Monday, April 27, 2009

Passport to spring in Sonoma's Dry Creek wine valley

In a short note to me this morning, my friend Elaine wrote all about her garden in the south San Francisco Bay Area. It sounds lovely, with roses bursting into bloom and the promise of sunflowers, tomatoes, and homegrown corn to come. She concludes: "Springtime in Northern California is something else, isn't it?"

She's absolutely right. I was up in Sonoma County's Healdsburg this past weekend, with my foodie friend Linda, and came to the exact same conclusion. Springtime here is something else. We were lucky enough to go to the annual Dry Creek Wineries Passport event; it's really an 'open sesame' to fabulous wine and food at 54 wineries all over this lovely little valley. And just to clarify, the Dry Creek Valley sits outside Healdsburg (just north of Santa Rosa), at the northern end of Sonoma County. From San Francisco, the valley is about a two-hour drive north on U.S. 101.

The weekend's impressions from my wine-splashed notebook:

Man, everyone is having a blast--it is one big moveable feast. And the food is sublime. The Dry Creek Passport has been called one of the first of these mass open-house type Passport events, and it has to be one of the best (although, full disclosure, I've never been to the one in Amador or the Santa Cruz Mountains). You get really top-notch food from chefs like Charlie Palmer of the Dry Creek Kitchen to BBQ Bob (I watch him roast a whole pig on a giant spit) preparing the food. Each winery offers something different food-wise, and some even have themes, from a circus (complete with performers) to a Mardi Gras.

Linda and I both get lots of recipe and party ideas. And of course, we buy a few bottles of vine: the wineries are pouring the good stuff and some is only available here at the wineries.

Some standouts: Alderbrook, with roasted pork sliders and three types of Zinfandel; Ridge Winery, for paella and outstanding Lytton Estate Syrahs; Mauritson Wines, with the Sauvignon Blanc with a taste of exquisite Togaroshi crusted fried Tomales Bay oysters, then the fantastic 2006 Rockpile Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel (one of Linda's faves). The gardens at Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery are in their full glory (shown above), and I detour from the tasty Eldorado Gold (a Sauternes-style dessert wine, blend of 76% Semillion and 24% Sauvignon Blanc) to take a quick turn in the garden and snap some pix. Bella, with its circus performers and hilltops views.

One of the nicest surprises is Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate, tucked high on a side road in a lovely, Mission-style manse, complete with Moorish-style window, belltower, and courtyard fountain. Here, we get the idea for a unique party dessert: a snow cone, topped with Syrah syrup and drizzled with a mole-like (Mo-lay) sauce: simple, refreshing, and divine! And Dutcher Crossing Winery , whose cutting-edge winemaker is Kerry Damsky, with it's distinctive style; I love the elegant, claret-style Proprietor's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Linda notices how much organic and biodynamic winemaking is going on here, especially at smaller wineries like Truett Hurst and Unti Vineyards, a small producer of Italian-style varietals. And Quivira Estate Vineyards and Winery has practically taken over the front 'yard' with raised beds filled with veggies, flowers, and the like. We pass one winery that even sells fresh eggs.

Thing is, these are all small-lot, artisan-made wines and all family owned (with one exception, Ridge). I'm planning to come back on a normal weekend (not busy Passport Weekend), when I know visitors get the chance of face time with the winemaker. But, ah, to be in California's Dry Creek Valley now that spring (and Passport Weekend) is here!

Details: For the dates of next year's Dry Creek Passport Weekend ($120 for two days, $70 Sunday only), check with the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley at Or, since spring has just begun, create your own Dry Creek weekend wine tour. Check with the Sonoma Wine Country tourism bureau for lodging and dining suggestions.

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