Visit to Dry Creek Valley Part III: Northern DCV and Rockpile Ridge Vineyard

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view of Lake Sonoma from Rockpile Ridge Vineyard

The last two stops on our day-long visit to Dry Creek Valley AVA took us to the Mauritson family’s scenic Rockpile Ridge Vineyard, overlooking Lake Sonoma, where we were joined by the winemaker for Gustafson Family, and Sbragia Family’s winery and tasting room, where we had dinner with several more winemakers and winery owners. In the summary below, I’ll talk about the terroir and wines of Gustafson Family and the Mauritsons. There is also a video clip of Clay Mauritson, the Mauritson Family winemaker, talking about what makes Rockpile a special place, and views of the very scenic vineyard. Then I’ll summarize the wines and producers represented at our dinner, which included Dutcher Crossing, Frick, Fritz, Pedroncelli and Sbragia. But first, to set the scene, here’s a brief video panorama of Rockpile Ridge Vineyard, including the view from the vineyard toward Lake Sonoma.

Gustafson Family

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Winemaker Emmett Reed and tasting room manager Kaitlin Reed

I’ve really enjoyed the Gustafson Family Petite Sirahs that I’ve had on a few occasions, especially the 2007. So I was glad to try a couple more of their wines, and to hear from the winemaker, Emmett Reed. The Gustafson Family vineyard is, like Rockpile Ridge vineyard, on the northwestern end of Dry Creek Valley, near Lake Sonoma, but it’s on the other side of Lake Sonoma from Rockpile Ridge. It’s an old sheep ranch, with red volcanic soil, at an elevation of 1800 feet. The entire property, purchased by Minnesota-based landscape architect and real estate developer Dan Gustafson in 2002, totals 247 acres. Much of that consists of old groves of madrone, oak, and redwood trees, including a 300-year-old madrone with a trunk diameter of eleven feet that is thought to be the largest madrone tree in Sonoma County. A small portion of the property was planted starting in 2002, and now totals about 20 acres of vineyards that include Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Emmett previously worked with winemaker Kerry Damskey, pictured below at dinner with our red wine flight, who has also been consulting winemaker to Gustafson. Based on the wines I’ve tried so far, I think the young grapes being grown on this site are excellent material, and that Emmett is seriously talented. Grapes are fermented in open-top bins with a cold soak of several days, manual punch-downs, and extended maceration. The Syrah Rosé we tried was a strong version, the Sauvignon Blanc was quite good and, as I’ve mentioned, the Petite Sirahs are excellent. The wines from this newish producer are well worth checking out, and from the pictures I’ve seen, the beautifully designed winery and terrific views from their vineyards make this a great destination for winetasting trips to Sonoma and Dry Creek.

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  • 2010 Gustafson Family Vineyards Syrah Rosé of Syrah Heritage Tree Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Medium orange pink color; tart red fruit, blood orange, smoke nose; juicy, tart red fruit, cranberry, watermelon palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2010 Gustafson Sauvignon Blanc – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Very light yellow color; intriguing, smoke, lemon grass, elegant nose; tasty, juicy but poised, tart gooseberry, lemon grass, smoke palate with character; medium-plus finish 91+ points (one of the best California Sauv Blancs I’ve tried this year) (91 pts.)

Mauritson

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Cameron and Clay Mauritson

The Mauritson family has been growing grapes in Dry Creek Valley since 1868. Cameron and Clay’s great-great-great grandfather, S.P. Hallengren, was a pioneer grape grower in the Rockpile region, where he first planted vines in 1884. He shipped all his wine back to his native Sweden. The family’s Rockpile homestead and ranch grew to 4,000 acres by the early 1960s when all but 700 ridge top acres was taken by the Army Corps of Engineers to develop Lake Sonoma. The family currently manages 310 vineyard acres in the Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Rockpile appellations. It was Clay, the talkative one, who got the family into making wine when he returned after graduating the University of Oregon in 1997. His first vintage under the Mauritson label was with a Dry Creek Zin in 1998. He worked in sales and marketing at Kenwood Vineyards for five years. He started making wine full time under the Mauritson and Rockpile labels in 2002 after having also worked under the winemakers at Taft Street Vineyards and Dry Creek Vineyards.

Of the 15,000 acres in the Rockpile appellation, only 192 are planted. Most of it is too steep, and there’s extreme water scarcity. The highest vineyard, owned by the Parks family, is at 2200 feet. They own part of the original Rockpile Ranch, and wines labeled Rockpile Vineyard come from their vines. The Mauritsons’ vineyard is Rockpile Ridge. It goes up to 1300 or so feet in elevation. The Mauritson Estate wines are supposed to derive from the family’s best grapes in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley. They’re fairly inexpensive, running from $17 for the Sauvignon Blanc to $35 for the Cabernet. The Rockpile Winery wines are from the Rockpile Ridge Vineyards. These run from $31 to $50. The least expensive is a blend of Portuguese varietals that they call Independence. They also make a Malbec, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Bordeaux blend, called the Buck Pasture (their most expensive wine, at $50 a bottle). And they produce four different Zins. They make one Rockpile Ridge blend, and then three from single blocks: Jacks Cabin, Cemetary and the Westfall. Usually only the Rockpile Ridge and Cemetary see distribution. The ’09 Rockpile Ridge Zin and ’07 Buck Pasture that we tasted were both big, powerful, impressive wines with aging potential.

