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james laube's wine flights

Dry Creek Valley's Wines Should Be Better

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jun 10, 2008 1:27pm ET

Most wine regions are defined by either a grape or a style. Last week, as I rode my bike through picturesque Dry Creek Valley, my thoughts turned to what I consider this Northern Sonoma appellation’s dilemma.

It doesn’t have a signature grape nor wine nor even winery.

Many grapes excel here. Most people consider Zinfandel its star red wine, and there are some excellent Zins for sure, witness the sheer power and opulence of the 2005 Carlisle Zinfandel (93 points, $33) or the 2006 (92, $33), or Mazzocco’s latest bottlings, the best turnaround effort in years. There are also gems from Carol Shelton or Dark Horse.

Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc also perform well here, too, and occasionally Cabernet stars, such as with the 2003 Dry Creek Vineyard Endeavour (90, $55).

But the highs seem too few and far between to get excited about. The area has several high-profile wineries, chief among them Gallo of Sonoma, but also Ferrari-Carano and the aforementioned Dry Creek Vineyards. But Gallo’s and Ferrari-Carano’s best wines don’t hail from this turf and some of the once-leading producers, such as Rafanelli, Ridge (with its Geyserville bottling), Nalle and Quivira, haven’t made exciting wines in years.

Rafanelli once held out the greatest promise with its richly flavored reds. Its Cabernet and Zinfandel were once among the best in the state, on equal footing with Napa’s top Cabernets. But the wines have been well off the mark now for several vintages, and the truth is, there are many dull and ordinary wines being made and poured and sold in tasting rooms here, and that’s too bad, because the wines could be and should be much better.

It would help if Dry Creek had a signature grape or wine, and certainly Syrah and Zinfandel have potential. It’s also a boost having Sbragia Family Vineyards here, too, with its excellent Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

But the area as a whole needs to rededicate itself to setting higher quality standards. If that happens we might all be surprised by how compelling the wines could be.

John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  June 10, 2008 7:26pm ET
James, someone must think that Dry Creek is making fine wines. The wineries therin seem to sell out just about every year and as a result it is currently difficult to find a wine older that 2006 to buy. Maybe that's why most of the wineries in the Dry Creek area don't care to be rated by Wine Spectator. Mauritson, for example, is turning out superb wines yet Wine spectator doesn't mention them. Is it possible that your colume is an example of the "fox and sour grapes?" Does it bother you that they do not need You?
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  June 10, 2008 7:26pm ET
James, someone must think that Dry Creek is making fine wines. The wineries therin seem to sell out just about every year and as a result it is currently difficult to find a wine older that 2006 to buy. Maybe that's why most of the wineries in the Dry Creek area don't care to be rated by Wine Spectator. Mauritson, for example, is turning out superb wines yet Wine spectator doesn't mention them. Is it possible that your colume is an example of the "fox and sour grapes?" Does it bother you that they do not need You?
John Wilen
Texas —  June 10, 2008 9:21pm ET
JL, agreed. Two wines that are often very good:

Pezzi King Zinfandel Dry Creek Reserve

Pezzi King Zinfandel Maple Vineyard Reserve
Mark Nazzaro
cheshire, ct —  June 11, 2008 7:15am ET
I was just on Dry Creek Rd. Two weeks ago. Next time your on your bike pull into WILSON vineyards. It was one of only a few bottles that made it home in my suitcase. After spending four days in napa and only one in northern sonoma.
Christy Thomas
Napa, Ca —  June 11, 2008 10:18am ET
I must agree with John that many of the wineries in Dry Creek don't care about reviews but are turning out incredible wines. I spoke with a winemaker just recently who said they sell out every year so why bother with sending your wine to reviewer and take the chance they don't like it. They're doing just fine, thank you.Here's some jewels to check out if you can find them-Stuhlmuller, Palmeri, Miro Cellars, Leo Hansen
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  June 11, 2008 11:41am ET
Not everyone can be or aspires to be Queen of the Prom. Dry Creek Valley turns out many pleasant wines at very afforable prices, many of which like Camellia Cellars are never rated nor mentioned. As John above points out, they sell. I do believe your point with Rafanelli is well made. I don't understand the drop in quality there, he seems content living on his history, with his wines overpriced for current quality.
Emily
June 11, 2008 11:41am ET
I could not agree more with John. If anything Dry Creek is ahead of the game. They make great wines and ignore the ratings. I think the other areas of Napa and Sonoma wish they had done this 10 years ago.
Michael Swartz
June 11, 2008 1:53pm ET
I greatly enjoy the flavor profile of Dry Creek zinfandel, and my favorite 2005 zin was Dry Creek fruit, although not made by winery in Dry Creek proper (Zahtila).

