Visit to Dry Creek Valley Part I: A Tale of Generations

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Rafanelli Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley

VISIT TO DRY CREEK VALLEY PART I: A TALE OF GENERATIONS – Puccioni Vineyards and A. Rafanelli Winery, Dry Creek Valley, California (8/15/2011)

Dry Creek Valley is a long, narrow valley–16 miles by a maximum of two miles–that runs north and west from just south of Healdsburg up to Warm Springs Dam and Lake Sonoma. North of the dam is the steep, mountainous Rockpile AVA, which overlaps a portion of the Dry Creek Valley AVA. Italian immigrants planted vineyards in this region beginning in the 1870s, and descendants of several of those early families–including the Rafanellis, Pedroncellis, Buchignanis and Puccionis–are still a strong presence as growers and wine producers today. Dry Creek Valley was recognized as an appellation in 1983. Zinfandel is arguably at its most complex and luscious here, and there is a concentration of old vine Zin vineyards in the Valley, but Zin now competes for prime vineyard spots with Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant white grape, grown mainly on the benchland close to the creek.

I was part of a day-long expedition to Dry Creek and Rockpile this month sponsored by the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley Association. Over 60 wineries and 150 growers operate as multi-generational, family-owned enterprises in Dry Creek, with small to medium production. We tasted wines from 15 producers on our day there, and made stops at four wineries or vineyards; at three of those stops we were joined by representatives from nearby wineries as well. This trip gave me a great feel for the beauty of the area, the hilly nature of many of the vineyards, a sense of what grape varieties do best here, and the generations of winemaking families responsible for sustaining vineyards and winemaking in the valley. I also learned about the conservation practices–aimed at protecting the creek, which is a vital habitat for coho salmon and steelhead trout–and organic and biodynamic farming practiced by several producers in this appellation. And I found some new favorite producers from the area.

This first part of my report will focus on a couple of the older families whose vineyards and production facilities we visited–Puccioni Vineyards and A. Raffanelli. I am also including tasting notes on wines from other neighboring producers toward the southern end of the valley, near where Puccioni Vineyards is located, who joined us at Puccioni, our first stop, to sample us on their wines. Those producers were Pezzi King, Mill Creek Vineyards and Everett Ridge.

Puccioni

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very old Carignane vine where Glenn’s grandfather used to sit and eat his lunch

Glenn Proctor, pictured below, is the energetic wine business veteran who recently launched Puccioni Vineyards as a new producer in the area. In the picture, Glenn is talking to us from the rear of a wagon attached to a tractor, that carried our group up to the top of the hillside where we tasted the Puccioni wines.

Glenn received his bachelors in viticulture from C.S.U. Fresno and his masters in viticulture from U.C. Davis. He started his career working with Glen Ellen Winery and Benziger Family Winery in the late ’80s, and later worked at BV and Sterling, where he was the vice president of winegrowing. Glenn and his team started replanting some of the vineyards at the family’s ranch six years ago, and started making wine from the old vines in 2003. Starting with the 2007 vintage, the Puccioni wines are based on grapes grown on Glenn’s family’s ranch, where his great grandfather, Angelo Puccioni, who came to the area from the small village of Coselli, Italy, first planted Zinfandel in 1904. The ranch sits in a small valley with up slopes on each side. The elevations go from 400 to 1000 feet. The vineyards are planted on the west facing slopes. The hillside vineyards are planted to old clone Zinfandel, on St George and 1103 Rootstock, largely head trained. The ranch’s 15 acres of vines are largely Zin, and a field blend in the old vine vineyard planted in 1904. One acre is planted to Alicante Bouchet and another to Petite Sirah.

The original Puccioni Winery, operated by Angelo Puccioni, started in 1919, just before Prohibition, and continued until 1935. The Puccioni family used a mule and a plow until the last mule died in 1968, making them the last farmers in Dry Creek to use a mule commercially. The mule on the label is an homage to these hardworking mules.

I was quite impressed with the 2007 Old Vine Zin, which has complexity and good balance. The 2009 was also good, and should be ageworthy, and I liked the 2007 Petite Sirah as well. This is definitely a Dry Creek producer to watch.
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  • 2007 Puccioni Zinfandel Old Vine – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark maroon color; dried berry, tart plum, smoke nose; elegant, tasty, dried berry, tart cherry, tart raspberry, wild berry palate with intensity, good acidity and balance; drinking well now and should age well for 7-10 years; medium-plus finish (with 17% Petite Sirah; 19 mos. in French and Hungarian oak; from vines planted starting in 1904) (92 pts.)
  • 2009 Puccioni Zinfandel Old Vine – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark maroon color; tart berry, tart black fruit, tar nose; tasty, youthful, tart berry, dried berry, spicy plum palate with focus; medium-plus finish 91+ points (from vines planted starting in 1904) (91 pts.)
  • 2007 Puccioni Petite Sirah Puccioni – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark maroon color; a little reduction, tart black fruit, herbs nose; tight, tasty, balanced, tart black fruit, tart berry palate with wonderful acidity; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)

Pezzi King, Mill Creek and Everett Ridge

At Puccioni Vineyard, we were joined by representatives from Everett Ridge, Mill Creek and Pezzi King, who tasted us on two each of their wines. Everett Ridge is the Dry Creek based winery owned by the Esterlina Vineyards and Winery LLC, producers of some of my favorite Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs under the Esterlina label. Mill Creek is owned and operated by the Kreck family, who started the winery in 1974. Their vineyards were first planted in 1965. The owners’ middle son, Jeremy Kreck, is now both winemaker and vineyard manager. Both Everett Ridge and Mill Creek are located at the southern end of Dry Creek Valley, near Puccioni. Pezzi King is based in Healdsburg. James P. Rowe, Sr., and his late wife Jane started Pezzi King in 1993, after purchasing a 137-acre ranch in Dry Creek. They named the winery after the last names of their respective mothers.

