What does sailing have to do with wine making? For Dry Creek Vineyard it means everything. Both require a specialized knowledge and an understanding of mechanics. Each must utilize a set of skills and an ability to comprehend the elements. In the case of sailing it is the wind and water. In wine it is the terroir and climate in order to grow the grapes. With both you need intuition and eventually if one excels it evolves into an art form.
It was apropos when a group of wine writers got the chance to meet winemaker Tim Bell and discover the wines of Dry Creek Vineyard at Café Del Rey in Marina Del Rey. Our table had an unobstructed dockside view of the Marina adorned with sailboats moored in their slips. It set the perfect ambiance for sampling the wines of this Dry Creek, whose theme represents the boats that were docked from vantage point.
The sailing theme is a prominent feature Dry Creek Vineyard. The labels feature various sailboats that were created by artist Michael Serles. Most are sailboats that competed in the Americus Cup. In addition to the boats pictured on the label, the label itself is designed like a ships log. This so-called log denotes the details on the particular vintage and varietal that lies inside that bottle. Taking the idea even further, the cork is also created like a nautical log but in this case gives information about cork trees, habitat, forests, tree age, harvest date and species.
Dry Creek Vineyard’s history goes back to 1972 when David Stare, an engineer decided to purchase a vineyard in Sonoma County. His acquisition was the beginning of many firsts. The winery was the first new winery in the area since prohibition. Dry Creek was the first to plant Sauvignon Blanc in Dry Creek Valley and perhaps the first to coin the phrase “Old Vine” Zinfandel. David was also very instrumental in the creation of Dry Creek Valley into an AVA, which occurred in 1983. Today David’s daughter Kim Stare Wallace runs the winery, making them one of the oldest family run wineries in California.
In 2011 Tim Bell joined the Dry Creek team as winemaker. His hands on approach, attention to details and his creative expertise in blending and working with the various varietals made him an ideal match for the portfolio of Dry Creek Vineyard wines. After selling wine at the Liquor Barn and graduating UC Davis, Tim landed a job at Freemark Abbey. This was followed by a five-year stint at Kunde Family Estate where he worked with 20 different varietals.
Tim finds the most challenging wine to create is the Chardonnay. He says, “I am working with a bland grape that does not have a lot of fruit. It takes an effort to bring out that fruit and can often be over manipulated or over techniqued.” Tim’s favorite wine to produce is the Zinfandel because he can get such great fruit from the Dry Creek area.
After sampling the wine from Dry Creek you too will see Tim Bell’s influence in the winemaking process. There is a consistency and balance in all the wines. Each has their own distinct style that sets them apart from other wineries, especially the Sauvignon Blanc.
Our meal started with a Chenin Blanc. Although Chenin Blanc went out of favor, Dry Creek has continuously made this varietal since the 1970s. For Tim Bell this was one varietal he had not previously worked with. The outcome was successful because it is an excellent example of the quality of wine that comes from Chenin Blanc. The grapes come from Wilson Ranch in the Clarksville appellation of the Sacramento Delta. The wine is crisp with aromas of pears. One will find a very together drinkable Chenin Blanc with flavors of peach and melon. Priced very reasonably makes this a fantastic everyday drinking wine.
Tim’s footprint on the winemaking process is quite noticeable in the Sauvignon Blanc. This wine has the added touch of blending in some Sauvignon Musqué and Sauvignon Gris. The majority of the wine is fermented in stainless steel. About 8-10% is fermented in Acacia and Chestnut barrels. These barrels add some creamy texture and body to the wine without adding toasty and oaky flavors that are seen with oak. The Sauvignon Blanc has a softer quality with a fresh richness and flavors of Meyer lemon.
The Heritage Vines Zinfandel shows what can be done with old/new vines. In 1982 taking the cuttings from pre-prohibition (1920s) vines and grafting them on phylloxera resistant rootstock gave the winery a young vine approach to Zinfandel that maintains the characteristics of old vines. The 2014 vintage has earthy black pepper aromas. This wine is combined with a small percentage of Petite Sirah, Primitivo and Carignane making this a soft earthy complex Zinfandel with flavors of black cherry and cranberry mixed with mocha and spices.
The 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel is made up of grapes from vines that range from 95 to 110 years old. It is a blend of primarily Zinfandel mixed with some Petite Sirah and Carignane. Aged in a combination of French, Hungarian and American Oak this wine exudes a nose of licorice and white pepper. One finds dark fruit and white pepper on the palate.
Although the winery is best known for their Zinfandel, the Dry Creek AVA can produce marvelous Cabernet Sauvignons. Proving this point is the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. Displaying bright cherry and black currant fruits this wine is full-bodied and is approachable with a smooth silky balance.
Finally we finished our tasting luncheon with the 2012 Mariner, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. This wine has allspice on the nose and with its dark fruits and smooth tannins brings forth a full-bodied complex yet richly elegant wine.
Like the mariner that sets forth to discover new horizons, winemaker, Tim Bell navigates his way through the ebb and flow of the winemaking process to passionately create defining character in each varietal and blend. He is thereby crafting a legacy that will live on in the wines of Dry Creek Vineyards.