Yankees or Giants? Biggie or Tupac? San Francisco or New York? When will the age-old debate between East and West finally get settled? Not today, that’s for sure, because I’m just as torn as everyone else. I’m the son of loud in-your-face New York and New Jersey Jews, and yet I’ve spent most of my life living aggressively within the hemp-infused calm of the Cali-trifecta: San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Being a California native, you’d think my mind was made up. But I’m the first person to admit that New York is one of the best cities on Earth when it comes to cuisine and culture. The bagels are better there, they have much better pizza than we do– heck! I’ll concede the entire portfolio of Italian food– even their tap water is better. Which might be why some of their baked goods—specifically pizza and bagels– are as good as they are. But no matter how amazing New York cheesecake is (best in the world!), I can’t stop defending the glory of California’s bounty.
Just recently I was having the same old argument with a cousin from Central Manhattan. And just when I thought we were getting somewhere, she said, “everything is better in New York,” and then threw her hands up and walked away. It was as if the simple declarative statement meant she’d won. Ugh! Why do New Yorkers do that? And why don’t they ever take responsibility for their horrible summer humidity? How great can a city be if you have to vacate for the summer? The fact is; Dungeness crab is better in San Francisco than in New York, and if we can agree that at least this one thing is better in San Francisco, then it’s impossible for everything to be better in New York. Right? And now that’s I’ve debunked the myth, we can get back to a civilized discussion of metropolitan pros and cons. New Yorkers need to let go of their sweeping superlatives long enough to come down from their high-horse to join the rest of us country bumpkins who’ve been enjoying the amazing qualities I’ve grown to cherish in the West. Like wine tasting.
No matter how you try to slice it, you can’t beat California wine tasting. I know the wineries of Upstate New York are starting to grow decent wines, but the climate isn’t what it needs to be for the fruit to develop enough sugars or higher brix. Frosty winters are good for ice wines I’m sure, but who wants to take a day trip to wine country in the dead of winter? Well in California, that’s exactly what we do.
We go wine tasting all year around, which is today’s counterargument for the fallacy of Father Knickerbocker. San Francisco beats New York in offering day trips to wine country. New York isn’t the best at everything! There, I said it. Because in a moment’s notice, us San Franciscan’s can drive an hour and fifteen minutes in almost any direction and be in the heart of wine country. Whether it’s to the well branded, and overly priced, wineries of the regally developed Napa Valley, or the casually overgrown comfort of the more rustic mom-and-pop Sonoma Valley, if you like wine and beautiful scenery there’s no better place in the United States. Suisun Valley and Livermore Valley are also great places to check out. They’re younger viticulture regions, but for years they’ve been growing grapes for a lot of the well-known larger production wine makers who source fruit from outside Napa and Sonoma Valleys. In the last few years, wine tourism has picked up and now you can visit their wineries and enjoy get their delicious wines at affordable prices.
Did I mention that the time of year doesn’t matter? Barren vines crowned in a monochromatic-gray skies, have just as much beauty as the full-busheled greens juxtaposed with robin egg blue heavens in the spring and summer months. Personally, I love driving through wine country during the harvest, or just after, when the leaves are still changing colors. Take that East Coast! Ironically, I feel more connected to my East Coast roots, when I get lost in the yellows, reds, oranges, and faded greens, because their beauty is what I imagine my parents are talking about when they say the thing they miss most about New York is the fall.
Well for you ex-pat East Coasters going through withdrawal—your prayers have been answered. And for the rest of you Bay Area residents who just don’t know, or for anyone traveling to the area for the first time, don’t miss out on the experience.
In the future, I’ll post content about my favorite day-trips to Napa, Russian River, Sonoma, Carneros, etc., but for today, I’m giving you my top 10 list of wineries in the Dry Creek Valley*. I recommend you spend the night in the area so you can really experience the mood of wine country as it shifts throughout the day. What’s fresh, bright and unstoppable in the morning dew, sort of peaks in the late afternoon just as the romantic calm of the valley turns on at dusk when the skies fill with stars we never see in the city. You can VRBO, find a B&B or boutique hotel in the area and then drive to and from your lodgings throughout the day.
That being said, I’ve put this list together with the intention that you can pick 3-4 wineries and just do a day trip from San Francisco to the Dry Creek Valley for two wine tastings, a lunch, and another one or two wine tastings before you head back to the city for a light dinner and an early bedtime. Wine tasting isn’t hard work, but it is exhausting, which is what you’d expect drinking all day long.
