Dry Creek Valley
By Paul Franson
Like nearby southern Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley reminds you of California's winery country before it became chic. The rural valley, though only a few miles from bustling Healdsburg, is separated by a low mountain range that makes it seem a million miles away. It's the perfect place for a relaxing day of winetasting and picnicking, and it's small enough to make it practical to explore the valley by bicycle.
The valley contains almost nothing but vineyards from hillside to hillside – and some crawling way up the hills. Its 140 growers tend 9000 acres of grape vines and Dry Creek Valley has almost 60 wineries, most small and unpretentious.
The wineries and their tasting rooms are universally friendly, and you're likely to find a winemaker or owner serving you in the tasting room. Many of the rooms are former barns or garages, though some are quite striking. The Ferrari-Carano Winery at the north end of the valley, for example, is as elegant as any winery you'll find anywhere, reflecting the tastes and resources of the proprietors.
Dry Creek Valley is not loaded with fancy hotels and restaurants or expensive gift shops, either. There's the nice large Madrona Inn with a good restaurant and one B&B -- Irish Rose -- and only one store, but it's a gem: The Dry Creek General Store, established in 1881, prepares great sandwiches for picnics or to eat on site, and also sells other vital supplies.
French immigrant Georges Bloch had established the first vineyard in Dry Creek
Valley in 1870 and soon co-founded the first winery. The French were soon joined by Italians and others and within 15 years, Dry Creek Valley supported 54 vineyards totaling almost 900 acres, half in Zinfandel. Of course, the double whammy of phylloxera and Prohibition devastated the valley's vineyards, and they didn't really recover until after the mid 20 th -century. Now newcomers searching for a rural atmosphere and reasonable land prices – at least compared to Napa Valley – are joining the families who have farmed Dry Creek for generations. Bringing a new spirit, resources and techniques to the valley, they're helping raise its standards to make better and better wine – sometimes with grape vines that are increasingly aging.
Dry Creek Valley is 70 miles north of San Francisco Bay and about 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean in the northern part Sonoma County. Like many California valleys, it stretches from the northwest to the southeast and the flat valley floor is well defined by the hills that rise steeply on either side. The valley stretches east to west, framed by hillsides and bench lands and was created by the uplifting of plates in the earth, then defined by Dry Creek (which usually has water flowing through it). At the north of the valley is a large man-made Lake Sonoma fed by Dry Creek and Warm Springs. The southern border of the wine appellation lies where Dry Creek runs into the Russian River, but psychologically, it seems to end where the two defining ridges end slightly above where Dry Creek Road crosses highway 101.
Dry Creek Valley is only 16 miles long and two miles wide measured from ridge to ridge and north to south, but the usable farmland is much narrower. A road runs up each side of the valley. To the east is busier but still quiet Dry Creek Road, which starts in Healdsburg and continues to the dam at the north. On the western side of the valley is West Dry Creek Road, a very narrow and winding road that eventually peters out at the north. Two roads through canyons in the eastern hills connect Dry Creek Road with highway 101, Canyon Road and Lytton Springs Rd., and both contain interesting wineries. Likewise, two roads cross the mid valley, Lambert Bridge Road and in the north, Yoakin Bridge. A third road in the far south connects West Dry Creek Road to Highway 101 and Healdsburg.
Dry Creek Valley enjoys warm, even hot, days and cool nights, a great combination for growing fine wine grapes. The valley's fog and proximity to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay give it a cool climate similar to the Bordeaux region of France. It is shielded from the cold of the ocean by the coastal hills and typically sees daily high temperatures in the mid-80s during the growing season with afternoon and evening cooling. The climate is warmer in the north and cooler in the south, supporting different grapes in each area.
In northern Sonoma County fog gathers at the mouth of the Russian River and on the Santa Rosa plain which stretches toward San Francisco Bay. During a typical late summer afternoon, breezes pushes the fog up the Russian River Valley into the Dry Creek Valley. This lingers, but in the morning, the lower valley may be in fog while the upper Valley is in bright sunshine. Most fog burns off by mid morning. As a result, Dry Creek Valley warms up earlier in the day and reaches higher average temperatures than almost any other growing area in Sonoma County.
Dry Creek Valley is best known for the Zinfandel that was a traditional favorite, but growers have discovered that it's a great place to grow other grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. Other old grapes like Barbera, Grenache, Carignane and Petite Sirah excel, too, and are often interplanted with Zinfandel in old vineyards.
Cabernet Sauvignon has actually overtaken Zinfandel in plantings with 2500 acres compared to 2200, and Merlot is a surprising 1,600. Also perhaps a surprise, 1400 acres are in Chardonnay, reflecting both the grapes versatility and cool conditions in the south and in the hills. Sauvignon Blanc is probably an even better choice for a white in Dry Creek Valley, but the market demand is for Chardonnay, of course, and only about 500 acres are in Sauvignon.
The obvious way to approach Dry Creek is heading north on Dry Creek Road from Healdsburg. You'll pass far more wineries than you could possibly visit as well as the Dry Creek General Store, a must stop for a picnic lunch, and most wineries welcome you to enjoy your picnic on their premises with a bottle of their wine. Just past the General Store is Family Wineries of Dry Creek Valley where six different family-owned wineries share one facility.
At the far north is Ferrari-Carano, the valley's fanciest winery, with beautiful gardens and facilities, and beyond is Ed Sbragia's winery, just south of the dam.On the west side of the valley are many other interesting wineries. Preston bakes bread as well as making wine. On Lambert Bridge Road is Dry Creek Vineyards, one of the valley's larger producers, and one of its best sources of Sauvignon Blanc among other wines. Rafanelli is one of the old family-owned wineries, as is Pedroncelli on Canyon Road, and both are well worth a visit.
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