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Visiting Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley

Visiting Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley

Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is one of the gems of San Francisco’s Wine Country. Only its distance from the city prevents it from being overwhelmed with visitors. It takes a minimum of an hour and a half from the Golden Gate Bridge to travel north to the Dry Creek exit of Route 101, just past downtown Healdsburg. Turn left and very quickly you’ll see the valley unfold before you, a remarkably pretty place with a broad floor, carpeted with grapevines, rimmed by lush hillsides that shield the valley from the cool and damp that could encroach upon it from two directions.

To the east, the Russian River brings the cool moisture of the mountains through Alexander Valley, renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But the river passes through Healdsburg and just south of the Valley then turns following the Russian River Valley, to the sea. To the west, the Pacific Ocean pours cool fog up the Russian River like water dumped into a funnel, coating the hillsides and producing wonderful conditions for their famous Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

As a result, Dry Creek Valley, nestled behind its hills, enjoys a steady warmth that is wonderful for both grapes and people. During the North Bay’s cool and wet winter that fringes the mountains to the north with snow, Dry Creek is a warm and dry haven. During the Spring, its location protects it from the blustery winds that come off both the Bay and Ocean. The conditions are ideal for that most Californian of grape varietals, Zinfandel.

Of the three nearby valleys, Alexander, Russian River and Dry Creek, it is by far the smallest, most intimate in its feel. Many things can damage grapes; temperature spikes that turn grapes into useless raisins, untimely rains that wash pollen off of flowers, burst delicate skins or promote flavor-tainting molds, high winds that can shut down the ripening and of course there is always frost. While many varieties of grapes are grown on the ten thousand acres of vineyards of the Valley, the tightly packed, thin-skinned bunches of Zinfandel especially appreciate this protection and produce some of the best examples found anywhere.

The Valley is planted here and there with twisted old Zinfandel vines and other red varietals left over from prohibition when the demands of home-winemakers across the country boosted the prices and tripled the production of wine grapes in Sonoma. There are plenty of newer vineyards of the other popular varietals throughout the valley so the winemakers have a variety of wines to offer. Even though they can buy grapes from throughout Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino the Valley provides most of what they need.

Most Dry Creek wineries have small wine lists because they are small wineries. The people pouring for you may be the owners or winemakers and their home is often next door. They employ local folks who know the area, the wines and the stories. Dry Creek is quieter than southern Sonoma and Napa so they have more time to talk with visitors and pour another taste. There are few other places where the wineries are so convenient to each other or so consistently friendly and charming.

To most easily visit Dry Creek, plan to stay in Healdsburg. From central Sonoma and Northern Napa it is also convenient. From San Francisco it’s a day trip but worth the ride. Just get an early start and either have a designated driver or hire a car and driver. Plan on picnicking because there are no restaurants in the Valley, just the Dry Creek Store where you can pick up delicious sandwiches to eat outside at their picnic tables or take to a nearby winery. As you follow Dry Creek Road up into the Valley you’ll see the store at the first real intersection.

From the front porch of the Dry Creek Store you’ll see the intersecting Lambert Bridge Road, and down that road you’ll see two wineries facing each other, Dry Creek Vineyard and Passalacqua Winery. Both have nice picnic areas. Dry Creek Vineyard was one of the first modern wineries to open in the Valley in the 1970’s and they have the plaques and awards to prove it. It is a relaxed and friendly place to taste some good wine. The Passalacqua family has been making wine in this region for generations even though this winery is relatively new. They’ve won awards for their great location and winery experience and the wines themselves are exceptional, sophisticated and complex.

Four miles north on Dry Creek Road is the jewel of Dry Creek Valley, Ferrari-Carano, and the largest of the Valley wineries. With its stunning gardens and gorgeous buildings, there are enough reasons to visit them, but the quality and variety of their wine seals the deal. Make sure you step off the main path and visit the garden behind the hedge wall, a beautifully designed water and specimen creation that was orchestrated by the Carano family. Their upstairs tasting room offers views of their gardens and the Valley beyond and it makes you wish that picnicking was permitted. Downstairs, next to their famous caves, they also have the Enoteca, where you can taste very small production wines available only at the winery.

Two and a half miles south of Ferrari-Carano is a collection of wineries at the Timber Crest Farms. They include Family Wineries of Dry Creek (a collective), Papapietro, Amphora, Kokomo, Peterson and as a bonus Dry Creek Olive Oil Company. In contrast to Ferrari-Carano’s European style, this is home-town Dry Creek where the owners pour for you and the tanks and barrels filled with next year’s wines are behind the tasting bar. This is a great place to do some tasting and shopping.

The only time when the Valley is overwhelmed with visitors is during the Barrel Tasting Weekend and later the Passport Weekend, when you can purchase a glass and visit as many wineries as you can fit in. It is a traveling feast of barbeque, music and great wine. The Valley is filled with limousines and vans ferrying people around since traveling from winery to winery with friends and family, and not having to worry about driving or parking, is a joy onto itself.