DIS­COVER DRY CREEK VAL­LEY

San Francisco Chronicle - - TRAVEL SONOMA COUNTY - Es­ther Mobley is The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle’s wine, beer and spir­its writer. Email: emob­[email protected] sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @Es­ther_­mob­ley In­sta­gram:@es­ther­mob

A trek through north­ern Sonoma County is a study in mi­cro­cli­mates. One mo­ment, you’re en­gulfed in a veil of fog on West­side Road, and the next you emerge into Dry Creek Val­ley’s re­lent­less sun. A few hun­dred yards in Healds­burg can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween Pinot Noir coun­try and Zin­fan­del coun­try.

While Rus­sian River Pinot, and West­side Road, claim much of Healds­burg’s wine­tourism glory, Dry Creek Val­ley’s di­verse tin­ker­ings with Zin­fan­del, Caber­net, Sauvi­gnon Blanc — not to men­tion some com­pelling plant­ings of Cin­sault, Mon­tepul­ciano, Rous­sanne and Mourve­dre — of­fer a more laid-back, and pos­si­bly more ex­cit­ing, route for the Wine Coun­try vis­i­tor.

Tiny by Amer­i­can Viti­cul­tural Area (AVA) stan­dards, Dry Creek Val­ley is longer (16 miles) than it is wide (2 miles), bi­sect­ing both the Rus­sian River and Lake Sonoma. Dry Creek Road, run­ning par­al­lel to the epony­mous creek, is the main thor­ough­fare con­nect­ing this area’s winer­ies to down­town Healds­burg.

But if you cross over the creek at Lam­bert or Yoakim bridges, you’ll find your­self on West Dry Creek Road, where the speed lim­its are slower, and the turns more wind­ing. You’re more likely to en­counter bi­cy­cle traf­fic than tour-bus traf­fic. Vir­tu­ally all winer­ies are open with­out ap­point­ments. It’s a re­minder that not all of Wine Coun­try has been mined for $50 tast­ing fees.

I’d be re­miss to di­rect you to West Dry Creek with­out im­plor­ing you to stop at the Dry Creek Gen­eral Store: for a cof­fee and blue­berry scone in the morn­ing, a sand­wich at lunchtime or a beer at the end of the day. Over­priced Sonoma County mem­o­ra­bilia not­with­stand­ing, the store of­fers a palette of lo­cal col­ors not likely to be glimpsed in the bou­tiques or bistros of down­town Healds­burg. It’s clas­sic Dry Creek.

Pre­ston Farm & Win­ery

Down a bumpy road off the al­ready-bumpy West Dry Creek Road is Pre­ston, 125 ver­dant acres of vine­yards, other crops and an­i­mals. Lou and Su­san Pre­ston have made their liv­ing off this land since the 1970s, and it’s hard to imag­ine a more bu­colic set­ting. The tast­ing room is ca­sual, de­signed for stand­ing at the bar or grab­bing a glass (or bot­tle) to bring out­side. There are bocce courts and pic­nic ta­bles, so plan ac­cord­ingly. A farm store next to the tast­ing room sells pro­duce and meat from the farm; you could do worse than a loaf of Pre­ston’s sour­dough and olive oil,

though the oil ($45/500 ml) doesn’t come cheap.

A chalk­board be­hind the tast­ing bar de­notes the wine se­lec­tions. Be sure to try the Madam Pre­ston ($30/bot­tle), one of the win­ery’s best­known of­fer­ings; the Viog­nier-dom­i­nant, white Rhon­estyle blend is creamy and deca­dent, tast­ing of can­taloupe and hazel­nuts. When it’s avail­able, taste the win­ery’s Vin Gris ($26), a rosé of Cin­sault and Mourve­dre that’s del­i­cate and spice driven. Then move on to the flo­ral Carig­nane ($36), the chalky, el­e­gant Zin­fan­del ($36) and the gamey, slightly funky Syrah ($36).