*Some wineries on the south end of the Dry Creek Valley are technically in Healdsburg, but are essentially in the Dry Creek Valley winegrowers collective.
Top 10 Wineries in the Dry Creek & Alexander Valleys
Jonathan and I like wine tasting in general. You put some wine I front of us and we’ll taste it with minimal complaint. I promise! That being said, Napa is pricey and Sonoma has lost some of its bohemian charm. Don’t get me wrong, we still go to both, but in the past few years, we’ve discovered the less frequented northern parts of Sonoma. Towns like Healdsburg, Geyserville, and Guerneville are surrounded by some of the best pinot noir producers in the state. They’re another 15-20 minutes away from San Francisco, but a little more patience in the car is worth it.
Dry Creek Valley is one of the oldest winegrowing regions in the state. Its slightly warmer climate is perfect for its high concentration of old vine zinfandels, and softer cabernet sauvignons. Closer to the coast than Napa, the coastal breeze is also ideal for pinot noir grapes.
The wineries range in size with some well-known higher production labels like Silver Oak just down the road from smaller wineries with limited distribution channels. Some wines are such a small production that they’re only available to wine club members or for purchase at the winery itself. While others can be found in grocery stores and on restaurant menus around the world.
If you’re looking for a low-key wine tasting experience; the kind without chartered limos full of bachelorettes and bridesmaids, then Dry Creek Valley is worth the visit. Here’s our top 10 list in no particular order.
Oh, and when you exit the freeway at Dry Creek Road….consider a quick stop for some of the best sandwiches and prepared foods in the area at Big John’s Market.
1.) Silver Oak Cellars, Alexander Valley Estate (Geyserville)
Silver Oak Cellars is known for being a cabernet sauvignon house. That means they only produce cabernet sauvignons. Fortunately, what they lack in variety, they make up for in quality. Their Napa Valley and Alexander Valley cabs are some of the best in the world. They Napa Valley tasting room is beautiful, but it’s always crowded and packed. My suggestion is to visit their Alexander Valley estate while you’re up in Dry Creek Valley, because there, the staff can really focus on pouring you a flight of wines like the four we tried on a recent visit. The Napa Valley location would pour one or two tastes for $20, where you can get four for $20 in Alexander Valley.
You enter the estate through their iron gate and can enjoy your tasting outside near the fountain.
2.) Dutcher Crossing, Dry Creek Valley
Dutcher Crossing sits on the floor of Dry Creek Valley and makes a delicious chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and port. The chardonnay is crisp and not too heavy on the oak or butter. The cab is full-bodied but not too fruit forward like you’d expect from a cab. Since their cab grapes are from Sonoma instead of Napa, the fruit develops slightly less sugars from the slightly cooler climate. Anyone who thinks cabs pack too big of a punch should try the cab at Dutcher Crossing. I’d also like to point out the good-looking men pouring wines in their tasting room. It’s almost as if a bunch of Abercrombie Models decided to go into the wine business, and they all got jobs at the same place. So if you like your wine with some eye candy, this is the place to stop. And they also have a lot of outdoor space with picnic tables and grass so you can enjoy your wines with any food you might bring.
3.) Ridge Vineyards, Healdsburg
Ridge is on the other side of a small hill, and is probably closer to Silver Oak than the rest of the wineries on this list. So take a look at a map and maybe plan to go their first or last. The winery actually produces wines in several regions of the state. They have tasting rooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains and in Lytton Springs (Sonoma County). You’d be going to the Lytton Springs tasting room, which is situation at the top of an expansive landscape of grape vines. The building is relatively new and boasts a large solar photovoltaic system on its south facing roof. You can enjoy their wines inside at the counter, or grab a bottle and sit on their wrap around covered patio and enjoy the scenery. After a few sips of their delicious zinfandels or Grenache/Syrah blends, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Tuscany.
4.) Sbragia Family Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley
To be honest with you, I think the Sbragia flight of wines is my least favorite of the wines on this list. They’re delicious, but just my least favorite. Mostly because I’m not a huge chardonnay fan, and the owner/winemaker, Ed Sbragia, is known for being one of the best chardonnay producers in the state. So it seems like that’s where he puts a lot of his attention. He used to be one of the winemakers at Beringer where he made a name for himself, and now owns his own outfit where he also makes zins, cabs, merlot, and sauvignon blanc. What I love about Sbragia Family Vineyards is the property. Just outside the tasting room they have a large expansive deck where you can sit and enjoy the views. Sbragia is one of the most northern wineries in the Dry Creek Valley so it’s quiet and serene. The views can’t be beat. Aside from the bees that might attack your food, it’s the perfect place to stop for lunch (again you’ll have to bring it) and a glass of wine.
