Planning a trip to Sonoma wine country and looking for the best wineries in Dry Creek Valley? This guide has everything you need.
Nearby Napa Valley is world-renowned for famous producers and big-ticket bottles. But in Sonoma’s more rural Dry Creek Valley, you can still find small family-run wineries that have a laid-back vibe.
And if you’re a fan of Zinfandel, you’re in luck! Because this fruity and spicy wine is a specialty of the region. Although, there are plenty of other varieties to swirl and sip on too.
Read on to find out the best Dry Creek wineries to visit and learn about this beautiful wine region.
BTW, if you haven’t yet, make sure to grab my free Wine Tasting Planner. It has 20+ wine night theme ideas, including the exact ones I’ve used for my wine tastings. Plus, a timeline, food pairings, games, free printables, worksheets, and more. Get your copy here.
History of Dry Creek Valley
California wine didn’t really gain international recognition until 1976 when it beat France in a blind wine tasting. If you’re not familiar with it, this was dubbed the Judgement of Paris. And it was certainly a shocker for more than just the French!
However, vines were planted and wine was made in California long before this time. Dry Creek Valley was one of the earliest in the northern part of the state, with the first vines dating back to the 1870s.
Ironically, the guy who planted them was a Frenchman named Georges Bloch.
So, what happened in those 100 years? Well, the root louse phylloxera made it very difficult to grow non-native vine species (Vitis Vinifera). Until they figured out how to graft the vines onto American rootstock.
And then there was this little thing called Prohibition that happened in the 1920s. Some wineries survived by selling grapes or grape juice to individuals with a warning not to add yeast (wink, wink). But for the most part, it wiped out the industry.
After Prohibition, wineries started to reform. And many of the vines from those days have survived, making Dry Creek Valley known for its old vine wines.
The Dry Creek Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) was officially formed in 1983. Today, there are more than 70 Dry Creek Valley wineries and 9,000 vineyard acres.
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Dry Creek Valley Climate
Sonoma is a larger area than Napa Valley, with much more variation in climate. Just south of Dry Creek Valley, the Russian River Valley is cool enough to grow grapes like Pinot Noir.
But further inland away from the cold Pacific Ocean breezes, it gets hot. And Dry Creek Valley is one of the warmest regions in Sonoma County.
The Mediterranean climate means temperatures are fairly consistent year-round. And it creates dry conditions that are ideal for the region’s robust wines.
The name comes from none other than the “Dry Creek,” which runs through the middle of this 16-mile long and 2-mile-wide valley. Further south, the creek joins the Russian River.
What Wine is Dry Creek Valley Known For?
Dry Creek Valley is known for producing premium, old-vine Zinfandel. This red grape is an uneven ripener. So, you can get both raisined and underripe fruit in a single harvest.
This means the wines can have very concentrated flavors with high alcohol (up to 17%!). But they may also have some herbaceous qualities from the underripe grapes.
Sometimes Zinfandel can have overly jammy flavors. But when done right, you’ll get juicy red and black fruits with spicy notes like black pepper and licorice.
Zinfandel originally came from Europe and is a close relative of Southern Italy’s Primitivo.
But it was the United States that named the grape in the mid-1800s. And America has sort of claimed it as its own. So, you won’t find it in many other places in the world.
Zinfandel was first planted in California in 1852. After Prohibition, Dry Creek Valley was really the one to champion its return. That’s why you’ll find many of the old vines in the region date back more than 100 years.
In fact, Dry Creek Valley has some of the densest concentrations of old-vine Zinfandel in the world! The best ones come from the higher sites above the fog line. And you’ll find more Sauvignon Blanc planted on the flatter lower lands.
When to Visit Dry Creek Valley Wineries
You can’t go wrong with visiting Dry Creek Valley pretty much any time of the year.
As one of the warmer parts of Sonoma, it will reach the upper 80s in the summer. And crowds are at their peak from June through October.
So, if you’re looking for a little peace and quiet, the winter can be a nice time. You’ll just need to plan your wardrobe for cooler weather.