9282 W. Dry Creek Road, Healds­burg (707) 433-3372, www.pre­ston­vine­yards.com. Open 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily, with­out an ap­point­ment. Tast­ing fee $10.

Lam­bert Bridge Win­ery

It may look unas­sum­ing from the road, but Lam­bert Bridge Win­ery is strik­ing in­side. High ceil­ings and red­wood pan­el­ing re­call a sort of lux­u­ri­ous moun­tain lodge. Be­cause it puts no wine into dis­tri­bu­tion, the win­ery is a bit of a sleeper: You won’t have seen Lam­bert Bridge in wine shops, nor in many restau­rants. Which means that the tast­ing room is its pub­lic face, and the charm­ing wines are worth dis­cov­er­ing here.

Over­all, the wines are made in a pol­ished, el­e­gant style; ab­sent are the rough-hewn, rus­tic tan­nin struc­ture com­mon in many Dry Creek Val­ley reds. The fo­cus is less on Zin than on Bor­deaux va­ri­eties, and you’ll have the op­por­tu­nity to taste va­ri­etal Mal­bec and Pe­tite Ver­dot, sel­dom bot­tled on their own. Lam­bert Bridge’s are also among the pricier wines in this area, with some edg­ing north of $100 a bot­tle.

But the tast­ing flights avail­able at the bar, with­out an ap­point­ment, rep­re­sent good value. (Seated tast­ings, some of which in­clude snacks, are avail­able by ap­point­ment for $35-$50 per per­son.) The $15 flight of­fers an ex­cel­lent, sa­vory Zin­fan­del ($50) and a dense, choco­laty Pe­tite Si­rah ($55). For $25, your flight will in­clude the flo­ral Viog­nier ($52) a juicy Mer­lot ($60) and the he­do­nis­tic flag­ship, the Crane Creek Cu­vee ($110).

4085 W. Dry Creek Road, Healds­burg (707) 431-9600, www.lam­bert­bridge.com. Open 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily with­out an ap­point­ment. Tast­ing fees $15 to $25.

A. Rafanelli Win­ery

One of the old­est winer­ies in Dry Creek, A. Rafanelli is also some­thing of an anom­aly — the only win­ery on this stretch of West Dry Creek re­quir­ing an ap­point­ment, the most highly al­lo­cated, and on the ex­pen­sive end of the re­gion’s spec­trum. When you make an ap­point­ment (and you must call — they don’t do email), they’ll give you a gate code. It’s al­most enough to make you feel like you’re in Napa.

But the whole af­fair turns out to be com­pletely un­pre­ten­tious, in the way of West Dry Creek. Tast­ings are held stand­ing, in the bar­rel room, not pri­vately. You’ll taste only two wines, Zin­fan­del ($42) and Mer­lot ($38). They make a Caber­net ($55) too, but claimed not to have enough bot­tles left of the cur­rent vin­tage to taste it. A Bordeauxstyle blend ($46), ap­par­ently also in short sup­ply, was like­wise un­avail­able for tast­ing. If you’d like to see the rest of the win­ery, a staff mem­ber will hap­pily take you on a quick tour; if not, you can just taste the two and jet. The re­sult is a tast­ing that feels easy, quick and pleas­ant, not some­thing to oc­cupy your en­tire af­ter­noon. And de­spite the fact that A. Rafanelli is one of the few Dry Creek pro­duc­ers with a wine that costs more than $100, there’s no tast­ing fee. Go fig­ure.

4685 W. Dry Creek Road, Healds­burg (707) 433-1385, www.arafanel­li­win­ery.com. Open daily, times flex­i­ble, by ap­point­ment. Tast­ings com­pli­men­tary.

Quivira Vine­yards

Bio­dy­namic farm­ing is the fo­cus at Quivira, which has 93

acres of vine­yards around Dry Creek. The es­tate is lush and ex­u­ber­ant, prac­ti­cally hum­ming with fe­cun­dity. Gar­dens, ponds, bee­hives, pigs — it’s enough to tempt you to drink the Ru­dolf Steiner Kool-Aid.

