As I reported in the last Newsletter I spent a few days in northern California last month. I visited the Dry Creek Valley and Mendocino County regions with the single purpose of testing a selection of the winery recommendations made in Stephen Brook’s recent book, The Finest Wines of California (reviewed in Newsletter 125). These regions are the most northerly in California and are, accordingly, out of the way for most visitors to the west coast who may only have a day to travel from business in San Francisco before returning home.
Most wine lovers have a limited understanding of California outside the biggie regions such as Napa, Santa Barbara and some of the more high-profile areas in Sonoma such as Russian River, Sonoma Valley and Los Carneros – all located in the mid – and southern parts of the broader Sonoma County wine regions.
Proximity is only one factor for the notoriety of these southern regions. The other factor contributing to their reputation is the name recognition many of these southern wineries have been able to build: Kistler, Ravenswood, Arrowood, Benziger, and so on.
Few wine lovers will recognize Fritz, Sbragia Family, or Goldeneye, yet these are wineries with either a long pedigree or associations with other well-known properties. For instance, Fritz is one of the first gravity-fed wineries built into a mountain – in the 1970’s. Sbragia is a new venture of Ed Sbragia, famed, long-time winemaker at Beringer in Napa Valley. Goldeneye is the Mendocino-based Pinot Noir operation of the Duckhorn family, also well-known for quality Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, in Napa.
All of this is to say there is a lot to see and do if you are a wine tourist and have some time to take the roughly 160 km drive north form San Francisco. It is very worthwhile.
We booked a room at a small fashionable bed and breakfast at the top end of Sonoma County at the edge of the village of Cloverdale and used this as our base for three days, travelling south then north from the base as our itinerary dictated.
For readers who might still be skeptical about the effects of terroir on grape selection, grape growing and winemaking there could be no better demonstration than our experience in northern California.
Dry River Creek is hot and dry – appropriately named. The terrain is hilly with many valleys and the hillsides feature scrub where vines are not planted. There are a lot of vines. The Dry River Creek American Viticultural Area (AVA) is big with 9300 ha under vine. The stars are Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Because of the heat and the dry conditions vines are stressed and with careful vineyard management wines of enormous colour depth and flavor intensity can be produced. I have never enjoyed Zinfandel, generally finding its wines to be over-ripe, blousy and monochromatic in every way. The Zins I tasted at Seghesio and Sbragia were razor sharp in their fruit, acid, tannin structure: big, but elegant and complex, all.
Mendocino, on the other hand, might have been a different planet from Dry River Creek. First, reaching Mendocino required travel up and over a high, twisting ridge road into the Yorkville Highlands zone and eventually into the cool-climate district of Anderson Valley. This valley was made famous when Champagne house, Roederer, opened a sparkling wine operation here –not in Carneros – in 1982.
The rolling hills and deep valleys are endless, the morning fog from the nearby ocean creates a pastoral and moist setting and the growing season is long and gentle. Anderson Valley is the perfect home for Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and marijuana. The valley, north of the village of Boonville, is home to countless grow-ops. Recent reports estimate illegal marijuana accounts for some 2/3’s of the Mendocino County economy – leaving wine accountable for the remaining 1/3, as not much else seems to happen in this extremely rural place.
We visited several properties but the stand outs were, in alphabetic order: Ferrari-Carano, Fritz, Goldeneye, Navarro, Roederer, Sbragia Family and Seghesio. I will write about the wine highlights next issue.
In the meantime, the conclusion from this excursion: take the road-less-travelled. It is well worth the detour.
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.