Dry Creek Valley: The Next Bastion of Bordeaux?

By Bob Johnson

You’re not likely to see the red wine most closely associated with Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley — Zinfandel — ever made in the Bordeaux region of France. But there’s a good possibility that Dry Creek Valley could become increasingly known for red Bordeaux varieties.

Bill Smart poses with some of Dry Creek Vineyard's signature wines.

Bill Smart poses with some of Dry Creek Vineyard’s signature wines.

“We have a climate that closely mirrors Bordeaux, with longer days of sunshine and cooler nights than Alexander Valley or Napa,” notes Bill Smart, Director of Marketing and Communications for Dry Creek Vineyard.

Napa Valley, of course, is California’s “Bordeaux capital,” while Alexander Valley more often than not is cited as Sonoma County’s equivalent. And while Alexander Valley certainly produces some wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, what the Stare and Wallace families of Dry Creek Vineyard want people to know is that Dry Creek Valley has just has much “Bordeaux potential” as Alexander Valley.

“This is the second generation’s handprint on the winery going forward,” Smart says. “While we’re certainly still about Zinfandel, we also want people to know how good the Bordeaux varieties can be in Dry Creek.”

Kim Stare Wallace is part of the second generation that's expanding Dry Creek Vineyard's portfolio.

Kim Stare Wallace is part of the second generation that’s expanding Dry Creek Vineyard’s portfolio.

It is something of an uphill battle. Because of Zinfandel’s long history in Dry Creek Valley, it is a variety that is embraced by a vast majority of the appellation’s wineries — most of which are relatively small, with no national footprint. So even if great Bordeaux-style wines can be made there — and they can, as smaller estates such as A. Rafanelli, Lambert Bridge, Mill Creek and Michel-Schumberger have demonstrated over the years — getting them into the hands and wineglasses of consumers poses a real challenge.

Thus, it’s up to estates such as Dry Creek Vineyard and Pedroncelli Winery, which do have significant distribution, to take on the bulk of the legwork and educational efforts.

Bordeaux-inspired wines from the Dry Creek Valley AVA figure to be an important part of Dry Creek Vineyard's future.

Bordeaux-inspired wines from the Dry Creek Valley AVA figure to be an important part of Dry Creek Vineyard’s future.

During a recent visit to Dry Creek Vineyard, we sampled three Bordeaux-inspired bottlings from the 2012 vintage, all boasting “Dry Creek Valley” on their front labels. One was the estate’s signature red blend called “The Mariner,” one was a Merlot-based wine that included four other Bordeaux varietals, and one was a wine that now is more closely associated with Argentina than France: Malbec. Our reviews:

2012 Dry Creek Vineyard ‘The Mariner,’ Dry Creek Valley
Most red wines suggest four or, at best, five individual aroma or flavor impressions. More often than not, these impressions present themselves individually: first a whiff of mushrooms, then a note of charred wood, then some type of fruit, and perhaps a finish somewhat reminiscent of dark chocolate. But the 2012 vintage of “The Mariner” is more like an orchestra whose members have been playing together for years. There are plenty of aroma and flavor nuances — blackberry, black raspberry, black cherry, cassis, herbs, baking spices and, yes, dark chocolate — but they are seamlessly integrated. No extended solos in this vinous orchestra of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 8% Malbec and 3% Cabernet Franc; rather, a harmonious whole. This may be the best “Mariner” yet.
MSRP: $45 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2012 Dry Creek Vineyard Merlot, Dry Creek Valley
Like “The Mariner,” this wine was crafted from five Bordeaux varietals. The blend: 82% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. Because there is a much more significant portion of Merlot, it’s a much softer wine, one that shows off Dry Creek Valley’s iron-rich soils in its succulent mouthfeel. A nice mix of red and dark fruits co-mingle with a dusty note, making this an exceptionally food-friendly wine. Roasted chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, anyone?
MSRP: $25 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 89

2012 Dry Creek Vineyard Malbec, Dry Creek Valley
Malbec’s “place in life” originally was as a minor blending grape of Bordeaux. But late in the 20th century, it gained star status in its adopted home of Argentina, specifically in that country’s Mendoza growing region. Dry Creek Vineyard likes to include Malbec in its Bordeaux-inspired blends, and also crafts a varietal bottling — for the 2012 vintage, a total of 247 cases. It’s 100% varietal and 100% delicious, a real savory wine with a char element and noticeable minerality, joined by blackberry, black cherry and a mélange of other dark fruit notes. This dark, dense wine needs to be accompanied by a thick steak in order to truly strut its stuff.
MSRP: $38 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 90

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Ironically, Dry Creek Vineyard made its name on a Bordeaux varietal — a white Bordeaux varietal: Sauvignon Blanc. And it continues to craft wonderful renditions to this day, in addition to benchmark bottlings of Zinfandel and one of California’s best varietal Chenin Blanc wines.

