Another Roadside Attraction

Dec 2, 1996

IT CAN BE an exhilarating experience. You're out for a Sunday drive in the country, no particular place to go. You're wending your way through a maze of splendid autumn colors when all of a sudden in the distance you see a roadside produce stand.

All the fruits and vegetables are grown in the nearby garden. You load your basket with more food and spend more than you might otherwise, but the harvest is fresh and hand-picked. It doesn't get any better.

That's part of the allure of discovering a small, off-the-beaten-path winery. One you've never heard of before. You pull off the road, park your car, walk into the winery, shake hands with the winemaker and taste his wines. Then you buy a case or two, pack them in the trunk and are off to your next discovery.

I had one of those moments when I visited David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. I didn't just happen upon Coffaro's winery, but went there because I'd tasted his wines two or three times, wanted to meet him and see the place. I knew Coffaro's hand-crafted wines were excellent and hard to get, but when a winemaker captures so much complex fruit flavor in his wines—and many of his neighbors can't—it piques your curiosity.

COFFARO'S DRY CREEK vineyard and winery is not to be confused with Joe Cafaro's Napa Valley wine company, although the names are similar in pronunciation. Coffaro, 53, soft-spoken and burly, with a graying beard and cropped hair, is one of those unlikely wine heroes. An unassuming sort who loves wine, growing grapes, living off the land, Coffaro does not consider himself as special or gifted, nor does he see himself as a fascinating part of the bigger wine picture. "Some people call me creative," he laughs, "but I've never had a creative bone in my body."

Taste his wines and you'll beg to differ, as they are deliciously pure, rich and distinctive, so much so it makes you wonder why others in Dry Creek Valley aren't able to capture as much bright fruit as Coffaro does.

Coffaro's vineyard and winery are a blend of curiosities. He and his family moved to Dry Creek Valley in the 1970s, after he'd had a successful career investing on Wall Street. He bought this 20 acre vineyard without knowing much about wine growing except that he liked to drink wine (old Bordeaux and Beaulieu) and thought this might be fun. "I bought this vineyard without ever being on a tractor," he offers. Most of his grapes are still sold to area wineries, including Nalle, which prizes the Zinfandel. He and his family live in a nice home, with a run-down wooden barn and small winery out back. Most of the equipment is second hand. The barrels aren't new. There's a small sign out in front of the gravel driveway with the winery name, but if you're driving too fast you'll zip right past it.

This is essentially a shoe-string operation, not one founded with big money. Coffaro has built production up to 1,500 cases, but doesn't (or can't) pay himself a salary. He finances much of his business with a handful of credit cards and looks about as nonchalant as a farmer gets. On this day, he is dressed in shorts, wearing a tank top and sandals and his hands are stained a deep purple color—signs of the harvest. It's a one-man operation for now, although Coffaro, as his wines win more acclaim, is pondering hiring help and boosting production to 3,000 cases.

A STROLL THROUGH the vineyard shows Coffaro isn't paranoid about weeds invading his property or scraggly, overgrown vines. He has plenty of both. This is no picture book vineyard. Yet while it's clear Coffaro doesn't nurture his vines the way many growers do, he gets the desired results. You can taste it in the wines.

All of his wines feature ripe, bright, juicy fruit flavors and whatever oakyou find is well in the background. The 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coffaro's first, is ripe, lush and jammed with currant and plum flavors. I give it a 91 on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. The 1995 shows off the same delicious fruit flavors with an even brighter profile. The 1994 Zinfandel (89) is marked by sage and wild berry flavors and has that wonderful pepper and raspberry edge that's so common in the best Dry Creek Zins. The 1995 (92) is a shade riper and perhaps better focused. The 1994 Estate CuvŽe (92) is another wonderfully complex wine with tiers of plum, cherry and wild berry flavors. It's a blend of Zinfandel (30 percent), Cabernet (32 percent), Carignane (22 percent) and Petite Sirah (16 percent). It's one of the best field blends I've tasted. The varietals—Cabernet and Zinfandel—also have other grapes blended in. Production for each is in the 300-case range.

WHATEVER STYLISTIC QUALITIES are achieved by Coffaro's wines, the heart of the matter is the vineyard. "Initially I didn't think this property was any different than the other vineyards around here," he says, "but the longer I've been here the more I realize that this is a special piece of property." The rocky soils and good drainage, along with the western exposure, contribute to his grapes achieving that desired maximum ripeness every year.

Even as his wines gain in popularity, Coffaro has held the line on prices. "Wine is getting too expensive," he says, and he sells his for about $15 bottle. This past summer, as the 1996 grape crop was ripening, Coffaro sold futures—$96 a case—and sold out most of his wine. For the 1997 vintage, the cost will rise to $97 a case. Plain folks' prices for what might be the best wines in Dry Creek Valley. Here's hoping he decides to hire a hand, boost production and use all his grapes to make more wines. The world will be a better place because of that.

If you want to try to buy the wines, write to Coffaro at 7485 Dry Creek Road, Geyserville, Calif. 95441 or call (707) 433-9715.

James Laube, a senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine, has written three books on California wine. Check this space every Monday for his views on the latest in the wine world. To read earlier columns, go to the Column Archive.


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