In this tasting, I was most impressed with the Pezzi King Sauvignon Blanc and the Mill Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.

  • 2007 Everett Ridge Diablita zin-a – USA, California, Sonoma County
    Medium dark red violet color; intense, jammy, blackberry, berry nose; ripe, jammy, berry, blackberry palate; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2007 Everett Ridge Petite Sirah Estate Dry Creek Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark maroon color; roasted fruit, plum nose; tart roasted plum, berry palate with good acidity but lacking complexity; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Mill Creek Vineyards Chardonnay Unoaked – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Light yellow color; tart lemon, ripe citrus nose; creamy textured, tart lemon palate with focus and balance, but one dimensional; medium finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
  • 2007 Mill Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Kreck Family Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County
    Very dark red violet color; lifted, tart cassis, menthol nose; tasty, tart cassis, tart berry palate with menthol lift; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Pezzi King Sauvignon Blanc Estate – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Light yellow color; intense, lemon grass, very tart gooseberry, smoky nose; tasty, intense, tart gooseberry, lemon grass palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (a nice value at $18 a bottle) (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Pezzi King Zinfandel Old Vines Dry Creek Valley Estate – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Medium dark red violet color; rounded, ripe berry, ripe black fruit nose; soft, plush, berry, tart berry palate with firm tannins, good acidity but a little heat; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 88+ points (88 pts.)

A. Rafanelli

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A. Rafanelli winemaker Shelly Rafanelli

Located midway up the Valley, off of West Dry Creek Road is A. Rafanelli Winery, which was founded by Alberto Rafanelli, an Italian immigrant, in the early 1900s. It was Alberto’s son Americo who got interested in the family business after Prohibition ended and who moved the family’s operations from Healdsburg to Dry Creek in the early 1950s. He planted Zinfandel, but didn’t start selling his wine commercially, under the A. Rafanelli label, until the early 1970s. The winery and cave he built sits on a knoll overlooking the valley, surrounded by some of the family’s truly picturesque hillside vineyards. Americo’s son David and wife Patty now own and operate the business. The family currently has about 85 acres, planted primarily to Zinfandel, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and lesser amounts of a few other varieties.

David and Patty’s eldest daughter, Rashell (Shelly), is in her 15th year as winemaker. She graduated Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1996 with a degree in agricultural business. Below is a video clip of the vivacious Shelly answering our questions about changes they’ve made since she came on board as winemaker (mainly to equipment), and describing how they separately ferment batches from various vineyard plots, trying out different yeasts with each batch. Shelly also explained how difficult it can be to make Zinfandel, which ripens late, unevenly, and with high sugar levels that can be difficult to ferment without specialized yeasts. What Shelly didn’t tell us, but that I’ve learned from other sources, is that her father David spent years nagging his father, Americo, to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, in addition to Zinfandel. Americo was reluctant, but finally gave in. Shelly, in turn, wanted to plant Merlot, but her father David was resistant. She finally got him to see that Merlot, to her, was like Cabernet for him, and that she deserved her turn to try out a new grape in the family vineyards. I thought the 2008 Merlot was the best of the A. Rafanelli wines we tasted, so I congratulate Shelly for finally getting her way. The other wines are very good too. The Zin is in a ripe style, complemented by caramel oak, but quite delicious for the style. I’m really glad, however, to have found another rare source for delicious, balanced California Merlot.

  • 2009 A. Rafanelli Zinfandel – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark black red violet color; dried berry, spicy plum, black fruit nose; tart black fruit, mocha, chocolate palate with firm tannins; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (with about 6% Petite Sirah; 100% French oak, approx. 30% new and 1 and 2 yr old barrels) (90 pts.)
  • 2008 A. Rafanelli Cabernet Sauvignon – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark black red violet color; ripe cassis, berry nose; tasty, rich but complex, ripe cassis, black currant, blackberry palate with sweet tannins; medium-plus finish 91+ points (with 7-8% Merlot) (91 pts.)
  • 2008 A. Rafanelli Merlot Dry Creek Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark black red violet color; nice ripe black fruit, black plum nose with toasty French oak; plush, tart black fruit, tart berry palate with sweet tannins and good balance; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (with 10-15% Cabernet Sauvignon; an excellent California Merlot, for $32) (92 pts.)
  • 2005 A. Rafanelli Zinfandel – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark red violet color; nice, deep, berry, mulberry, black fruit, fig nose; rich but balanced, tasty, deep black fruit, berry, tart mulberry palate; should go 8-10 more years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2001 A. Rafanelli Cabernet Sauvignon Terrace Select – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Slightly bricking dark red violet color; maturing, cassis, mushroom nose with menthol lift; rich, solid, ripe cassis, cedar, berry palate with lots of round fruit yet; needs 3 more years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)

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