A lot of us drank Zinfandel in the old days because it was cheap. For 10 bucks, I could buy a terrific bottle in the early 1990s and I didn't have to cross my fingers or anything. Today the top wines run $30 or $40 and, since I don't have a mattress stuffed with Facebook stock, I can't drink those every day.
And yet, one of the perks of being a Zin buff is that it's still possible to find a tasty wine at a decent price, and not just the generic Zinfandels that carry a California designation. Most regions still produce a few honest, handcrafted Zins that sell for less than $20.
Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County is home to two of my favorite values, and the current releases remind me why the wines are so reliable. Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone 2008 (88 points, $15) is typical of the house style: easy to drink but well-structured, with crisp notes of cherry, licorice and herb. Dry Creek Vineyard Sonoma County Heritage 2008 (88, $19) is more full-bodied, zesty and appealingly rustic, with black pepper, raspberry and roasted dill flavors.
Longevity is one reason the two wineries still offer value. The Pedroncelli family is part of the great Italian tradition that first planted vines in Dry Creek in the 19th century. They have toiled in the same vineyards for generations, which keeps the mortgage payment at a minimum, and retain the Old World notion that wine is nothing to fuss over. The Stare family at Dry Creek Vineyard pioneered the rebirth of the valley in the early 1970s, and while they produce wines at a variety of prices, the Zinfandels have remained true to the original style: full-flavored and authentic to the vineyards.
Dry Creek Valley, for many Zinfandel drinkers, is considered the heartland. Located about 70 miles north of San Francisco in the northern edge of Sonoma County wine country, the valley is about 20 miles from the Pacific, which means the climate is toasty during summer days and cool at night.
It produces Zins that remind me of Olympic swimmers, light of frame but dynamic, as compared to the more muscular counterparts from Russian River Valley or Napa. You'll mostly taste raspberry and cherry, spice and cinnamon, but styles vary according to vineyard location and winemaker.
The valley is about 16 miles long and two miles wide, but most of the vineyards are along the creek and in the nearby hills. It's hard to say when the first Zinfandel was planted in Dry Creek, but a guy named George Bloch was the first on record back in 1869, just four years after the Civil War ended.
I was fascinated when I first heard the tales of abandoned vineyards in the benchlands above the valley. That's where early Italian settlers planted grapes, leaving the flatlands for other crops and fruit trees. Some of the old vines are still up there, cast off to the wild during Prohibition and overgrown by scrub brush. Somehow a few 100-year-old vineyards like Teldeschi Ranch and Maple survived in Dry Creek and still produce wine.
Appropriately, Dry Creek was among the first American Viticultural Areas to be designated in Sonoma County. That was back in 1983. So much has changed since then, but Dry Creek itself doesn't look all that different.
Back when I first started drinking Zinfandel, it was my favorite place to explore. There's an unfussy beauty about it, with its narrow, rambling roads and its piney green hills. Most of the wineries are still small and family-owned and they make plenty of Zinfandel. I can't promise you'll find many for $10, but they still deliver both character and value.