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.