A few notes on some of these additional wines that we sampled during our visit…

  • 2014 Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg — Wilson Ranch has been providing the grapes for this wine for years. It’s Dry Creek Vineyard’s only non-Sonoma County wine, and the 2014 vintage has a nice mid-palate and bright acidity that supports the tropical fruit, banana essence and sweet citrus notes.
  • 2013 Fume Blanc, Sonoma County — Rounded and herbal, this wine’s acidity makes it an ideal companion to shellfish or lemon chicken. It shows lemon, apple, pear and nectarine fruit notes.
  • 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley — This wine shows much more tropical fruit, and is weightier and fuller on the palate than the Sonoma County bottling. The aroma and flavor spectrum includes honeysuckle, white peach and nectarine.
  • 2012 DCV3 Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley — A mere 350 cases of this wine were made in 2012, its fruit coming from original plantings just behind the winery. It shows varietal notes of sweet pea, white pepper and green olive, all amid an oily sensation on the palate and with a persistent after-flavor.
  • 2013 Musque Clone Sauvignon Blanc, Taylor’s Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley — Taylor Vineyard gets its name from the daughter of Don and Kim Wallace, the second-generation proprietors of Dry Creek Vineyard. This is an aromatic wine that’s reminiscent of sweet, perfumed flowers, leading to a weighty palate of tropical fruit flavors.
  • 2012 DCV Estate Block 10 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley — Pear and apple fruit flavors intermingle with heavier notes of butter toffee, caramel and custard. Chardonnay is another “second generation” varietal being embraced by the Wallaces, and the 2012 vintage exhibits great promise.
  • 2013 Heritage Vines Zinfandel, Sonoma County — There’s no heat at all in this pizza- and burger-friendly wine, which shows massive, briary black raspberry, lots of black pepper, and hints milk chocolate and Chinese five-spice. This is Dry Creek Vineyard’s flagship wine, and at $20, it remains one of the best values in California wine.
  • 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley — Five sites with grapevines averaging about 90 years in age contribute to this wine, which shows off white pepper and ample black raspberry, along with black plum, red currant, red raspberry and red cherry notes. Prefer your pork ribs with a North Carolina-style barbecue sauce? This is the wine to open up.
  • 2012 Somers Ranch Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley — Production in this vineyard is quite low, which concentrates the aromas and flavors in the grapes. The use of more new oak for aging also contributes to the heady aromatics, the big mouthfeel and the built-for-aging tannic bite. Expect dark fruit flavors, joined by black tar and licorice notes.
  • 2012 DCV7 Estate Zinfandel, Wallace Ranch, Dry Creek Valley — If the Somers Ranch Zin is big and inky, this is its food-friendly and demure cousin… if Zin can be described as demure. It shows lots of red cherry fruit, joined by an impression of green apple peel — something we’ve seen in numerous bottlings of Hartford Court Zins through the years.
  • 2012 Vogensen Ranch Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley — This wine is French in style, but not Bordeaux-like. Rather, it conjures Cotes du Rhone, with earth, pepper and mineral notes complementing the crushed blueberry fruit flavor. It’s a food-friendly wine that may prompt a hungry imbiber to inquire, “Where’s the beef?”
  • 2011 Spencer’s Hill Vineyard Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley — You can taste the winemaker’s hand in this bottling, no doubt a function of the challenging 2011 vintage. Rather than an abundance of fruit, it shows coffee, vanilla, chalk and bittersweet chocolate notes.
  • 2012 Spencer’s Hill Vineyard Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley — Same vineyard… different varietal… different vintage… and a world of difference. Black pepper, blueberry and blackberry impressions coat the palate, and the relatively soft mouthfeel makes this wine quite food friendly.

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It should be noted that Dry Creek Vineyard has something of a secret weapon in its pursuit of quality across the board: winemaker Tim Bell.

“Tim is big on walking and mapping vineyards — almost like a geography lesson,” Smart says. “He’s a big plant guy, and sometimes he drives our vineyard management company nuts. He’ll tell them, ‘I want these three rows picked… leave these three… then pick these next three.’

“Tim is very creative and artistic, but also an I’s dotted and T’s crossed kind of guy,” adds Smart. “And you need that kind of attention to detail when you’re working to take your wines to the next level.”

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Dry Creek Vineyard
3770 Lambert Bridge Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Note: For archived formal reviews of Dry Creek Vineyard wines dating back to the 2007 vintage, click here.

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