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Winetasting and Cave Tour at Fritz Underground Winery

Around the time that Jimmy Carter was optimistically installing his ill-fated solar heating panels on the White House roof, Jay Arthur Fritz was thinking about energy-efficient ways to keep his winery cool. In 1979, with the energy crisis of the 1970s fresh in mind, Fritz built his Dry Creek Valley winery into the side of a hill and covered it with dirt to keep it cool the natural way.

Recently, Fritz Underground Winery expended some extra energy to remodel their tasting room and add a vineyard hike experience that helps visitors appreciate the above-ground aspects of this 112-acre property.

Cellar Notes from the Underground

Completed in May, 2015, the remodel of the “Gaudí style” tasting room may surprise a few wine tasters who are familiar with this old haunt. I know that I will miss the wood stove that warmed visitors’ hands while they sipped Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel in the winter months. But I can appreciate the improvement on year-round comfort: Before the new doors were installed, summers temps could get toasty in the tasting room, as well. It was so drafty, I’m told, that a bat or two had taken up residence in some hidden cranny.

The horseshoe-shaped bar backed by a large mirror opens the place up to accommodate more visitors—not that it’s often crowded in this out-of-the-way spot. The vineyard hike, offered once daily at 10:30am, opens the whole estate to the more intrepid visitor.

It’s a good tour, and although the elevation gain is probably only 50 feet or so, you’ll want to wear good shoes for a steep portion. It begins with a long, switchback descent down a gravel path to the estate’s spring-fed pond. Sorry, don’t bring your fishing pole!Second generation owner Clayton Fritz and his children sometimes catch bass here. The trail weaves in and out of wooded areas to emerge in small vineyard blocks of Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. As in many Sonoma County vineyards, woodland and wildlife are never far away. (Our tour guide, Katie, says that the winemaker claims there are hints of redwood sorrel in the Cabernet—although she wasn’t buying it from him, at first!)

For those who’ve never had the chance to walk through a row of ripening Zinfandel, it can be a wine country dream. It’s also a time to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask them—even people who are generally knowledgeable about wines have lots of questions about how grapes are grown, our tour guide says.

After a short, but steep climb up the hill, we meet a crew that’s doing work in the old Zinfandel block. Then we step into a shaded glen under towering second-growth redwood trees. It’s a welcome respite during summer months. There’s a good reason that a stand of redwoods thrives here, in the hot hills above Dry Creek Valley: a spring that supplies all of the winery’s water needs.

The Refreshments

The tour ends with a seated tasting on the patio. Sipping the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc ($20), I recall the thick, green canopy that shades the grapes and helps retain a candied lemongrass character. The 2012 Estate Zinfandel ($25) shows cranberry and cherry fruit with a pepper jelly twist, while those old, head-trained vines on the hillside contributed riper, plum fruit and briary tannins to the 2010 Reserve Zinfandel ($60).

Take a Closer Look

Why dinosaurs? That’s what the label used to remind me of, anyway. They’re turkeys, of course, not velociraptors—although if you run into an ornery specimen on a Sonoma County trail in the wrong season, you’ll note the family resemblance. The winery was originally called J. Fritz Winery: “Underground” and the grape-eating turkeys were added around the turn of the century.

Hit the Road

For many winery employees, Dutcher Creek Road is the backroad to the town of Cloverdale.  From Fritz, you’re nearly halfway there, without having to backtrack to the 101 freeway. Cloverdale’s dining are generally more casual than culinary hotspot, Healdsburg—but on the fun side, from Ruth McGowan's Brew Pub to World Famous Hamburger Ranch and BBQ.

24691 Dutcher Creek Road, Cloverdale, CA 95425. Open 10am–5pm daily. Tasting fee, $10-$15; vineyard hike, $45. 707.894.3389.

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