If that sounds ap­peal­ing, you might call ahead to sched­ule a tour of the es­tate ($25, tak­ing just over an hour). But walk-in vis­i­tors to Quivira can take a self-guided tour around the gar­dens and in­tro­duce them­selves to the swine and chick­ens, af­ter a flight at the tast­ing bar. A Rhone-cen­tric flight is $15 and in­cludes wines like Viog­nier, Gre­nache and Syrah. It’s a good op­tion if you’ve had enough Dry Creek Zin­fan­del, al­ready, though Quivira’s “Clas­sic Dry Creek Val­ley” flight ($25) show­cases the best of what it does. Its Fig Tree Sauvi­gnon Blanc ($24) — so named for the 140-year-old fig tree on the prop­erty — is peren­ni­ally one of the finest in Sonoma County, zippy and marked by ver­bena and lemon­grass fla­vors. Zin­fan­del of­fer­ings ($42-$48) range from el­e­gant to jammy; pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to the Katz Vine­yard bot­tling, from cen­tury-old vines.

4900 W. Dry Creek Road, Healds­burg (707) 431-8333, www.quivi­raw­ine.com. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, with­out an ap­point­ment. Tast­ing fees $15$25.

Mar­torana Fam­ily Win­ery

“Help! Wines trapped in bot­tle, need res­cu­ing” reads a hand­writ­ten sign in the drive­way of Mar­torana Fam­ily Win­ery. Few winer­ies ex­ude West Dry Creek’s homey al­lure more charm­ingly than Mar­torana. The es­tate’s or­ganic vine­yards dwarf the mod­est win­ery, whose tast­ing room is un­der­ground in the cel­lar. A chalk­board be­hind a tast­ing bar lists the day’s of­fer­ings.

The Mar­toranas, who have been farm­ing 35 acres of or­ganic vine­yards here for 30 years, in 2005 be­gan mak­ing wine them­selves. It still feels like a home­spun op­er­a­tion, in the best way. Si­dle up to the bar, and a friendly at­ten­dant will take you through a gen­er­ously por­tioned flight of six wines. All from their es­tate, the lineup in­cludes leath­ery Zin­fan­del ($36), rus­tic Mer­lot ($34) and sub­tle, un­der­stated Chardon­nay ($28). Make sure to try the round, crisp Sauvi­gnon Blanc ($24), but the best wine on of­fer is the el­e­gant, dried-herb-in­flected Caber­net Sauvi­gnon ($48). Friendly ser­vice is priv­i­leged over in-depth wine dis­cus­sion. No one will make you worry that you didn’t ask enough ques­tions about the oak bar­rel treat­ment or that you may have mis­pro­nounced “mal­o­lac­tic.”

You can taste in­side, or grab a bot­tle and wan­der out back to the bocce courts and pic­nic ta­bles. This is one of just two winer­ies with di­rect ac­cess to Dry Creek, so take ad­van­tage of that and walk down to the banks. The es­tate also pro­duces ex­cel­lent olive oil, though it’s not quite as at­trac­tively priced as its

wines.

5956 W. Dry Creek Road, Healds­burg. (707) 433-1909, www.mar­toranafam­i­ly­win­ery.com. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, no ap­point­ment nec­es­sary. Tast­ing fee $10.

Yoakim Bridge Vine­yards & Win­ery

An over­whelm­ing sense of cute­ness may ac­cost you at Yoakim Bridge, as it did me, to the ex­tent that by the end of a visit with pro­pri­etors David Cooper and Vir­ginia Mor­gan, you may have per­suaded your­self to move to Sonoma County and buy a vine­yard. The cou­ple met in mid­dle life, in culi­nary school in San Fran­cisco, and af­ter­ward bought a small, 40-yearold, head-trained Zin­fan­del vine­yard here, which is the foun­da­tion of their 2,500-case win­ery.

