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Tasting Dry Creek Reds Shows the Area's Shortcomings

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jun 24, 2008 4:24pm ET

My blind tasting last week of a dozen Dry Creek Valley red wines didn’t change my view that: 1) this appellation has a shortage of great wines, and 2) it lacks a signature wine.

Of the two, the former is the bigger concern. If you add up the case numbers for all of the best wines, it’s still a pretty small percentage of the total that are outstanding wines. (Scores and notes for the most recently rated Dry Creek wines prove this point.) Yet if Dry Creek’s strength is its versatility – and I think it is – then all the better. Most regions are defined by a grape or wine, but they don’t have to be. If Dry Creek can excel with Sauvignons, Syrahs and Zinfandels, then that’s a huge plus.

Before writing my blog entry about Dry Creek, I had agreed to taste some of the appellation's wines, which had been submitted to me by their makers. One curious note, brought to my attention by Dry Creek Vineyard’s owner, Kim Stare Wallace, is that while the appellation has considerable plantings of Cabernet (about 3,000 of the appellation's 10,000 acres, and the lion’s share of a single grape variety), a large percentage of that juice is blended with juice from other Sonoma appellations, and according to Wallace, even makes its way into Napa cuvées. This would seem to indicate that vintners either believe Dry Creek grapes work better with those grown elsewhere, which is fine, or that Dry Creek Cabernet doesn’t make a great stand-alone wine, which is often the case with wines from appellations whose grapes benefit from blending.

As a group, the Dry Creek wines that I tasted (mostly Cabernets) were medium weight, streamlined and elegant. But they came up shy on depth, concentration and complexity, especially when compared with those grown in Napa Valley, which remains the standard for great California Cabernet. (As an aside, Napa isn’t the only great place for Cabernet. The best single Cabernet site in my book might be Peter Michael’s Les Pavots Vineyard in Sonoma’s Knights Valley.)

I liked the 2004 Owl Ridge Cabernet from T.R. Passalacqua ($48). It’s intense and vibrant, with fresh, snappy, racy black cherry, wild berry, spice and mineral flavors that are clean and refreshing, ending with a nice burst of red berry fruit.

Dry Creek’s 2004 Cabernet ($55) was the richest and most extracted, with loam, earth, sage, berry, mineral and cedary oak that give this a tight focus. The flavors fan out on the palate, with rich supple tannins on the finish.

But the Yoakim Bridge Stromberg Vineyard 2005 ($52), Fritz 2005 ($35), Michel-Schlumberger Merlot 2005 ($28), SideJob Cellars Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley C5 Stefani Vineyard 2005, Dry Creek’s 2005 Cabernet, Hawley Cabernet 2005 and A. Rafanelli 2005 were straightforward, but lacked distinction (though it's worth noting that the Rafanelli was the freshest wine I’ve tried from this winery in a few vintages).

One wine in the tasting was a dirty mess, and two were corked (including the 2005 Sbragia Cabernet from Andolsen Vineyard, which was superrich), so even getting through a flight of a dozen wines has its own built-in pitfalls.

I also received a thoughtful note from a winemaker in Dry Creek, who appreciated my thoughts about the area and its wines. Too many vineyards are being overcropped (which leads to dilute wines that lack character and depth), and he admitted that winemaking could be better.

And, of course, Dry Creek’s heavyweight, Gallo, has shown it can make excellent wines from this area. If it decided to press the issue, with both Cabernet, Syrah and Zinfandel, that would be a great for everyone.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  June 25, 2008 10:36am ET
I appreciate and understand your comments. With many of the wines your comments are most appropriate. However, I still return to my comment on your earlier blog. DCV makes many pleasant, food friendly wines, at reasonable prices. Many of your rock star Napa wines are neither food friendly nor reasonably priced. I've had Napa winemakers sneer and say "We don't make food wines". Fine, they have a market for those wines. But as a wine buyer, I don't want a bunch of over concentrated, super-ripe, over oaked wines as being the nearly exclusive American wine sitting on the shelf. You're correct in saying that too many vineyards are over-cropped. What percent of the grapes should they drop, 20%, 30%, 50%? Then to stay even revenue wise, how much will the wineries have to increase wine prices? With today's economic challenges, let's see a show of hands of those people currently buying DCV wines that want a 25%+ increase in price so to gain a 2-3 point rise in WS rating. Couple this with an importer of friend of mine (Italian wines) that told me several of his wineries have signficantly cut his allotments. They are diversifying as rapidly as possible away from the plunging American dollar. There is a reason many of the DCV wineries sell out of their wines without a lot of fan fare. They are not priced like Orvid and you can enjoy them with a meal with your steak.
Steven Mirassou
Livermore, CA —  June 25, 2008 10:49am ET

