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Wine Is the Language of Dry Creek Valley

August 29, 1996|MATT KRAMER

"Bacchus loves the hills," wrote Virgil in one of his poems about rural life. But the ancient Roman might have drawn a different conclusion about the wine god's taste if he'd spent any time in California. Some of the state's best wines come from valleys. Some of the valleys--Napa springs immediately to mind--are famous. Others, such as Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, are not.

Dry Creek Valley can hardly be said to be unknown, however. Ask any Zinfandel fan about who makes the best Zins, and it's a safe bet that a Dry Creek Valley winery like Rafanelli or Nalle will be on the list. Zinfandel does well in many parts of the state, but Dry Creek Valley is one of its high spots.

That alone would put the valley on the wine map. But wait, as a late-night commercial would say--there's more: Sauvignon Blanc, Barbera, Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. And still there's more. Altogether at least two dozen grape varieties are grown in Dry Creek Valley.

This may not seem impressive until you see the place. It's a miniature of a wine valley--just 15 miles long, two miles wide at its broadest--with only two roads. Dry Creek Road carries most of the traffic; West Dry Creek Road, more constricted and twisting, sees only a trickle of traffic. Between them runs Dry Creek itself, along which nearly all the grapevines are planted.

Unlike Napa Valley, it offers no showplace wineries to gawk at. Dry Creek Valley was settled in the late 1800s, mostly by Italians. It's a fine place to farm, but you weren't going to get rich in a place called Dry Creek.

The essential modesty of Dry Creek Valley is probably a function of the landscape. There are only 6,000 vines, planted cheek by jowl. Nearby Alexander Valley, half again longer and half again wider than Dry Creek Valley, has only 1,000 more vineyard acres.

The narrow valley is pocketed between two ridges. (Big Ridge, to the west, seals it from the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean, only 20 miles southwest as the crow flies, giving it a warm climate.) The farther up the valley you go, the narrower it gets. Eventually you reach a pinch point, where you have no choice but to back up and head out the way you came in.

This narrowness must have affected the worldview of its original settlers. Dry Creek Valley is on the way to nowhere. In a different, older, country, its isolation would have given rise to a local dialect.

And in a sense it has. Zinfandel might be said to be Dry Creek's dialect. The original Italian settlers planted it from the start, along with Petite Sirah and a bunch of Italian reds.

Since the Dry Creek Valley name never had luster, it was bypassed by the big money that pursued first Sonoma and later Napa. Oldtime wineries like Pedroncelli simply kept growing what they'd inherited from their parents, content with a local market and a modest price. Things kept on this way well into the early '80s.

What is the Dry Creek Valley style? A good example is given by A. Rafanelli Winery, which specializes in Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, producing about 8,000 cases a year.

Rafanelli's Zinfandel ($15.50) shows Dry Creek's way with this wine. All characteristic Dry Creek Zins display a dense, even slightly austere fruit that opens up slowly to reveal powerful whiffs of tar and, occasionally, a slight metallic taste. They lack the exuberant, Pinot Noir-like lightness of Zinfandels grown even as near as the Russian River Valley. Dry Creek Zin is stern stuff, to the delight of its many fans. Rafanelli's Zins are benchmarks. His Cabernet ($18) is equally dense, with significant character.

Equally compelling--and well-known--are the Zins and Cabernets from Nalle (pronounced nahl) Winery. Doug Nalle's tiny 2,500-case operation has made an outsize mark on the local wine scene, using purchased grapes from old vines. Nalle's Zinfandel ($20), especially, is pure Dry Creek: dark, dense and filled with that classic scent of tar intermingled with raspberry. Nalle's polished wines also have a noticeable, though not excessive, dose of oak.

Other wineries deserve mention. Quivira Vineyards consistently excels at Sauvignon Blanc. Preston Vineyards deftly handles Rho^ne varieties such as Syrah, Viognier and Marsanne, as well making as a promising Barbera.

Although Dry Creek Valley has fewer than two dozen wineries, it does have two rising stars. They couldn't be more different: E.&J. Gallo Winery and David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery.

Gallo, having bought grapes from Dry Creek's 625-acre Frei Ranch for decades, finally bought the property in the '70s. But it wasn't until 1990 that Gallo segregated the Frei Ranch grapes for a vineyard-specific wine.

Insiders always knew that Frei Ranch had great Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Now the world can find out for itself. Gallo's Frei Ranch Vineyard Zinfandel ($13.50) is among Dry Creek Valley's best. Gallo's "Northern Sonoma" Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) actually comes entirely from Frei Ranch--for the moment, anyway. It too is superb.

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