California Wine Country 2009 – Dry Creek – Day One
California Wine Country holds a very strong appeal for many. And for many, that typically means going to Napa Valley and taking in the traditional tourist atmosphere. Every California wine aficionado should do this at least once. But once you’ve done that, your best bet is to take your tourist experience and then delve deeper into the culture, the wine, and the region.
After numerous trips to California wine country, we honed in on Sonoma County and, specifically, the Dry Creek area near Healdsburg. This is the first of a four part series recounting our recent trip to this area.
On one of our previous trips we had spent an afternoon cruising the tasting rooms and downtown area of Healdsburg. It became clear that this was nowhere near enough time to do justice to the many wineries and excellent restaurants there. Therefore, when we were planning our latest trip, we decided to make Healdsburg our base and take advantage of what the area offers.
Healdsburg sits at the confluence of three major wine growing areas, the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River, and Alexander Valley. There must be at least a hundred wineries within twenty minutes of the city. Though other varieties are grown, Zinfandel is the signature wine of the area. As we are both big fans of Zinfandel, it’s are kind of place.
The city of Healdsburg is in a word “charming.” It is centered around a pleasant city square which is dominated by lots of large trees. Surrounding the square is a small downtown which is filled with shops and a surprisingly large number of very good restaurants.
Upper Sonoma County is a largely rural, agricultural area with grapes and wine being the major product. Despite a viticultural tradition as long and deep as it’s glitzier neighbor to the east, the approach to wine is more laid back and relaxed, though just as serious. The people in the wine business that we met were friendly and outgoing. Major topics of conversation were the wines, the weather (which was unusually hot when we arrived), and the best places to eat locally (Cena Luna seemed to be a favorite). When they discovered we were from Wisconsin, they also were interested in our reaction to Aaron Rogers and the Packers.
The wineries around Healdsburg are, for the most part, smaller than those in Napa. Many are family owned, in some cases for three or more generations, and reflect the Italian heritage of the immigrants that supplied the labor during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This heritage is reflected in the wines which are dominated by Zinfandel, but also include Petite Sirah, Barbera, and Sangiovese.
The tasting rooms tend to be simpler and less pretentious as well. There are no sky trams or huge parking lots full of tour buses. Most are located in fairly simple buildings surrounded by production facilities and vineyards. A few are down right rustic. As our trip was off season and during the middle of the week, we often had the tasting room to ourselves. Also, most of the wineries open to the general public have a picnic area. These range from a few tables adjacent to the tasting room to nice garden settings with great views of the vineyard. As there are a number of places in Healdsburg to pick up supplies or premade sandwiches, this is a convenient option for lunch. The wineries request that if you have wine with lunch, that it be one of theirs, but this seems only fair. On the two occasions that we took advantage of this, the wineries graciously lent us glassware.
But on to the wines:
Our first stop was at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center located just out side of Santa Rosa. We had planned to stop at Tex Wasabi’s for lunch on the drive up from San Francisco, and having a little extra time decided use it to good advantage.
The Wine Center is in a handsome building just off the road. The person who conducted our tasting was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, eager to recommend places that we should make sure to visit during our stay. Our previous exposure to Kendall-Jackson was through their Vintner’s Reserve series which are competent, mid level sort of wines which are the wines that tend to show up in our local restaurants and wine stores, but we were unfamiliar with their Grand Reserve wines which are definitely a step up.
2008 Grand Reserve Malbec Rose
2007 Grand Reserve Late Harvest Riesling
2005 Grand Reserve Pinot Noir
2006 Grand Reserve Zinfandel
2006 Grand Reserve Syrah
2004 Highland Estates Taylor Peak Merlot – Bennett Valley
Piner Hills Grand Reserve Port
We were particularly taken with two of their dessert wines, the Late Harvest Riesling and the Grand Reserve Port.
After lunch, we continued up to Healdsburg, arriving in the early afternoon. There are a number of tasting rooms clustered around the central square, so we chose to sample these while we walked around the square to get our bearings.
The first tasting room we went to was that of Souverain, previously known as Chateau Souverain, which is on the east side of the square. This tasting room experience wasn’t spectacular. The wine was all right, but tasting room decor was fine, and the young lady behind the counter was friendly. Still, it was somewhat of an uninspiring event.
Wines sampled were
2007 Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc
2006 Winemaker’s Reserve Chardonnay
2006 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
2005 Alexander Valley Syrah
2004 Winemaker’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
On our previous trip to the area we had stopped at the Ferrari-Carano winery which is at the northern end of Dry Creek Valley. They also have a tasting room on the north side of the square. We decided that if we stopped at the tasting room we would have more time the next day to hit other wineries. The tasting room shares space with a small boutique shop, which did nothing to detract from the wines. It was also pleasantly cool which offered relief from the 90 degree weather outside.
The Ferrari-Carano Wine Center, which we had visited before, consists of an attractive Villa surrounded by some very nice gardens. A short drive up Dry Creek Road, it is worth seeing in it’s own right.
2007 Sonoma County Siena, a blend of Sangiovese & Malbec
2006 Lazy Creek Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir
2008 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 Russian River Valley Eldorado Noir Late Harvest Black Muscat
Lake Sonoma Winery
This tasting room occupies a corner store front a block off the square. As it turned out, the person conducting the tasting was from Michigan, and the conversation was as much about the weather, living in wine country and football as it was about the wine, though the wine was quite good. Their specialty is Zinfandel, of which they offer several. We were also given suggestions for other wineries with good Zins, which is a good example of the collegial attitude that we met a number of places.
2005 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
2006 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
2006 Saini Farms Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel
While at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center we had been given a coupon for a free tasting at the tasting room in Healdsburg. This is on the north-west side of the square. The discussion shifted to places to eat with a hearty recommendation of the Carbonara at Cena Luna, one of several recommendations for this restaurant. Several other restaurants were also given favorable mention, bu unfortunately, we didn’t have time to try them all. The tasting menu was similar to that at the Wine Center with the addition of the 2005 Grand Reserve Red Meritage which was quite good.
We finished off the day with a light dinner at Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar which is just up the street from the Kendall-Jackson Tasting Room. We’ve been to Willi’s before. It is a casual, tapas style restaurant that features very popular outdoor dining on the patio. This is a place where the locals come and hang out, and they bring their dogs along. Healdsburg loves their dogs, and the dogs are a very accepted part of the social scene. On this night we dined with Louman, a pretty cool retriever mix with a mohawk hairdo, and with Gus, a mellow lab who snoozed through most of dinner.
Little did we know while we were dining at Willi’s that we were in the presence of a local celebrity. We were to find that out a few days later. But more of that to come.
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