5.) Yoakim Bridge, Dry Creek Valley
Yoakim Bridge is a small winery nestled on four acres on the northern side of Dry Creek Valley. They’re known for their old vine zinfandels and the 1886 Victorian farmhouse and rustic tasting room. If you don’t like zinfandel, then you might want to skip Yoakim Bridge, but it’s delicious if you’re on the fence, and the views of the valley from their property are stunning!
6.) Truett Hurst, Dry Creek Valley
Truett Hurst is another winery that’s worth the stop, because the property itself is a real treat. Their White Sheep Pinot is a delight, but it’s even better when you take it with you on a stroll through their gardens on your way down to the river’s edge. There you can skip stones and enjoy the rush of the water. Back near the tasting room is a small working farm where you can watch some of the animals that inspired the names of their signature wines.
7.) Passalacqua Winery, Healdsburg
Passalacqua Winery is one of the first wineries you’ll come to once you’ve entered the Dry Creek Valley. You make a left at the stop sign in front of the Dry Creek Valley General store, which is a great place to pick up some sandwiches and snacks if you plan on eating throughout the day. Passalacqua produces some really great reds, some of which seem inspired by Italian reds the family’s ancestors must have had in Genoa where they’re originally from. Five generations of winemakers later, and Passalacqua is a staple at the southern end of Dry Creek Valley. Like Sbragia, the estate is also situated on a slight bluff, so you can get lost in the views of the valley floor from their wooden deck in the back of the property. Which, if you’re lucky, is where they’ll setup their tasting room when the weather is nice.
8.) Mauritson Family Winery, Healdsburg
Mauritson is a slightly larger producer with a more modern facility than some of the other “mom and pop” shops along Dry Creek Road. They produce the most amazing rose, which they turned into a sorbet and sampled during a past passport weekend. The winemaker, Clay Mauritson, was raised in the area and is part of several generations of wine growers. His winemaking philosophy is that it all starts with quality fruit. Being a native of the Dry Creek Valley and after working for other wineries in the area, his ability to source some of the best fruit in the valley shows in Mauritson’s wine portfolio.
9.) Lambert Ridge, Healdsburg
Lambert Ridge is another Dry Creek Valley winery on the south west part of the region. The tasting room is beautiful with vaulted redwood ceilings and a candle-lit barrel room to boot. They have private picnic areas and manicured gardens to explore. Their wines aren’t bad either! In fact they’re some of the most expensive wines in the area. But their Bordeaux-style reds (like their cabs and zins) are worth every penny. Their viognier is exceptional too, which makes sense, because it tends to sell out. If you want an exceptional experience, one that feels and tastes expensive like it does in Napa, then Lambert Ridge is the winery for you.
10.) Kokomo Winery, Healdsburg
First time I visited Kokomo Winery I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. They’re tasting room is situated in Timber Crest Farms, which is sort of an industrial park filled with small farm and wine related businesses. I was used to pulling into guest parking and being surrounded by vines, but that isn’t the case when you visit Kokomo Winery’s tasting room. But eventually I put down my guard, and soaked in the picnic tables, and the Bocci ball court. And I watched customers walk from one warehouse to another, shopping directly from the owners and operators of the local tenants. Kokomo’s tasting room is at the front of their barrel storage facility, and what they lack in atmosphere they compensate for in taste. Owner and winemaker Erik Miller, has put his heart and soul into his wines, starting with his first single vineyard cabernet. He now produces an interesting lineup, ranging from soft and sweet whites like his muscat, to strong and peppery zins and pinots. The staff is young, friendly and knowledgeable, and their price points can’t be beat. They don’t always have it, but years ago I bought a late harvest white from Kokomo and can I still remember the taste, and how it danced across my tongue. Kokomo reminds me a lot of Orin Swift, in the sense that they’re focus is on the winemaking process and production of exceptional wines. It seems to me that Miller and his winemaking partner, Josh Bartels, are dead set on producing delicious wines, because they know the “branding” is a natural outcome of an exceptional product.
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