirt turns to an almost powdery ash when it passes through your fingertips. The raptor poles are conspicuous and necessary for the ecosystem of the vineyard. Natural sustainability is the normal practice.
|~ Poor Vineyard Soil – Dusty, Ashy, and Strewn with Rock ~
Ian answered question after question about green harvesting, canopy management, grafting…all the while we sipped the 2010 Heritage Clone Zinfandel while standing within the vineyard that provides it. Firm and spicy, and more restrained than exuberant, this medium bodied wine displays aromas and flavors of cherries, and dusty black pepper. A solid workhorse and a good value. 86 points.
|~ Grafted Zinfandel Vines: At Center/Right tiny green Zinfandel Clusters are visible ~
|~ Craggly Old Vine Zinfandel ~
We then retreated to the cool confines of Dry Creek’s barrel aging cellar. Ian mentioned that Dry Creek is completely off the grid now, having converted 100% of the estate to solar power. Here among the gigantic oak casks and rows of barriques was a unique, personal tasting area comprised of two barrels and a table made of vine cuttings. The cellar temperature is refreshing and provides an interesting backdrop to taste.
|~ Entrance to the Dry Creek Vineyard Cellars – Note the Stained Glass Window & The Logo amidst the Ivy ~
|~ Decorative Old Vine Zinfandel Perched on Craggly Vines in the Dry Creek Cellars ~
The Cellar Tasting
The first wine Ian poured was the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel. This has long been one of my favorite Zinfandels, especially when given the age of the vines (85+ years) used to produce the wine, and the ultimate cost which is about $24. The bulk of the fruit from this wine is sourced from the Beeson Ranch Vineyard and the character of the Dry Creek Valley old vines really comes out in this wine. Dusty, wild berry notes are evident on the nose and palate. There’s a slight licorice note and a pleasing dose of black pepper. Not overly jammy, but a full bodied ripe style that I love. Simply put, it’s a classic. 90 points.
Next was the 2010 Beeson Ranch Zinfandel. Along with the Somers Ranch, the two single vineyard bottlings are some of my favorite Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels. On a recent vineyard tour of the Beeson Ranch with owner Perry Beeson, Dry Creek owner Don Wallace observed the vineyard workers kicking the base of every old vine before beginning to harvest the grapes. They walked on again, “clunk” at the bottom of the vine prior to picking. Finally, Don asked Perry what they were doing? “Rattlers”… The old vines are hollow, and mice will sometimes crawl up into the vine. As nature proves time and again, the rattle snakes have figured this out, and they will slither into the vines looking for mice. ‘If the workers kick the vine and hear a rattle in return, they move on!”
The 2010 Beeson is blessed to be made from those old vines, some of which are close to 100 years of age. Vines this old produced intensely flavorful grapes in small crops. The Beeson displays intense wild berry and blackberry aromas and flavors that are enhanced by pepper, eucalyptus and warm dusty earth. Smooth and long on the palate, it has wonderful acidity and structure that allows it to pair well with a variety of foods. 92 points.
|~ Gorgeous color on this young Beeson Zinfandel ~
Next was the equally evocative Zinfandel from Somers Ranch. This sister sibling is similar, but in different ways. Deep purple with rich flavors of black and wild berry, the 2010 Somers Ranch Zinfandel exhibits a slightly more exotic profile of clove, cinnamon and leather. Also 100% Zinfandel it has such a bright lively essence to its structure that is simply delicious. 93 points.
Man cannot live on Zin alone…
The quote at the start of this article is from the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which graces the label of the next wine tasted. The Mariner represents many things to Dry Creek. It first debuted in 2004 as a symbol of a new direction.The winery’s Meritage had been produced for years and was based predominantly on Merlot. The Mariner departed from that trend and has mostly been predominantly Cabernet. As founder Dave Stare began relinquishing control of the winery to his daughter around the same time, the label also represents someone new at the helm; the start of a new era and the charting of a new course. The 2009 The Mariner is no let down. It’s a brilliant shimmering purple with violet reflections. Classic Dry Creek Valley aromas of cedar, black fruits, leather and mineral are abundant and follow through to the palate with similar flavors. Full bodied and smooth, with lots of structure and well integrated tannins, this blend is approachable now but will cellar well for at least 10 years. It’s beautiful. 93 points.
|~ The Mariner Charts the Course ~
The next wine to be sampled was the 2008 Endeavour Cabernet. This vintage, a blend of 97% Cabernet, 7% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot was nothing short of amazing. Upon my first sip, I remarked that if this said “Napa” on the label, it would cost $50 more than it does. This is a deeply colored (say thanks Petit Verdot!) muscular Cabernet that exhibits rich black plum and dark fruit flavors and aromas that are accented by warm clay, slight mocha, spices and leather. It’s structured beautifully and will age effortlessly for decades, yet the silky tannins are so well woven that the wine is enjoyable now. In fact, the wine was so good, we were given it to finish with our lunch. 94 points, about $52.
|~ Hmm, slightly blurry. I’ll blame the Zins! ~
The remainder of the visit was devoted to a tour of the Barrel Aging Cellars, where Ian explained the system employed for labeling the barrels. What previously looked like an amalgamation of random letters or a foreign language was now (mostly!) discernible.
| One of the new Hungarian Oak Barrels that Dry Creek is using. Labeled as 2011 Old Vine Zinfandel, the “M +” branded on the barrel denotes “Medium Plus Toasting”
| Large Aging Casks – These are used for both Red and White wines. Depending upon the style and the blend, the wines remain here until they are racked to barrique or prepared for bottling.
|~ Various barrique aging in the cellar. These hold anything from Chardonnay to Zinfandel ~
| Decorative Zin Magnum in front of a large cask filled with “CS1512” – Cabernet Sauvignon, Clone 15, 2012 Vintage. This particular cask is from the Vogensen Vineyard
After finishing our tour through the cellar, we were led over to the bottling and labeling room. This was incredibly interesting to see and Ian showed us a short video of the process. Essentially, there are three machines. One bottles the wine, the others cork and label. The second machine may also be configured for screw cap closures which Dry Creek uses on most of their white wines.
|This is the Bottling machine. Bottles enter the machine from the left and are turned on a wheel clockwise. The wheel can hold several bottles at a time. The wine is pumped from the cellars into the bottling machine. Lasers are used to determine when the bottles are precisely full. They then exit the machine to the right and proceed to the corker & labeler.
|Dead Center is the Corking Machine that can be utilized for Screw Cap Closures depending upon the fittings attached to the machine. Once closed, the bottles exit to a belt on the right and proceed to the labeler which is slightly visible at right. Once labeled, the bottles exit the machine and are immediately boxed in true, manual, assembly line fashion. They are then put on the roller belt, foreground, and pallated until ready for shipping.
After touring, we were provided lunch and a gorgeous spot on the Dry Creek picnic grounds. Ian brought out some Rose of Malbec that was very tasty with the Panini and various salads and we also finished the Endeavour. The ground are gorgeous here and a must for lunch; especially after some extended tasting.
|The Tasting Room Entrance at Dry Creek. This shows a small portion of the shaded picnic area that covers a wide expanse of lawn. It’s a gorgeous setting.
|~ The Ivy Covered Bottling area and more of the grounds at Dry Creek ~
After we finished lunch, we reluctantly made our way. But not before some souvenirs and key vinous acquisitions. Needless to say, the Dry Creek Cellars are lighter by some Zins and Cabs… We came as friends, but left as family.