The Dry Creek Valley ~ Where Sustainable Farming is Fresh.
I traveled to the Dry Creek Valley in California a few weeks ago for an introduction to the town of Healdsburg, the food, the wine and the scenery. It was a quick hop on a small plane from Seattle to the Charles M. Schultz – Sonoma County Airport. What better way to start a trip than to be greeted by Snoopy. I was grateful for the sunshine after many rainy days and the drive into town was beautiful. Healdsburg is a lively small town full of farm to table eateries, wine tasting establishments, shopping, and art galleries.
After a few days here, I found that what impressed me most beyond the beauty, and the tastes, was the passion and the personalities. The unique character of the Dry Creek Valley was apparent in the ethics and values from the families that cultivate it.
My stay began at Hotel Les Mars, an exquisite French hotel in the heart of the spirited small town. In my room, I was queen. I rejoiced when I saw the bathtub, the plush white robes, the four poster bed and the box of truffles on my pillow.
The atmosphere was romantic, private, and pampered. The service was polite, prompt and insightful. I heard there was a pool but I never ventured out to find it, the cool quiet spaces always captivated me.
Dinner took place across from the hotel at a restaurant called Baci. While the atmosphere was colorful, the food exceptional, and my waiter old school gentlemanly, I was most intrigued by the story of my host and how the restaurant came to be. Lisbeth Holmefjord was born on a small island in Norway. She became the manager of a travel agency and met her husband Shari, the Chef at a restaurant she frequented while traveling in Italy; A magical pairing as the food and the hosting were delightful.
Michael, my waiter, suggested I try the Mueller Emily Cuvee Pinot Noir. It complimented my dinner very well. The beet salad with shaved fennel, blood orange dressing and olive oil was scrumptious. I was wooed by entrees and bypassed the gluten free pasta for the organic lamb shank with polenta and wild mushrooms. There was now only room left for tea and a glass of the Petrified Forest Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. And yes it was the name that enticed me.
The next morning began with a loop run around the area, I was all jazzed up to get to the Russian River, so I ran 2 miles to get there. I discovered that there isn’t much access for pedestrians but instead I enjoyed the shade, the homes with lots of viewing decks and porches and the enchanting little B & B’s along North Fitch Mountain Road. I also got a nice hill climb in, I was ready for the wineries now.
Lambert Bridge Winery has vintage trucks, fuzzy big personable dogs, and an enchanting cabin like atmosphere in the tasting room. The winemakers are women and the grounds are spectacular. We were treated to a pizza making class with Chef Andrea Mugnaini around the wood fired ovens in the garden and then lunch under the umbrellas. My favorite pizza was topped with carmelized onions, local point reyes blue cheese, and thyme. 70% of the fruit for their wines is grown on site and all the fruit is hand-picked. The motto here is quality and not quantity. I was to find this to be a consistent theme in the Dry Creek Valley.
Martorana Family Winery appealed to my appreciation of sustainable building with it’s green roof and underground tasting room. It had a welcoming, casual atmosphere with a Bocce Court next to the tasting tables and bikes parked in front.
Gio Martorana is the winemaker here and visionary for the new building. Sustainability and organic growing are stressed. Compost for the vineyard comes from the San Francisco food scraps program and shrimp shells are trucked in from the city as well. The green roof is planted with sedums. The insulation of the earth on the roof and walls below reduce energy consumption.
Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves provided us with a most delicious watermelon gazpacho before we clambered into the safari jeep tour vehicle and headed for the hills. The Lily Hill Estate Vineyard sits atop of the Wine Caves. The climb was steep and bumpy but our wine did not spill and the views were lovely.
Wines are produced in small quantities from small lots in the Valley. Lily Hill Estate produces zinfandel grapes from 85 year old vines. Bella Vineyards include the Big River Ranch, Lily Hill Estate, Belle Canyon Vineyard, and Two Patch.
At the Timber Crest Farms we were treated to a tour of a commercial olive press, one of the only olive oil presses in the U. S.
Tim Bucher owner of the Dry Creek Olive Oil Company tells us the origins of his grinding wheels and the olive oil making process.
A demonstration on how to make homemade aioli by Relish Culinary had our taste buds ready for dinner. A family-style meal ensued with the owners of the wineries of Timber Crest Farms: Fred Peterson of Peterson Winery, Erik Miller of Kokomo Winery, Rick Hutchinson of Amphora Winery, Barry Collier of Collier Falls Winery, and Nancy Beeken, the Director of Marketing for Papapietro Perry Winery. It was here over pairings of wine with fresh locally sourced food, and stories, and more wine, and much laughter that the personalities shone and insights into the business were divulged. Everyone at the table was extremely passionate about the landscape surrounding us, the art of wine making and the integrity of keeping it small and in the family.
Trattore Estate Wines boasts shiny red tractors that are the inspirations behind the name. Here, olive trees line the vineyards alongside the grape vines. Tim Bucher is also the owner of the Dry Creek Olive Oil Company. Complimenting our wine tasting, we sampled blood orange olive oil with bread and cheese followed with hacienda olive oil drizzled over brownies.
At Trattore Estate Winery micro-picks and sustainable farming yield fruit from a variety of vines including Petite Sirah, Grenache, Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Zinfandel.
The Dry Creek General Store has a bustling deli, local crafts and is filled with delicious smells.
At the Dry Creek Vineyard we tasted wines in the gardens, ate a catered lunch from the Dry Creek General Store and blended our own wine.
First we tasted a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec & Petit Verdot. Then, like mad scientists we added dropper fulls of wine to our beakers, swirled and voila! The Louise Lakier blend was born. It would take a lot more experimenting before I would share.
Ferrari-Carano ranches are known for their Land Stewardship. Practices include fish-friendly farming, river bank restoration, the use of baby doll sheep for grazing, weeding, and fertilizing, and bee keeping. I was most impressed to learn about the tree sap and locally sourced crushed rock alternative used on site in lieu of asphalt paving. Villa Fiore, the Estate Winery and Visitor’s Center is known for the glorious gardens, which we toured.
We ran out of time to meet the baby doll sheep. They are two feet tall and can’t reach the grapes. They are credited for keeping the grass and weeds down around the vines.
The geek in me loved seeing the conveyor belts, gigantuan stainless steel settling tanks and extensive storage rooms of oak barrels.
The Dry Creek Valley is a beautiful and enchanting place. The wine growers and wine makers here have a deep understanding of their relationship to the land and it’s bounty. Sustainable farming, restoration, organic growing, hand-sorting, hand-picking, hand-crafting and small lots are consistent themes in operations. Quality is paramount and takes precedence over high profits. The wine-makers here are passionate about doing what they love, living in the Valley and making unique wines.
Before heading back to Snoopy’s headquarters to catch a flight home to the Pacific Northwest, I popped into a small bakery in the center of Healdsburg called Moustache Baked Goods for some tea. I was treated to a gluten-free cupcake I can’t stop talking about, honey cake filled with honey mousse and topped with blood orange icing. That cupcake pretty much summed up the trip for me.