In the video clip below, Clay Mauritson explains that the Rockpile AVA has close proximity to the coast and Pacific Ocean, resulting in constant chilly winds. Lake Sonoma is shaped like a horseshoe, and the Rockpile Ridge runs down the middle. The lake, which is very deep, holds its temperature quite well and thereby creates an inversion layer that sucks the fog down, so there is virtually no fog during the growing season. As a result, there’s no mildew pressure. This feature, plus great drainage, makes it a particularly good spot for Zin and Petite Sirah–big berried, thin skinned varietals that are otherwise prone to rot. You have to be above 800 feet in elevation to be part of the Rockpile appellation. In the video clip, Clay also describes the different types of soil found in his family’s vineyards on Rockpile Ridge.

Dark maroon color; captivating, rich black fruit, berry, violets nose; tight, rich, tart berry, violets, tart mulberry, pencil lead palate with firm, sweet tannins; needs 5-plus years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petit Verdot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec) (92 pts.)

Whites

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My favorite whites at dinner were the Dutcher Crossing and Pedroncelli Sauvignon Blancs. The best was the Pedroncelli, and Julie Pedroncelli-St. John, who joined us for the dinner, completely charmed me when she talked to the group about the family traditions and generations that have shaped Dry Creek. Giovanni Pedroncelli originally purchased 90 acres of hillside land west of Geyerserville and planted 25 acres mostly to Zinfandel. Unfortunately, this was during Prohibition, so Giovanni’s only sales outlet was to home winemakers in the area. A small block of 100-year-old Zinfandel still remains, what the Pedroncellis call the Mother Clone, providing budwood for replanted estate Zinfandel. From 1980 to 1982, Pedroncelli began a 20-year project of replanting most of its 47-acre hillside Home Ranch Vineyards surrounding the winery that are primarily planted to Zinfandel. In 1988, they began replanting their 52-acre East Side Vineyards to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and a small block of Cabernet Franc. The wines are very low priced (e.g., $13 for the Sauv Blanc, and $16 for the Mother Clone Zin), but represent great quality at the price point.

  • 2010 Dutcher Crossing Sauvignon Blanc – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Light yellow color; pineapple, floral, pear nose; tasty, tart pear, citrus, floral palate with near medium acidity; medium finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
  • 2008 Frick Winery Grenache Blanc Estate Bottled Owl Hill Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Light yellow color; cream, creamed corn, poached pear nose; creamy textured, medium bodied, rounded, poached pear palate with lowish acidity; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2010 Pedroncelli Sauvignon Blanc East Side Vineyards – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Very light yellow color; Padron chile pepper, lemon grass, tart gooseberry nose; intense, focused, refreshing, tart gooseberry, light Padron chile pepper, lemon grass palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Sbragia Family Sauvignon Blanc Schmidt Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Light medium lemon yellow color; lifted, lemon, vanilla nose with a light sense of oil; fresh tasting but simple, ripe lemon, citrus, fruity palate with lowish acidity (86 pts.)

Rosé

Our only rosé at dinner, and quite a good one, was from Fritz Winery. Fritz has an unusual looking three-story winery reminsicent of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona. It was build in the ’70s by Jay Arthur Fritz. The winemaker is Brad Longton, and the consulting winemaker is Kerry Damskey, pictured below. The rosé sells for $20, and as indicated below, it’s one of the best California rosés I’ve had all year.

  • 2010 Fritz Winery Estate Rosé – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Light pink color; delicate, light strawberry cream, orange cream nose; light-medium bodied, creamy textured, tasty, tart orange, tart strawberry palate with nice acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (a blend of Zinfandel, Malbec and a touch of Pinot Noir; one of the best California rosés I’ve tried this year) (91 pts.)

Reds

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Kerry Damskey, winemaker for Dutcher Crossing, and consulting winemaker for Fritz and Gustafson Family, among others

My favorite reds at dinner were the ’08 Fritz Zin, the ’09 Pedroncelli Zin Mother Clone and the ’07 Dutcher Crossing Cabernet Sauvignon Taylor Reserve. The last was my favorite wine of the evening. Kerry Damskey is the winemaker and Debra Mathy is the owner. The Taylor Vineyard is on hillside and bench land in the northeast corner of the Dry Creek Valley. The Cabernet Sauvignon vines are located at the top of the hill where the soils are rocky, and where the rocky gravel base provides for good root development and drainage.

Winemaker Kerry Damskey has a degree in fermentation sciences from the University of California, Davis, and is a graduate of an intensive program for small business at Stanford University School of Business. He is also a candidate of the Institute of the Masters of Wine.

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  • 2007 Dutcher Crossing Cabernet Sauvignon Taylor Reserve – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark purple red violet color; intriguing, rich, berry, plum, black fruit nose; ripe berry, mulberry, black fruit, black raspberry palate with good acidity and balance; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Frick Winery Cotes du Dry Creek – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark maroon color; clove, VA, poached plum nose; tart roasted black fruit, charcoal, tart black fruit palate; medium-plus finish (Syrah based blend with 20% Grenache) (87 pts.)
  • 2008 Fritz Winery Zinfandel Estate Grown – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark purple red violet color; ripe berry, raisin, brambley nose; tart berry, strawberry jam, brambley, tart raspberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Pedroncelli Zinfandel Mother Clone Dry Creek Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Very dark maroon color; deep, intense, berry, dried berry, spice nose; tasty, complex, dried berry, blackberry, spice, tart mulberry palate; medium-plus finish (at $12-13, great value for a flavorful Zin) (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Sbragia Family Zinfandel La Promessa – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark red violet color; smoke, roasted berry, oak nose; oak, roasted berry, olive palate; medium-plus finish (seems to suffer from ’08 smoke taint, or excessive oak) (81 pts.)

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Ed Sbragia left, with Dan Fredman, whose PR company DFPR organized our Dry Creek excursion

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