This can also be a great time to explore one of the world’s best wine-cycling routes. It starts in the town of Healdsburg and does a loop through Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley. Along the way, you’ll pass many top wineries where you can stop and sip.
If you’re visiting in late April, don’t miss the annual Passport to Dry Creek Valley. A pass lets you visit 30+ participating wineries without making advance reservations. And it includes food pairings, access to winemakers, and entertainment like live music.
The Best Wineries in Dry Creek Valley
Unti Vineyards is a small, family-owned winery on Dry Creek Road about a 10-minute drive north of Healdsburg. George and Mick make up a father-son team and founded the winery in 1997. Now the rest of the family helps out.
They’ve been organically farming their 60 acres of vines since 2003. And they specialize in Rhône varieties like Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache Blanc. Plus, Italian varieties, including Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Barbera, and Vermentino.
Of course, being in Dry Creek Valley, they also grow Zinfandel.
While Unti uses modern equipment, many of their winemaking practices go back to traditional methods. This includes using indigenous yeast for fermentation.
And they ferment and mature up to 60 small batches of wine in a variety of different vessels. From stainless steel, to cement eggs, to large and small French oak, this gives many different blending options.
As a small, family-run winery, reservations are a must for visiting. You’ll be able to learn about and sample 6 of their current releases in the cozy tasting room overlooking the vines.
Dry Creek Vineyard
Heading south from Unti, you’ll find Dry Creek Vineyard on Lambert Bridge Road, just off Dry Creek Road. This was the first new winery established in Dry Creek Valley after prohibition.
Founder David Stare caught the wine bug after living in Germany and visiting France. He fell in love with the wines of the Loire Valley and the Bordeaux region. And took a chance by moving his whole family from Boston to California to start a winery.
At the time, no one had attempted to plant Sauvignon Blanc in the area. But David was determined to create white wines like those found in France. So, that’s what he did.
What was once a prune farm across from the Dry Creek General Store is now the site of Dry Creek Vineyard. And they specialize in both Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.
You’ll find unoaked and oaked styles (known as Fumé Blanc) of Sauvignon Blanc. Plus, they produce nearly 10 Zinfandels from different vineyard sites.
Book a private tasting to sample these along with some of their other wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc. Or go for one of the more specialized tasting experiences like all Zinfandel or all Bordeaux-inspired wines.
This is also a great place to have lunch, with an option to book a picnic with your tasting.
Lytton Springs Road branches off Dry Creek Road and is home to Mazzocco Winery.
Diane and Ken Wilson started as grape growers in Dry Creek Valley. They eventually had the opportunity to take on Mazzocco as part of the 11 wineries in the Wilson Artisan Wineries family.
Antoine Favero has been the long-time winemaker. Born in France’s Champagne region, his family moved to Northern California when he was a child. And he discovered his passion for enology while attending UC Davis.
If you’re a Zinfandel lover, Mazzocco is a must-visit. They have more than a dozen different versions made from single vineyard plots. These range from rocky soils at high elevations to loamy valley floors.
Rather than blending them, they bottle the individual sites to show the unique flavors and aromas that come from the locations’ terroir. (Basically, a combination of the climate, soil, and terrain.)
Tasting and comparing these side-by-side is a great way to experience the different styles of wine. Make a reservation for the Garden Experience to sample 5 wines.
Or if you want to go beyond Zinfandel, they also produce wines from other varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Sauvignon Blanc.
A little further down Lytton Springs Road is the Lytton Springs location of Ridge Vineyards. This highly regarded producer first started making wine in 1885. But its modern history began in 1962 when four Stanford scientists rebonded the winery.
Focusing on low-intervention wines, Ridge has become the largest farmer of organic grapes in Sonoma County.
In an industry that is rarely transparent about what goes into your wine besides grapes, I love that they list all the ingredients on the back of their bottles. And they even tell you how long to hold the wine if you’re inclined to age it.
The Lytton Springs location became part of Ridge in 1991. However, some of the blocks of old vine Zinfandel are up to 115 years old.
You may be starting to sense a theme with Dry Creek Valley. Ridge is yet another producer that specializes in single vineyard wines. You’ll find mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and, of course, Zinfandel. But they also grow Rhône varieties like Syrah, Grenache, and Carignane.
