With a grape-growing history going back 140 years, the compact Dry Creek Valley American viticultural area (AVA) includes more than 9,000 vineyard acres and over 70 wineries, one deli, and no stoplights in an area only 16 miles long and two miles wide. Best known for its robust Zinfandel wines, this rural wine region is located in north-central Sonoma County, just outside the city of Healdsburg, and a short drive south from small town Cloverdale.
The valley itself is bookended by the Russian River and the Lake Sonoma recreation area. A century ago, this was a rural backwater with just about nothing but family-owned farms and a handful of wineries, best known for their robust Zinfandel wines.
Today, it’s not only one of California’s hottest wine travel destinations, but it’s also … a rural backwater, with just about nothing but family-owned vineyards and wineries best known for their robust Zinfandel wines. Despite the increased attention, little has changed.
But what has changed in Dry Creek Valley has often changed for the better: better wines, better farming practices, and better watershed stewardship.
Among Sonoma County wine regions, Dry Creek Valley is the most compact, easy to navigate, and cheek-by-jowl filled with wine tasting opportunities. Yet it’s also home to a tight-knit agricultural community, where corporations do not have so much as a toehold, and many newly-built wineries are owned by the descendants of immigrants who farmed here in the 1800s. And even though the nation’s largest family-owned winery maintains a facility here, you’d never know they were tucked into the rolling benchland.
Established as an AVA in 1983, Dry Creek Valley has more than 9,000 vineyard acres and 60 wineries, one deli, and no traffic lights.
The valley has been has been closely associated with Zinfandel since the get-go. Blocks of old-vine Zinfandel (some having survived Prohibition, which inspired most farmers to switch to growing prunes) are distinctive: Stout vines stand on their own with no trellis, their gnarled arms seeming to flail in all directions.
Most new plantings follow the traditional head-trained style. Often grown on bottomland near the creek, Sauvignon Blanc is the standout white varietal. Cabernet Sauvignon is under-appreciated here, despite a few first-class examples. Côtes du Rhône-style blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre are attracting serious attention.
The Lay of the Land
The first fun fact about Dry Creek is that it isn’t dry at all. The northern portion of the valley was stoppered up with Warm Springs Dam in 1982, creating a year-round streamflow. You’ll get a stunning view of the lake if you continue down wide, smoothly paved Dry Creek Road past the fish hatchery — just don’t get lost on Skaggs Springs Road (eventually, after a long drive, you’ll end up at the ocean). A round trip of the valley must be made by going back to the stop sign at Yoakim Bridge Road, and turning southwest.
Although the official AVA boundary bulges out into the mountains, the vast majority of vinicultural action takes place in a north-by-northwest strip some 13 miles long and scarcely a mile wide in most parts.
In the south, it abuts Russian River Valley AVA; in the north, it overlaps Rockpile AVA. Tempered by fog but not dominated by it, the mesoclimate is an in-betweener when compared to Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley; for Zinfandel, many say, a sweet spot.
The founding of Dry Creek Vineyards, renowned for Fumé Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc), Zinfandel, and the iconic sailboat label, signaled the valley’s post-Prohibition renewal in 1972. One of few Prohibition survivors, Pedroncelli Winery has been owned and operated by the Pedroncelli family since 1927, and offers some of the best values in the area.
At Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs, a legend of the 1970s Zinfandel renaissance, the environmentally-friendly tasting room is constructed from straw bales. A visit to the A. Rafanelli Winery is a Zin pilgrimage; and Zins are big, ripe, and ever-popular at Wilson Winery.
Once idiosyncratic, Unti Vineyards and Winery’s Grenache and Syrah aged in foudres are highly anticipated; and the Rued family grape growers who helped wineries like Kenwood to become household names, now also make their own Sauvignon Blanc under their Rued Wines label.
At the northern end of the valley, Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery pours famous Fumé Blanc and super Tuscan-style reds in a luxury setting at its Villa Fiore Wine Shop; at the southern end of the valley, the folks at unvarnished Mill Creek Vineyards invite visitors to enjoy award-winning Gewürztraminer.
Half of this region’s wineries are found along a meandering little back road. Indeed, on West Dry Creek Road, practically a one-lane driveway in parts, you’ll find Preston Farm & Winery with their farm stand, organic wines, and many cats; bistro lighting inside the wine caves at Bella; biodynamic chicken coops and Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc at Quivira Vineayrds & Winery — also Grenache and Rhône.
And for even more options, browse through our listing of all Sonoma County wineries.
Restaurants and Lodging in Dry Creek Valley
While just a few wineries have begun to offer gourmet food pairings with their wines, there’s only one place to grab lunch here: the Dry Creek General Store efficiently turns out excellent sandwiches; the adjoining bar with its eclectic local atmosphere (featuring an old-fashion wood bar and relics suspended from the walls and ceiling) is a favorite, too.
The eastern border of the appellation is also where the town of Healdsburg’s numerous dining options begin. Some of the most interesting lodging options include guest house rentals amid the vineyards, which some of the smallest mom-and-pop wineries may offer, like the Big Oak Vineyard House at West Wines.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight
Sonoma County Appellations (AVA):
Carneros - Sonoma
Dry Creek Valley
Fort Ross - Seaview
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Pine Mountain - Cloverdale Peak
Russian River Valley