Driving through California's wine country, with its carefully manicured vineyards carpeting huge swaths of the countryside, it's easy to imagine that people have been growing grapes there for centuries.
Indeed, in many places in Northern California, the first vineyards sprang up in the middle to late 1800's and a thriving wine industry along with them.
But what most people forget, if they ever knew, is that the California wine industry suffered several decades that were the equivalent to Europe's Dark Ages. First, 99.9% of the vineyards were wiped out by the Phylloxera epidemic that swept through around the turn of the 20th century, only slightly after it destroyed most of Europe's vineyards. And then almost as if to add insult to injury, America decided alcohol was evil, and in the fit of madness known as Prohibition, we pretty much put the remaining nail in the coffin of the California wine industry.
All of which was why, when David Stare decided to leave his engineering career behind and explore the wine industry in the early Seventies, there were very few wineries in the area we now know as Dry Creek Valley. The area had grown grapes since the 19th Century, and a handful of wineries sprung up over the years, but only one or two managed to survive past the end of the Second World War.
Stare, who studied engineering at MIT and came out west in the Sixties as an employee of B&O railroad, originally thought that he might move to France and start a winery in the Loire Valley, where he had fallen in love with the wines. But a family friend convinced him that the California wine industry was going to take off, and so he began driving around with his kids looking for a place to buy vineyards.
It takes a special vision (or a mild sense of insanity) to look at a 50-acre prune orchard and see an ideal vineyard where none had been before, but Stare fell in love with Dry Creek Valley, and decided it was where he would create (or so he dreamed) his own little Loire Valley. He doggedly insisted on planting Sauvignon Blanc against the counsel of nearly everyone, including his UC Davis professors (once he decided to dive into winemaking, Stare went back to school to study oenology). And in 1972, Stare launched Dry Creek Vineyard.
Needless to say, Dry Creek Valley is not exactly the climatological equivalent of the Loire Valley. That doesn't mean, however, that Sauvignon Blanc doesn't grow, or even thrive there. It just means that what Stare ended up with bears very little resemblance to the source of his inspiration. No matter. The Loire valley will never grow top notch Zinfandel, and notwithstanding the inexorable march of global warming, will never make Bordeaux blends, both of which Dry Creek Vineyards does exceedingly well in addition to the Sauvignon Blanc they have become known for.
There are more than sixty wineries now in the Dry Creek Valley, and probably equally as many from elsewhere making Dry Creek Valley designated wines, and Dry Creek Vineyard recently celebrated its 35th Anniversary as a family-run winery. From the initial few acres of grapes that Stare planted, the estate has grown to more than 200 acres under vine, and is now being run by Stare's daughter, Kim, and her husband, Don.
Dry Creek Vineyard produces a panoply of wines across various price points, from more mass market bottlings under their Regatta label, to smaller production single vineyard wines. The winery's distinctive sailboat imagery and logo persist across every bottle, and the nautical theme is taken to its logical conclusion, not only in the names of the wines, but in the winery's various marketing efforts.
Winemaking has been under the steady hand of Bill Knuttel since 2003, and under his guidance the wines have achieved a new sense of consistency and solidity that is quite commendable. Especially with regards to the single vineyard wines, opening a bottle of Dry Creek Vineyard wine represents a good bet for something tasty in the glass. The winery continues to be a de facto ambassador for the Dry Creek Valley for obvious reasons, and this is a very good thing.
Full disclosure: I received the wines below as press samples.
2006 Dry Creek Vineyard "The Mariner" Bordeaux Blend, Dry Creek Valley
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, graphite, tobacco, and a deep, wet dirt flavor that is quite compelling. In the mouth that wet dirt quality sets a deep bass note against mid-tones of cherry, tobacco and cocoa powder flavors that linger in a very long finish. Good acid and fine grained tannins. Excellent. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $39. Click to buy.
2006 Dry Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cherry and chocolate. In the mouth it offers deep cherry fruit, nicely balanced acidity and faint but muscled tannins. Flavors of chocolate and cedar emerge on the long finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost:$19. Click to buy.
2006 Dry Creek Vineyard "Old Vine 80 Years" Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley
Medium ruby in the glass with a hint of purple, this wine smells of chocolate and blackberries. In the mouth it offers blackberry and black pepper flavors with undercurrents of cassis and chocolate. Faint tannins and nice acidity round out an excellent overall package. Delicious. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost:$28. Click to buy.
2007 Dry Creek Vineyard "Taylor's Vineyard MusquÃ© Clone" Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of baked apples and pears, with hints of green melon. In the mouth the wine offers bright green apple, melon and pear flavors with a hint of vanilla. Good acidity but a hint of bitterness on the finish that is less than desirable. Score: around 8. Cost: $25. Click to buy.
2007 Dry Creek Vineyard "Estate Fume Blanc DCV3" Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of wet stones, wet wood, and green apple skin. In the mouth, tart lime zest, wet stones, and wet wood flavors swirl on a bed of nice acidity with a tiny hint of swampiness. A tart, wet stone and citrus zest flavor lingers in the finish. This wine is not clearly flawed, however there is a chance, in particular with this swampiness, that this is an off bottle, so take this review with a grain of salt. Score: around 8. Cost: $25.
2008 Dry Creek Vineyard "Fume Blanc" Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of gooseberries, passion fruit, and golden delicious apples. In the mouth those same golden delicious apples meld with kiwi fruit and gooseberries, underwritten by a nice acidity that keeps the tropical flavors going in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $12. Click to buy.
2009 Dry Creek Vineyard "Fume Blanc" Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine has a nose of freshly baked bread, lemon zest and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, pink grapefruit and mixed citrus predominates, with flavors of kumquat lingering on the finish. Nice acidity, and a hint of yeastiness remain at the end. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $12. Click to buy.
2008 Dry Creek Vineyard "Wilson Ranch" Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of pears and wet rocks. On the palate, the wine is crisp and bright with a mineral and citrus zest quality, and core flavors of lemon juice, unripe pears, and rainwater. Nice acidity and good balance. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $10. Click to buy.
2009 Dry Creek Vineyard "Wilson Ranch" Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of baked apples, and poached pears with hints of pomelo. In the mouth flavors of apple mix with more unspecified tropical fruits and a nice silky texture. Green apple skin lingers on the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $10. Click to buy.
2007 Dry Creek Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
Light gold in color, this wine smells of wet stones, grapefruit and vanilla. In the mouth it is juicy and satin in texture. Nice flavors of grapefruit, wet stones, and iced lemon cake are made lively by good acidity and a nice restraint. Very little oak signature. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $17. Click to buy.
2009 Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of crisp, ripe apples and cut grass, with hints of gooseberry. In the mouth the wine is bright and juicy with unripe apple, gooseberry, and lemongrass flavors that linger in a long finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $15. Click to buy.