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Dry Creek Valley

Dry Creek Valley is just 15 miles long and about 2 miles wide; Manhattan would be nearly an exact fit. Farming and viticulture extend back to the 19th century, when Italian immigrants planted fruits and vegetables for market and grapes for their own table. Extraordinary zinfandel, with satiny textures and ripe raspberry flavors, was the star of the valley then, as it is now.
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Dry Creek Valley

A Discrete Place

by Michele Anna Jordan

     Dry Creek Valley CA stretches northwest, a long, elegant finger of land, for about thirteen and a half miles from southern Healdsburg to Warm Springs Dam.  At its widest, it is just three miles across; most of the valley is narrower.  The Dry Creek Valley American Viticultural Area, or AVA, encompasses 80,000 acres, or 125 square miles (including the valley’s 23 square miles), embracing nearly all of Lake Sonoma and much of the wilderness surrounding it.   At last count, there were nearly three dozen wineries, more than 250 vineyards, several orchards, and a handful of lush market gardens.

     At 13 1/2 miles long and about 2 1/4 miles wide, the island of Manhattan could nestle snuggly into Dry Creek Valley, nearly an exact fit.  And there are more similarities than mere size and shape between these two remarkable pieces of land.  Dry Creek Valley and Manhattan are defined by natural features rather than geopolitical boundaries, both enjoy rich histories and seemingly boundless possibilities, and their official borders--of the AVA and of New York City, respectively--reach far beyond their discreet geographic boundaries. 

     Perhaps the most appealing quality of New York is that no matter how much time or money or effort you give, it will not yield all of its secrets, not ever.  Dry Creek Valley strikes me as similar, as a place you could spend a lifetime studying and still not fully comprehend its intricate tapestry of influences.   Within its boundaries, there are scores of microclimates, dozens of soils, and fingerprints of countless individuals, some identified, some not, who have shaped the valley’s agricultural, viticultural, and social character. 

     The first pioneers came to Dry Creek as farmers, not winemakers.  Over the last century and a half,  the valley’s crops have included wheat, hay, beans, apricots, prunes, peaches, strawberries, apples, pears, Asian pears, olives, herbs, and vegetables, in addition to countless varieties of wine grapes.  Today, there’s a fish hatchery at the northern end of the valley, and what is arguably California’s finest olive oil, DaVero, is made from olives grown near the southern edge of the AVA.   Here and there you’ll find old earthen ovens, remnants of the period from 1900 to 1920 when Italian immigrants reigned in the valley.  Several species of bats nest in old barns and woodlands; herons and egrets stalk their prey; foxes, skunks, and wild boar scurry through the underbrush, and the occasional curious Emu wanders into a neighbor’s vineyard.

Old-vine Zinfandel

     The star of Dry Creek is no secret; zinfandel began to emerge as the sweetheart of the valley more than a century ago.  Today, it remains the grape that struts and preens in this environment.  Rich Thomas, viticultural instructor at SRJC, is fond of telling his students that God made one place on earth for zinfandel.  It’s Dry Creek Valley, he says.

     “It is bright raspberry fruit that comes to mind as definitive of Dry Creek zinfandel,” Phyllis Zouzounis of Mazzocco WineryShow on map explains, “It is delicate, not like the monster zinfandels from Alexander ValleyShow on map or Amador County.”Although Dry Creek is a warm inland valley, marine influences that enter from the southern portion where Dry Creek empties into the Russian River keep nights cool, which in turn allows fruit to develop flavors slowly, before sugar levels, which increase more rapidly in hot weather, spike.

     By the 1860s, zinfandel was gaining both recognition and acreage in California. Regional publications acknowledged the outstanding zinfandels from Dry Creek as early as the 1880s.  And it was understood even then, when zinfandel was so new to this soil, that it was the cool nights and coastal breezes that fostered those characteristic raspberry flavors.

     The rapid emergence of winemaking as a premier endeavor in Dry Creek Valley may have been unintentional. 

     “You planted grapes because you wanted to have wine to drink,” Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards and Winery explains about the valley’s early years.   “You didn’t put your vines on your best plots, you saved those for your cash crops and you planted your vines elsewhere.  Elsewhere--the hillside benches, with their red clay soils--turned out to be very good for grapes.” 

     Yet wine made for the farmers’ own tables soon grew into a thriving industry.  By the time Prohibition became the law of the land, there were 17 wineries and dozens of vineyards in Dry Creek Valley.  But the effects of both Prohibition and the continued taxation of the inventories vintners were not allowed to sell were devastating.  Once Prohibition was repealed, only seven of Dry Creek Valley’s original wineries reopened. 

     It wasn’t until the 1970s that Dry Creek emerged from the quiet period that followed Prohibition and the Great Depression.  There were several vineyards and a few wineries during the sleepy years, but then in the early 1970s, the modern boom began.  And although it was not zinfandel that received the initial attention, it wasn’t long before those old vines captured the imaginations of a new generation of farmers and vintners.

     Since the 1960s, the University of California at Davis has been promoting a new and improved zinfandel, grapevines valued for their resistance to disease and the large crops they yield.  But these Davis vines do not make superior wine, Duff Bevell, vineyard manager at Dry Creek VineyardShow on maps for the last 24 years, explains.  
“If your neighbor had a vineyard that made good wine you’d go get some wood from him,” Bevell says, explaining the casual way vineyards were propagated before UC Davis got into the picture.  Bevell began studying old vine zinfandel from a single vineyard that was producing as early as the 1930s and possibly earlier.  He has monitored it closely as he has propagated it; everywhere he’s planted it, this old clone has produced great wine.