I'd have to say, so far, the best Cab site is the Montebello vineyard.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  June 25, 2008 1:38pm ET
Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't Dry Creek a warmer subappleation of Sonoma? I always thought it was a bit too hot there to really get the most out of cab. BUT, Zin, petite sirah and syrah (too some extent) love the heat and those varietals do exceedingly well in that appellation (IMHO). Have you done a focused tasting recently of these wines from Dry Creek to confirm your assertion of the areas shortcomings?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 25, 2008 1:45pm ET
Andrew, we're constantly tasting the wines from this and all key CA wine appellations. See the database.
Chris Haag
June 25, 2008 3:07pm ET
I am glad the WS does not like DCV wines. That means I do not need to buy the wine off a mailing list, can take my annual trip to Healdsburg and explore the area and purchase lots of great wine that WS never gets a sniff of. I bought my allotment of Ovid, but there is only so much money to go around and DCV wines fill in the gaps just nicely.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  June 25, 2008 3:23pm ET
James, perhaps you wern't tasting the good stuff, possibly because the wineries did not send you their wines for rating. What about the zins from the Maple vineyard? What About the zins from the Rockpile. Talty zins are wonderful, as are Mauritson's and Mazzocco's. And there are many more. Its the same story James, most of those who have the good stuff arn't interested in your ratings.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 25, 2008 4:56pm ET
John, thanks for the new names. Stuff such as Maple, Mazzocco, Wilson, etc., have all been reviewed quite favorably and you should see the database, since most of the wines are there. Rockpile's there, too, but under the Rockpile appellation.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 25, 2008 5:00pm ET
Chris, you're missing the point. Yes, there are good, even great DCV wines, just not enough of them. With the best core wines, the addition of Sbragia and the potential for Gallo to put forth great DCV wines, I think you'll see an upswing and very soon. Most people get into the wine business with a passion for excellence and the small producers, as usual, are showing the way.
Michael Wesson
TX —  June 25, 2008 6:27pm ET
James - since you seem to be reading - I have a question for you. Will/can a zinfandel ever receive a 100 point score? The highest a zin has ever received from WS was a 96 (and there has only been one of those and 5 95's). Is it that they are being compared against other varietals? I have a hard time believing that in the history of Zin in California there have only been 6 "Classic" wines...
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 25, 2008 6:36pm ET
Michael, can (definitely), will (who knows?). My colleague Tim Fish is now reviewing Zinfandel (and has for the past year). I still taste with him and see many/most of the wines he rates and we think quality is on the upswing. But it's perhaps the most difficult grape to make into great wine and I've written about its future...as I see it.http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Blogs/Blog_Detail/0,4211,861,00.html
John Wilen
Texas —  June 25, 2008 7:51pm ET
"The most influential publications rate all wines -- from first-growth Bordeaux to light and lively Chenin Blancs -- on the same scale. The highest scores go to wines of greater power and complexity -- wines that make you notice them. Major publications don't give 98 points to a palate-cleansing Sauvignon Blanc."

W. Blake Gray, SF Chronicle Staff Writer
Eric P Perramond
Colorado Springs, CO —  June 26, 2008 10:52am ET
James,I largely agree with your statements about the general quality of most DCV wines. But we did find some interesting, smaller production wineries. I know that Acorn Winery, just south of Healdsburg, was reviewed by WS (a LONG time ago). Have you tried them recently? I'm not sure there was a wine that I didn't like when we visited. Their Zin was less over-the-top, and everything was nicely balanced. Just a thought.Eric Perramond
Chris Haag
June 26, 2008 3:42pm ET
James, I understand completely what you are suggesting. My point and some of the other comments reiterate this, is many wineries in the DCV simply do not send their wine to you, so you never taste or review them. Unlike $100.00 plus Napa Cabs, they do not need a review to help sell their wines. I appreciate you can only comment on what you taste, but I am just fine with the WS not touching everything in the area. I also agree it is the small boutique wineries that are leading the charge.
Paul Root
Healdsburg, California —  June 26, 2008 7:05pm ET
Jim...All I've got to say is this: You're lucky you wrote the piece on Dry Creek AFTER you biked through the Valley...many of those old time growers can get a bit grumpy when it comes to folks dissin' their grapes. Although You'd of made a good looking hood ornament. (Just kidding) -PR
Eric Hall
San Francisco, CA —  June 27, 2008 4:36pm ET
I treasure my Rafanelli Cabernets, and would NEVER think of drinking them until they are at least 5 years past bottling. My 2003's are just not ready yet, but they surely will be. Some of the finest Cabernets I've ever had are (OK were) late nineties Rafenelli's .
Anthony Dixon
Atlanta, GA —  August 11, 2008 12:48pm ET
Hey James,Try either the 2004 or 2005 Fritz Cabernet. Known for their Russian River wines (Chard, Pinot, S.Bl, Zin), they have turned out two vintages in a row of quality Dry Creek Valley Cab. Both have been favorably reviewed by other wine publications out there and I can personally recommend both of them. Pretty darn good Cabernet for $30 IMHO.

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