There is an ideal of what California wine country is. And, there is one precise area that realizes this ideal for me. When headed north to wine country from San Francisco, enjoy the beautiful skyline and vast oceanic views from the Golden Gate Bridge, but then drive right on by the exit for the Napa Valley. Continue north on the 101, and yep, keep going, pass Sonoma, Petaluma and Santa Rosa until you reach Healdsburg. Exit now for destination Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County.
Dry Creek Valley AVA
This narrow hillsides-to-valley appellation spanning 2 miles in width and 16 miles long, is home to close to 70 wineries, many of which are still family establishments and still happily invite visitors into their world with a genuine appreciation to share it. Zinfandel is king here, with a 140-year history in the valley. But diversity is not lacking. Plenty of other varietals such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are produced to appease a variety of palates.
One finds a generally greater sense of stewardship to the land in the Dry Creek Valley than in some other California wine territories, with many wineries spearheading organic and biodynamic practices. This is understandable on the drive alongside the gentle flowing creek running down the valley. The natural beauty is as pristinely preserved and unspoiled as farmed land could be. Rustic farmhouse-esque buildings are scattered along the valley and the sun shines only the way it can on such pastures whose qualities offer the patina of time gone-by.
This valley is to me an homage to the dreams that have driven many a wine entrepreneur from the days of post-prohibition abandon to the thriving industry of today, to leave behind one way of life and start anew for the promise of a greater harvest ahead.
It couldn’t have been a more perfect mid-February’s day to be cruising along the floor of the Dry Creek Valley, nothing but radiant blue skies and rolling emerald-green hillsides brushed with yellow rows of blooming mustard flowers. The blackened, bare twisted vines dotting the landscape are the only signs that winter has not yet truly passed.
An éclat of pink emits a delicately perfumed aroma that wafts through on a warm breeze as we turn off the two-lane road that serves as the Dry Creek Highway and onto Lytton Springs Road. Driving up into the hills, we’re on the lookout for Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton Springs Estate and Tasting Room.
An institution of truthful, wholesome winemaking, Ridge wines echo the ambitions of post-prohibition renewal in California wine. Combining what they call pre-industrial winemaking techniques (19th century methods), with modern equipment of the least obtrusive nature, their process is summed-up as minimal intervention winemaking.
Touring the cellar at the Lytton Springs facility, it is evident how straightforward the winemaking is here. And upon tasting a barrel sample of the 2014 East Bench Zinfandel, we understood the raison d’être for these minimalist values. The young, fresh wine revealing fruit-packed layers of elegant spiced black cherry left a rare honesty on our palettes.
Praised for its Zins, but also offering Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, even Petite Verdot, some authentic field blends and limited amounts of Chardonnay, Ridge vineyard designates most of their wines in order to yield the truest expressions of place.
Why Ridge is a must taste/must visit when in the Dry Creek Valley…
In my opinion, Ridge is a pinnacle example of how scale, prestige and quality can be perfectly balanced to consistently deliver wines that live up to the ideal of what great wine is. In the many years Ridge has been in operation and expanding in production there have been no sacrifices to core beliefs made, no short cuts taken and no giving into the economic pressures to make more wine at the cost of individuality to supply a mass market segmentation demanding the same exact tasting “product” year upon year, vintage to vintage; only respect for the fact that wine is a dynamic entity and should be allowed to express its origins and cultivation conditions.
My advice is to get yourself some of this. And, there’s no better place to taste than at the point of origin.
Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County
650 Lytton Springs Road Healdsburg, CA 95448
Now venturing across to the other side of the Dry Creek from Lytton Springs, with each turn noted on the directions, we found the roads getting narrower and narrower and the surroundings more and more wooded. And by the final turn, it was down to a one lane pebbled path just wide enough to continue deeper into the densely wooded growth. We felt more like we were forging ahead on a quest to middle earth, rather than to a sun-kissed grape ripening California vineyard. Then suddenly the trees broke, and there we were, right in the center of a quaint amphitheater of vineyards. Pulling up to a small barn inspired structure, we were met with a brilliant smiling, warm and welcoming, Jann Forth.
Jann and her husband, Gerry Forth, are the proprietors and winemakers at Forth Vineyards and have an inspiring story behind their winemaking endeavors. Both coming from former non-wine related careers (non-profit and healthcare, respectively), their story begins with being mere grands admirateurs and drinkers of wine. Finding a heart-stealing piece of land, they decided to take the ultimate risk and change it all to pursue their dream. The type of people who let themselves be rerouted by passion, and whose payoff on risk is our pleasure, these you understand are the Forths as soon as you taste one of their wines.
Sitting on a moss stone patio overlooking Rebecca’s vineyard, named after their daughter and one of the parcels that the Forths care for to produce Cabernet fruit, the sun lingers still only on the face of its slope. The rest of the parcels below are already in the shadow of the opposing hillside. It is beautiful and peaceful unlike any other vineyard I’ve known.
As we sit, Jann recounts the story of their wines and how they came to be. She offers a selection of wines to taste and uncovers a plate of small treasures in the form of Gougères, pastry cheese puffs traditionally made with Gruyère cheese. Her hospitality, generosity and passion are reflected back in their wines.
Among a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, a fruitful, spicy Sangiovese and their thoughtful, All Boys Cabernet Sauvignon, I am always amply contented with a glass of Forth in hand. One Forth wine that has particularly charmed me is their Histoire (meaning ‘story’ in French) Cabernet Sauvignon, a beautifully berried packed, balanced and structured Cab that with each vintage comes a new “chapter.”
Forth is limited production. This only adds to its wonderfulness because the best way to get this stuff is straight from the source (always better when it comes to the obtainment of this living specimen we call wine). They only distribute in a handful of states. So, your best bet is ordering directly from their website.
Better yet, sign-up for their wine club for regular enjoyment and additional perks exclusive for members (such as private tastings with Jann & Gerry). However, if you happen to be in the Denver area, I do know you can pick-up a few Forth wines at Joy Wine & Spirits on 6th Ave and Marion St. I just suggest giving these wines a taste, anyway you can get it.
After experiencing both the steadfast quality institution of Ridge Vineyards and the passionate entrepreneurialism at Forth Vineyards, it was time to check out what’s happening in, one might say, the new hip wine scene. We’re headed just down the valley to Healdsburg.
A charming wine country town that’s kept the snootiness at bay (best it could), which has been spreading at a rapid pace up from the Napa Valley for years now, Healdsburg is my kind of place. You’ll find great little places to eat, interesting local shops and people, and just off the main square, a trendy little tasting room, Banshee.
A tastefully, trendily decorated tasting room, Banshee resides in a traditional store front on Center Street with large glass windows that flood the room with Cali sun. You’ll likely enjoy vintage vinyl tunes being played on their turntable sound system while you sit and taste through a flight with a designated staff member.
From delicately perfumed Pinots, to interesting red blends and even a wild Jura style Chardonnay, Banshee does it a bit different. Sourcing fruit all over the great California wine frontier, they find overlooked-gems from Sonoma to Napa, the Dry Creek to the Alexander Valley and more. It works out very well for us consumers, with a cornucopia of different sources blended under one quality label. It’s a great stop on a wine tasting tour through the Dry Creek Valley.
Banshee Tasting Room
325 Center Street, Healdsburg, CA
Though these are just three of many producers located in the Dry Creek Valley growing and vinting, sourcing and blending in their own unique ways, they each bring a distinct spirit to this small sub-region of storybook California wine country as it is today, and as we wish it to be preserved.
Visit, savor and respect, my friends.
Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley: www.drycreekvalley.org