     Other varietals certainly thrive in Dry Creek Valley.  Cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay threaten to overtake zinfandel in acreage, and substantial plantings of merlot, sauvignon blanc, and several Rhone varietals are among the other grapes grown here.  Yet the most prized remains zinfandel.  Old-vine zinfandel was honored recently as one of the Slow Food movements Ark Products, a program that recognizes hand-crafted products of limited production, regional distinction, and superior quality.

Good Peaches

     If there is one other crop that expresses the superior character of Dry Creek Valley fruit, it must be the succulent peaches of Dry Creek Peach and ProduceShow on map

In 1990, Steve and Johanna Moore purchased an orchard on Yoakim Bridge Road that had been neglected for years. 

     “I grew peaches because they were here when we bought the land,” Steve Monroe, who was a dentist in Santa Rosa before he turned to farming, explains.  They added about 300 trees to the existing three acres of orchard, and now harvest about 20 varieties of yellow peaches and 10 varieties of white peaches from 700 trees.  Initially, they grew a lot of row crops, too, but as the Monroes have witnessed the remarkable quality of their peaches, they have added trees.   The farm is now about 90 percent orchard, though you’ll find their Ambrosia and Crenshaw melons, Celebrity tomatoes, Walla Walla onions, and Sweet Hungarian peppers alongside their peaches at local farmers markets.

     Monroe believes it is the same environmental factors that produce great grapes that influence his peaches.  “I think the cooler nights intensify the flavors . . .  when nights are hot, sugar spikes too fast, before flavors develop; cooler nights allow slower development of flavor.  Dry Creek Valley peaches are more intensely flavorful than those grown in the Central Valley.”

Diversity and Passion

     “Dry Creek is about passion,” Lou Preston is fond of saying, a quality Preston himself expresses through a multitude of pursuits.  He’s been curing olives for years from trees on his property--currently for personal use; soon, perhaps, commercially--and makes olive oil from the six Italian oil varieties he grows.  He’s considering the possibility of making a pepper sauce, somewhere between Tabasco and Bustelo’s, Preston says, using chiles from the large vegetable garden that flourishes next to the winery’s bocce ball courts.

     Although Preston’s wines are considered very good--I’m particularly fond of Preston Faux, a red Rhone-style wine, and Preston Zinfandel--it may be the bread Preston himself has been baking for a decade that has garnered the most praise.  The winery recently added a bakery with a large wood-burning brick oven, and the reputation of the bread grows as more people discover it.  I have never had better bread.

     Preston uses a sourdough starter he made eight years ago with wild yeast harvested from his century-old zinfandel vines.  It is less sour than many starters, and it is full of good flavors. 

     “Wild yeast means slower, cooler fermentation, which allows for better flavor development and extraction in wine.  The same is true with bread,” Preston explains.  “And starters adopt the characteristics of their growing environment--my starter will remain a Dry Creek Valley starter as long as it stays here.”

     Currently Preston has no plans to grow his own wheat, though as he answers my question I can almost hear the wheels turning.  “There’s an ailing plot of  sauvignon blanc in need of replanting because of phylloxera,” he muses, “and if the land were to lay fallow for a few years I wouldn’t need to fumigate it . . . perhaps I could grow wheat for a while.”

The Future

     Although Dry Creek Valley is a small, discreet place with most of its farmland concentrated on the valley floor and surrounding hillside benchlands, it is too diverse to describe it all in a single article.  Yet much of it is accessible.  You’ll find produce from Green Man Farms and Carrot Top Farms at the  Healdsburg farmers market.  Timber Crest Farms, where the energetic Ruth Waltenspiel has presided over a booming dried fruit and dried tomato industry for decades, is open every day but Sunday.

     Most of the wineries are open at least some of the time, though if you want to savor the true nature of the valley, you must remember to search out those wines made from the valley’s own grapes, such as the zinfandels of A. Rafanelli, Nalle, Preston, Teldeschi, Seghesio, and Quivira.  The Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg includes several oral histories, transcribed and bound, among the shelves.  If you can, talk to the old-timers of the valley, get them to tell you their stories; it is the farmers that make any agricultural place, including Dry Creek Valley, what it is. 

     What it will become is another matter.  Dry Creek faces tremendous challenges in the coming years.    Some members of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley worry that there will be a shift of focus from the vineyards of Dry Creek to its tasting rooms, where the wine poured might be from grapes grown anywhere at all.  Others envision busloads of tourists, and worry that the valley soon will become another Napa, with its single thoroughfare jammed with bumper to bumper traffic nearly year-round. 

     The general feeling among members of the Winegrowers association is that this would not be a good future for Dry Creek Valley.  In fact it may not be inevitable.  A general plan put in place in the 1970s holds development in check to some degree, though admittedly there are ways to get around it.   Are the few large visitor centers heralds of things to come, or will they remain an anomaly in a region that stays largely agricultural, rural, and sparsely developed?  Will trophy houses and starter castles continue to sprout on what was so recently fertile farmland?  Will the farmland itself thrive?  No one knows for sure.

     “There’s a lot of energy in Dry Creek Valley right now,” Lou Preston says.  Exactly what that energy will bring is not yet known, but the scores of people who love Dry Creek Valley seem determined to preserve its rural character.

Dry Creek Valley Map

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Dry Creek Valley CA Pictures

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Peterson Vineyards

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Dry Creek CA

Quivera Vineyards in Dry Creek CA

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Wilson Winery Patio

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Ferrari Carano Winery

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Old Vine Zin at Nalle Winery