Does the QPR juggernaut Seghesio count as a Dry Creek winery? Their Cortina is 100% Dry Creek I believe, I have bought many vintages of that, and they likely use Dry Creek fruit elsewhere.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  June 11, 2008 2:39pm ET
It is rare that I am disappointed by a Zin, Petite Sirah or syrah from Dry Creek Valley -- from the produucers mentioned above and others. While it is certainly reasonable for a critic to be critical (esp your blogs on the cork taint at Pillar Box, VA issues etc), this one seemed a bit harsh and over generalized to me
Tim Webb
high point nc —  June 11, 2008 5:02pm ET
an excellent example of the failure to live up to promise is gallo. at one time gallo was producing wines of great value, with single vineyards such as barrelli creek offering good quality and attractive prices and the northern sonoma estate bottlings scoring in the mid 90's. i remember a tca problem, but that does not explain the over-all drop in quality from this producer. can you give us some insight as to why this wealthy and well equiped producer quickly went from star status to mediocrity?
Ben Gilliberti
Washington, DC —  June 11, 2008 7:25pm ET
I'd say that as a region Dry Creek does very well with both Cabernet Sauvignon and with Chardonnay, but gets scant recognition for its efforts with these two varieties. The wines have a lot of euro-character, which may be lost on the typical California-centric taster. Michel-Sclumberger and Dry Creek Vineyard are doing great work, at affordable prices.
Richard Lee
Napa —  June 11, 2008 8:47pm ET
I agree w/John B wholeheartedly, odd that JL did not bother to reply. I guess the taste of Crow doesn't go well w/his wine selection of the day. Please do us all a favor, leave Dry Creek alone. I don't want the rest of the world to find out about the wineries there. It is exetremely wonderful to be able to cruise a wine area in NoCal w/o any traffic problems on the street or in the tasting room.
Dry Creek Vineyard
Healdsburg —  June 12, 2008 12:24am ET
Thanks Jim. Very interesting comments on our region. While I think that some of my neighbors might be upset by your comments, I would agree that it is time we all do a little bit of soul searching about our wines. Is it a lack of varietal focus in the valley? I'm not sure. Or is it that we are not doing enough in our cellars to make the best wine possible? Again, that's hard to say. I can only speak to what we are doing at Dry Creek Vineyard. And, we've done a lot. We've eliminated many wines from our portfolio in an effort to focus on our core strengths. We've cut our production in order to produce higher quality more distinctive wines. We've brought in a talented winemaking team and finetuned our winemaking practices. In essence, we realized as a family that we needed to step up our game or risk becoming a "has-been". Bottom line is that we've got great grapes and talented people and we're pushing forward with our eye always fixed on producing the best bottle of wine we possibly can, regardless of it's origin. So, if it's a Dry Creek Valley appellation wine, that means it's Cabernet, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc as those are the grapes we believe excel from here. For our Chardonnay, it's the Russian River Valley which is better suited and the reason we've moved all our Chardonnay vineyards to that region. Whatever the case, I do think there are some exciting wines being put out from our little valley. It's just that we do so without a lot of fanfare and flash, which is something that is becoming rare these days.
Chris Haag
vancouver, bc —  June 13, 2008 1:04am ET
I agree with Richard Lee. James is a great reviewer but the one thing I love about sonoma side of NOCAL, in general, is how many wineries do not rely on the WS and hype. Rather they market the most important thing about a winery, its wine.PS Unlike the bloggers above, I will not list my faves as they have not been mentioned. Some things are best kept as secrets.
Eric Hall
San Francisco, CA —  June 15, 2008 3:50pm ET
I'm sort of a local out this way, and spend a lot of time in the Dry Creek Valley (second only to the Russian River Valley) and the consensus seems pretty clear that Zinfandel is the Dry Creek Valley's signature varietal, followed by Petite Sirah. I should point out that the Dry Creek Valley's Passport event weekend sells out instantly every year, and seems to be growing steadily.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  June 17, 2008 11:28am ET
Thanks, James, for a provocative and informative posting. I had read all of the praise for some of the DCV producers that you mentioned and never understood the hype. Not to mention that I have found Rafanelli one of the most difficult wineries with which to do business. Anyway, the scenery in DCV is among the most beautiful in the area and there are some shining stars that give me great hope for a resurgence. Bella, Unti, and Wilson are friendly, unpretenious (just what I expect and love about DCV, and are making some wines that I really enjoy. I look forward to reading more about this region as it progresses.
Ron Johnson
Clearwater,FL —  September 3, 2011 6:36pm ET
After visiting and tasting in Napa we drove over to Dry Creek Valley and for my money I was well pleased. Reasonable prices for excellent wines, some I would place in the 93-94 range like the 06 Endeavour by Dry Creek...that wine in Napa would fetch twice as much and the visit there was one of our highlights.

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