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Rediscovering Value in Dry Creek

Region's long history with Zinfandel gives it an edge
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 26, 2011 11:00am ET

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.

Sam Folsom
San Francisco, CA —  January 26, 2011 11:40am ET
The Olympic swimmer analogy captures Dry Creek Zins well,and I enjoyed seeing two good values highlighted.
Thomas Cannon
Fairfax, VA, USA —  January 26, 2011 11:49am ET

Always appreciate your articles and like to hear of good values. I find your palate for zinfandel to be in line with mine 90% of the time, so I like to seek out small producers that make quality wine based upon your ratings. Keep them coming.

On a side note, and one question I’ve wanted to ask you is, would you ever rate a zinfandel a 99 or 100 if you came across it and what would it take to merit such a rating?


Thomas Cannon
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  January 26, 2011 12:04pm ET
Tim wrote- 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.
Amen to that. These days, on special occasions like my birthday, we have to pay around $35 a bottle to get the same quality as in the good old days.
Robert Larsen
Santa Rosa —  January 26, 2011 12:31pm ET
Congrats on the new blog. Great way to start... with Dry Creek Valley Zin. I'm a big fan, but as you say, some of those wines have increased in price of late. Nice to see that Heritage Clone is still a good value.
Cheers, Robert
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  January 26, 2011 1:59pm ET
It's right on the edge of Dry Creek and Alexander Valley, and it's not what most would consider a value-priced wine, but give me the Ridge Lytton Springs any day. Their East Bench bottling is strong, too, but that's usually an ATP release. The '07 Seghesio Cortina zin ain't a bad drop, either.
Megghen Driscol
St. Helena, CA —  January 26, 2011 2:04pm ET
Love it Tim... Looking forward to following this one!
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 2:38pm ET
Thanks for the comments and for reading everyone. I look forward to exploring new topics and more discussions and suggestions ahead.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 2:39pm ET
Thomas, a good question. I haven't given a Zin a 99 or 100 point rating so far, but the wines just keep getting better and better, so who knows.
Dry Creek Vineyard
Healdsburg —  January 26, 2011 2:58pm ET
Great stuff Tim. You've caputured our home region perfectly. I think every winery in the Dry Creek Valley is still family owned - a pretty awesome thing considering the economy these days. Thanks for opening the eyes of your readers to our region.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  January 26, 2011 2:59pm ET
Very nice!
A quick check of the record shows you have rated a zin classic with 95 and 96 points. I haven't had the pleasure, but even in the "old days" I've tasted zins that would be worth 93-94 points, so I have no doubt that someone will come closer to 100 in the future.
Keep up the good work.
Bob Wyckoff
Denver, Colorado  —  January 26, 2011 6:23pm ET
Tim, great article. We started visiting wine country years ago and Dry Creek Valley is our favorite! I'd also recommend Seghesio and Sbragia to anyone wanting to experience great zinfandel and wonderful old families working the tasting room.
Mike Officer
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 6:27pm ET
Congratulations Tim on your first blog post! An excellent start. Dry Creek is where I first fell in love with Zinfandel. Something about those old vines... ;-)

Looking forward to future topics!
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 6:30pm ET
Thanks for reading John, I don't have any doubt either.
Tom J Wilson
Canada —  January 26, 2011 7:10pm ET
Hi Tim;

Thank you for the great info.

Can you point a producer who would like to ship some of his Zin to Canada ??
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 7:22pm ET
Thanks Mike, and from a man who knows his Zins
Carl Lump
East Amwell, NJ —  January 26, 2011 8:14pm ET
Great blog Tim! We've been Zin lovers for many moons and cherish our visits to Dry Creek Valley. Wish more was available here on the east coast but we're managing. Have enjoyed Ed Sbragia's Zins as well as Valdez, Seghesio, Wilson, Rosenblum et al and looking forward to MIke's :-) Cheers!
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 8:17pm ET
Tom, I wish I could help. Canada deserves Zin. I've enjoyed the Canadian wines I've tried. Cheers.
Bob Wyckoff
Denver, Colorado  —  January 26, 2011 8:47pm ET
Tim, great article. We started visiting wine country years ago and Dry Creek Valley is our favorite! I'd also recommend Seghesio and Sbragia to anyone wanting to experience great zinfandel and wonderful old families working the tasting room.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 8:53pm ET
Thanks Carl
Tim Mc Donald
Napa,CA —  January 26, 2011 9:05pm ET
Great comments Tim and really true too. I remember visiting Dry Creek Valley in the early 80s and it was the discovery of that place or ava that got me hooked on the stuff. Great blog and I look forward to more...Hope to see you at the 20th ZAP tasting where I will be looking for anything Dry Creek!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 26, 2011 9:22pm ET
also, the petite sirahs, both as part of field blends and as a stand alone varietal are really exceptional from that neck of the woods. Great start to a blog and I too look forward to your thoughts
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 10:05pm ET
Tim, thanks for the comment. I'll be at ZAP Saturday and look forward to it.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 26, 2011 10:06pm ET
Thanks Andrew. Some of those old field blends are incredible, aren't they?
Jim Holliman
San Diego —  January 27, 2011 1:15am ET
My wife and I enjoyed a 2007 Carlisle Dry Creek Zin tonight to celebrate her birthday (her choice). Carlisle may not be quite the value that you mention in your blog, but it certainly was amazing. Congrats on your new blog.
Gary A Didomenico
Holland, PA, USA —  January 27, 2011 8:24am ET
Great article. I think of Zinfandel as America's wine,
and the Dry Creek Valley as it's epicenter.
Unpretentious, warm and welcoming; our favorites are Mazzocco, Mauritson, Quivira,& Unti.
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  January 27, 2011 2:27pm ET
Welcome aboard tim. Zins are my favorites. Will you blog after you go to ZAP and report on your favorites?
Gail P Potter
Columbus, Ohio —  January 27, 2011 2:43pm ET
some of my favorite Zins some out Dry Creek. Just discovered it maybe early fall..as a new wine drinker, fell in love with it right away...Thanks for the article.
Ken Shey
Las Vegas —  January 30, 2011 3:05pm ET
OK, so this dates me a bit, but in 1985 @ National Wine & Liquor in Miami we were selling a juicy zin blend called Wineburger made by Lytton Springs Winery before Ridge took over. Tremendous value at about $6! Those boys really had their s__t together! Anyone else happen to come across some? Seem to recall it had some petite sirah and grenache in the mix.
John Rider
Mission Viejo, CA —  January 30, 2011 7:08pm ET
great Blog, I find it interesting that you dated the oldest vines at 1869. Scott Harvey makes a Zin from Amador county that's from vines planted in 1869. I would personaly rate it at 96. that reagion was planted at the same time in California history.
David Vanhook
Chapel Hill, NC —  February 29, 2012 11:55am ET
Testing post

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