2009 Dry Creek Vineyard “Heritage” Zinfandel, Sonoma County

Driving through California’s wine country, with its carefully manicured vineyards carpeting huge swaths of the countryside, it’s easy to imagine that people have been growing grapes there for centuries.

Indeed, in many places in Northern California, the first vineyards sprang up in the middle to late 1800’s and a thriving wine industry along with them.

But what most people forget, if they ever knew, is that the California wine industry suffered several decades that were the equivalent to Europe’s Dark Ages. First, 99.9% of the vineyards were wiped out by the Phylloxera epidemic that swept through around the turn of the 20th century, only slightly after it destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards. And then almost as if to add insult to injury, America decided alcohol was evil, and in the fit of madness known as Prohibition, we pretty much put the remaining nail in the coffin of the California wine industry.

All of which was why, when David Stare decided to leave his engineering career behind and explore the wine industry in the early Seventies, there were very few wineries in the area we now know as Dry Creek Valley. The area had grown grapes since the 19th Century, and a handful of wineries sprung up over the years, but only one or two managed to survive past the end of the Second World War.

Stare, who studied engineering at MIT and came out west in the Sixties as an employee of B&O railroad, originally thought that he might move to France and start a winery in the Loire Valley, where he had fallen in love with the wines. But a family friend convinced him that the California wine industry was going to take off, and so he began driving around with his kids looking for a place to buy vineyards.

It takes a special vision (or a mild sense of insanity) to look at a 50-acre prune orchard and see an ideal vineyard where none had been before, but Stare fell in love with Dry Creek Valley, and decided it was where he would create (or so he dreamed) his own little Loire Valley. He doggedly insisted on planting Sauvignon Blanc against the counsel of nearly everyone, including his UC Davis professors (once he decided to dive into winemaking, Stare went back to school to study oenology). And in 1972, Stare launched Dry Creek Vineyard.

Needless to say, Dry Creek Valley is not exactly the climatological equivalent of the Loire Valley. That doesn’t mean, however, that Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t grow, or even thrive there. It just means that what Stare ended up with bears very little resemblance to the source of his inspiration. No matter. The Loire valley will never grow top notch Zinfandel, and notwithstanding the inexorable march of global warming, will never make Bordeaux blends, both of which Dry Creek Vineyards does exceedingly well in addition to the Sauvignon Blanc they have become known for.

There are more than sixty wineries now in the Dry Creek Valley, and probably equally as many from elsewhere making Dry Creek Valley designated wines, and Dry Creek Vineyard recently celebrated its 35th Anniversary as a family-run winery. From the initial few acres of grapes that Stare planted, the estate has grown to more than 200 acres under vine, and is now being run by Stare’s daughter, Kim, and her husband, Don.

Dry Creek Vineyard produces a panoply of wines across various price points, from more mass market bottlings under their Regatta label, to smaller production single vineyard wines. The winery’s distinctive sailboat imagery and logo persist across every bottle, and the nautical theme is taken to its logical conclusion, not only in the names of the wines, but in the winery’s various marketing efforts.

Winemaking has been under the steady hand of Bill Knuttel since 2003, and under his guidance the wines have achieved a new sense of consistency and solidity that is quite commendable — every new set of releases I taste from them keeps getting better. Especially with regards to the single vineyard wines, opening a bottle of Dry Creek Vineyard wine represents a good bet for something tasty in the glass. The winery continues to be the de facto ambassador for the Dry Creek Valley for obvious reasons, and this is a very good thing.

This particular wine, made from a mix of Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley fruit and containing 13% Petite Sirah, was fermented in stainless steel, and then aged in a combination of French and American oak (40% new) for about 10 months before bottling.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry fruit with hints of blueberry. In the mouth, bright blackberry and blueberry fruit have a cool crystalline quality, as bright acidity and stonier, earthy flavors join with leathery tannins. Wonderfully balanced and not overripe, this is a beautifully restrained rendition of the grape. Delicious. 13.5% alcohol.

Food Pairing:
I like to drink my Zinfandels all by themselves or with meaty things, like burgers and short ribs.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $17

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.