Sirah that aint Petite (Dry Creek & Alexander Valleys, California)

My second day in Sonoma County had me heading further North into the Dry Creek Valley. As the name suggests the climate is a lot drier and warmer with quite cool nights. If I were to compare it to a region in Australia, it would be similar to Bendigo. The two most important varieties here are zinfandel, that classic California grape, and petite sirah. It wasn’t until I came to Dry Creek that I was reminded that petite sirah is another name for durif, the famous Rutherglen grape. This made a lot of sense and of course I felt a bit silly for forgetting.

Breakfast of champions

Having visited Ridge Vineyards Montebello South of San Francisco, I was keen to visit the Lytton Springs winery to try some more wines. At Lytton Springs they naturally produce zinfandel, but they specialise in single-vineyard expressions of zinfandel, and commonly blend other varieties with it. The wines are all priced well, and are very well-made, apart from one minor thing. I found them to be generally hot with alcohol. The interesting thing about this is the fact that I have tried wines thus far that have had higher levels of alcohol that haven’t appeared hot. I’m not sure what it was about many of the Ridge zinfandel based wines, perhaps they didn’t have the fruit to support the alcohol, but they were hot and a tad extractively course. As you can imagine this was disappointing after having such a profound experience at the Montebello vineyard.

Ridge Lytton Springs vineyards

Just down the road is Dry Creek Vineyard, the first commercial winery to be established after Prohibition in 1972. It is still a second-generation family owned and operated winery that was originally inspired by the chateaus of the Loire Valley in France. The labels of the wines almost ironically have images of sailboats on the ocean. The wines themselves are very solid performers, representing value for money, but I felt they were very safe wines. Whilst they have a significant pedigree, and I admire the fact they are still family owned, the wines are very clean and straightforward. The chenin blanc and merlot were pretty good, but otherwise nothing to get excited about.

Dry Creek Vineyards

The previous day I had been recommended to visit Mounts Family Winery to try authentic expressions of zinfandel and petite sirah. Mounts have been growing grapes expertly in the Dry Creek Valley for 60 years, selling their fruit off. They now set aside about 20% of their harvest to make wines themselves, and they are most definitely authentic. The wines are big, and I mean huge. Ripe and extractive, quite alcoholic and bold. And yet they manage to hold everything together, I can’t really explain how. The syrah rose is the best rose I have tried here, bone-dry and slightly savoury. The grenache is in the rich Barossa style, the cabernet is a powerhouse and the petite sirah would put Rutherglen to shame. I like the understatement and the willingness to make wines in this style, trends be damned. Whilst they might not be the kind I would choose from a wine list to go with food, they are good wines and shouldn’t be embarrassed about it.

Mounts Family Winery

A. Rafanelli have been around for over 100 years in Sonoma, growing grapes that for many years went into jug wine, like most of Sonoma. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they began making their own wines for commercial sale, and they focused on three varieties; zinfandel, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The wines have a cult following, with a 1 year waiting list to purchase. They only take appointments to taste (which they interestingly don’t charge for, one of the only ones), and they don’t read emails so don’t bother sending them. The wines are as robust and bold as any other I have tried in California (or Australia for that matter), but they have a really nice balance and layers of complexity. The cabernet in particular is very dense and dark, but would age exceptionally well. The rustic charm of this winery is undeniable, and it could easily be dropped in Tuscany and not feel out-of-place.

A. Rafanelli tasting room

Before heading to Mendocino I poked my head in at a really cool Dry Creek Valley commune of tasting rooms. They are mostly very boutique operations, producing less than 5,000 cases, so I was intrigued. The first I visited was a winery named Papapietro Perry, which is quite a mouthful, try to say that after a bottle of wine. Specialising in small-lot wines from numerous sub-appelations, their key variety is pinot noir. I was mightily impressed with the pinots, but I think they had the best zinfandel I’ve ever tasted. It was very delicate and savoury, an actual food-friendly zin! It’s possible that my preference for elegant cooler-climate wines may have clouded my judgement, but I’d been tasting all day so leave me alone! The other winery I checked out was named Kokomo, which make very honest expressions of regional wines that you’d never quibble over the price. It’s a friendly tasting room in the actual winery, but this time of year tends to attract the fruit flies which are a nuisance!

Kokomo winery and tasting room

Click here to see more photos from Day Two of Sonoma County, California.

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