Dry Creek Vineyard, then and now

I was rummaging through the wine cellar recently and pulled out a bottle of 1991 Dry Creek Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was superb: dark and dense, with good color, red cherry fruit, notes of tobacco leaf and cedar and firm structure. Pretty impressive for a California wine that’s closing in on 30 years of age.

But maybe that’s not so surprising for Dry Creek Vineyard, which has always made wines that are well-balanced, with considerable finesse. They’re good values, too.

Dry Creek was founded in 1972 by David Stare, with a focus on white grape varieties from the Loire Valley (sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc) and zinfandel. Cabernet sauvignon was part of the mix but not the focus.

When Stare retired in 2006, daughter Kim Stare Wallace and her husband, Don Wallace, took over. The old cab prompted me to call Kim, the winery’s president, to chat about that wine as well as the direction of the winery after all these years.

Kim Stare Wallace. (Photo courtesy of Dry Creek Vineyard)

Although Wallace was happy to hear about my experience, she wasn’t surprised. She had recently tasted through some old wines with sommeliers. “Oh my gosh … the wines have held up so well,” she said.

She attributes their longevity to the winemaking philosophy that has prevailed since the beginning at Dry Creek: “bright acidity and moderate alcohol … along with great grapes and great winemaking.”

She adds, “Beautifully made wines can age for decades.”

Even as many California wines got riper and more exaggerated, the team at Dry Creek resisted the trend. The reason, Wallace says, is “real simple. I don’t like it.” Neither does her father: “He loved wines with good acidity and balance and finesse.”

In addition, she says, referring to super-ripe wines, “I don’t believe they age well. I don’t believe they show the terroir of this region.” She adds that she wants “wines that don’t overpower the meal but enhance it.”

Although sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and zinfandel are still important at Dry Creek, when the Wallaces took over they “wanted to elevate the Bordeaux program,” she says. “It started with some very strategic vineyards.”

My 1991 reserve cab, Wallace says, was 25 percent cabernet franc, although it wasn’t noted on the label. (The franc may help explain the tobacco leaf and cedar notes.) The wine had a Dry Creek Valley appellation, but back then the winery sourced cab for some wines from throughout Sonoma County. Since then, the winery has transitioned back to 100 percent Dry Creek Valley for cabernet.

Dry Creek Vineyard, Wallace says, has increased its vineyard holdings on the western slope of the valley, where the terrain is rugged and soils are red and higher in iron. Those grapes are complemented by others from the eastern side of the valley, with its decomposing sedimentary soils.

You can see the results in the 2016 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($29), a structured wine with lively black cherry fruit and an anise note. It finishes with drying tannins that could use a couple of years to smooth out. The blend includes 10 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent malbec and 2 percent petit verdot.

“I think it’s one of the greatest values in cabernet,” Wallace says. It definitely offers a lot for the money.

I’m also impressed with the current vintage of The Mariner, the winery’s flagship cab-based blend. The 2014 The Mariner ($45) is a blend of 69 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent petit verdot, 9 percent merlot, 8 percent malbec and 2 percent cabernet franc with a Dry Creek Valley appellation. The wine displays concentrated black fruit with notes of mocha and spice, finishing with firm but approachable tannins. It’s a big wine, but it’s balanced and light on its feet.

“We really wanted to honor what he started,” Wallace says, referring to her father, “but bring the winery to a new level.”