The Dry Creek Valley tasting room is a unique building, operating mostly on solar power and made from straw bales and vineyard clay. Make an appointment to enjoy an Estate Tasting with five wines on their beautiful deck overlooking the vineyards.
Or for something extra special, take the Century Tour and Library Tasting. After the estate tour, you’ll experience a comparison of the current releases versus older vintages of the same wines.
Back on Dry Creek Road heading south toward Healdsburg, you’ll reach Nalle Winery. This boutique producer is one of Dry Creek Valley’s hidden gems. It’s been passed down through several generations.
Fred and Ruby Henderlong bought the property in 1927 and planted a vineyard with Zinfandel. Their daughter Lee later married Doug Nalle, who had experience with winemaking and began making his own wines from the land’s vineyards.
By the 1980s, Doug had made a name for Nalle Winery. The old vines were producing top-quality Zinfandel that was recognized by the likes of Wine Spectator.
And as the next generation, Andrew Nalle and his wife April have continued the family business of making great wine.
Nalle’s style of Zinfandel is more elegant and restrained than the bold, high-alcohol versions you’ll find elsewhere. It has bright fruit and a well-balanced structure.
Beyond Zinfandel, they also produce some Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. All these wines are hard to find outside of the winery. So, it’s well worth the visit to get your hands on some.
What’s really unique is that instead of wine caves, Nalle has a living roof cellar. It’s made from a concrete arch that has several feet of soil and greenery on top. And it naturally keeps the cellar cool without using energy.
You can enjoy a flight of four wines in their rustic outdoor space right behind the cellar. Being a small operation, you’ll often be greeted and served by one of the Nalles themselves.
They only offer tastings on select days so make sure to check their schedule and book in advance.
Seghesio Family Vineyards
Ending just outside of downtown Healdsburg, Seghesio Family Vineyards has its roots in Italy. Edoardo Seghesio left Piedmont in 1886 to start a new life in America.
He landed in Northern Sonoma County, which seemed like prime winegrowing landing. So, he planted one of Italy’s most prized grape varieties: Sangiovese.
Those vines, along with the winery, survived prohibition. They were one of the few that hung on by selling grapes to families.
Five generations later, Seghesio can claim North America’s oldest plantings of Sangiovese. They also still harvest the Zinfandel that Edoardo grew on the home ranch.
The term “old vines” is not regulated in the U.S. but all those that Seghesio labels this way are a minimum of 50 years old. And some sites average closer to 75 years.
These make a variety of different Zinfandels from plots throughout their 300 acres of vineyards.
Plus, they specialize in other Italian varieties like Barbera and Vermentino.
The tasting room is an easy walk from downtown Healdsburg. If you’d like to do a seated tasting or a tour, make a reservation. You can even book a bocce court and order a bottle.
Or if you have the kids in tow, bring a picnic to the no-reservations-necessary Wine Garden. Furry friends are welcome too!
Looking for more U.S. wine destinations? Check out the best wineries in Fredericksburg, TX, North Fork Long Island wineries, and wineries in Northern Virginia.
Where to Stay in Dry Creek Valley
The town of Healdsburg is the best home base for exploring wineries in Dry Creek Valley. If you’re traveling from San Francisco, it’s about a 1.5-hour drive.
Outside of being named by CNN as one of the nation’s most romantic small towns, Healdsburg’s charming town square is also filled with wine tasting rooms. And it’s just a short drive (or bike ride) to all the places above.
In between sipping vino, you can check out the town’s many cute shops, galleries, antique stores, and excellent restaurants.
For a cozy inn that’s within walking distance of Healdsburg square, I recommend staying at The River Belle Inn. A delicious farm-to-table breakfast is included. And you can enjoy a glass of wine in their Adirondack chairs while taking in stunning views of the Russian River.
You can find The River Belle Inn and many other great options on Booking.com. Just enter “Healdsburg, California” and select your dates below to see available options.
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Have you visited any of these Dry Creek Valley wineries? Which one is your favorite?
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