Cooper is the wine­maker, Mor­gan the book­keeper — and that’s it. “Some­times, with my shoul­der, I have some­one come in to help me with punch­downs,” Cooper ad­mits when asked how he can do all the wine­mak­ing by him­self. The two staff the tast­ing room, too, which is why they’re open only Fri­day through Sun­day. All vis­i­tors get a meat­ball, la­dled from a slow-cooker perched be­hind the tast­ing bar. The meat­balls are store bought, but the sauce — a tasty Zin­fan­del re­duc­tion — is Mor­gan’s.

The wines are sound and of­ten rus­tic: pow­er­ful Zin­fan­del from their es­tate ($40-$42), sweet-fruited Mer­lot ($42), dense Pe­tite Si­rah ($46, and mys­te­ri­ously mis­spelled on the la­bel as Pe­tite Syrah). For all of Yoakim Bridge’s home­spun ap­peal, the tast­ing room feels supremely com­fort­able. (That’s to say noth­ing of Mor­gan and Cooper’s home, ad­ja­cent to the tast­ing room, a gor­geous ren­o­va­tion of an old farm­house.) You’ll de­part happy, and pos­si­bly with a jar of meat­ball sauce.

7209 Dry Creek Road, Healds­burg, (707) 433-8511, www.yoakim­bridge.com. Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Fri­day-Sun­day, with­out an ap­point­ment. Tast­ing fee $10.

Bella Vine­yards & Wine Caves

If sub­ter­ranean grot­toes thrill you, vis­it­ing Bella will

be an easy sell. The main at­trac­tion of this win­ery, founded in 1996 by Scott and Lynn Adams, is its caves. Built in 2002, th­ese caves are not quite the spe­lunker won­ders that you might find in Napa Val­ley at places like Jarvis or An­tica, but they nev­er­the­less breathe that quin­tes­sen­tial Wine Coun­try cave charm, ap­par­ently more pop­u­lar than ever. And un­like its coun­ter­parts to the east, Bella’s caves are ac­ces­si­ble with­out an ap­point­ment.

Belly up to the tast­ing bar in­side the cave, and you’ll taste, for ex­am­ple, a briny Santa Lu­cia High­lands Chardon­nay ($30); the pleas­ing, if ba­sic, Sonoma County Zin­fan­del ($20); a rus­tic Pe­tite Si­rah ($38); and the Lily Hill Zin­fan­del ($45), punchy and san­guine, from the es­tate’s 85-year-old vines. If you like late-har­vest Zin­fan­del, you’ll en­joy Bella’s ($25), and they’ll of­fer you a dark choco­late peanut but­ter cup to ac­com­pany it. Out­side is a nice lawn for pic­nics, but be­ware of yel­low jack­ets, es­pe­cially if you’ve got a glass of the late har­vest.

9711 W. Dry Creek Road, Healds­burg, (707) 473-9171 www.bellaw­in­ery.com. Open 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily with­out an ap­point­ment. Tast­ing fee $10.

101 BELLA PRE­STON YOAKIM BRIDGE D r y Cr E K R D . E MAR­TORANA QUIVIRA 0 1 MILE A. RAFANELLI LAM­BERT BRIDGE

Pre­ston Gan­n­away / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Lou Pre­ston of Healds­burg’s Pre­ston Farm & Win­ery, which is 45 years old.

James Ten­suan / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Clock­wise from top left: Quivira Vine­yards fo­cuses on bio­dy­namic farm­ing. A. Rafanelli is the only win­ery on this stretch of West Dry Creek Road re­quir­ing an ap­point­ment. Bella Vine­yards’ tast­ing room is in a cave; cus­tomers sam­ple wine from a bar­rel...

Kim Car­roll / A. Rafanelli Win­ery

James Ten­suan / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

James Ten­suan / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

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