Until last fall, it had been a few years since I last checked out California's North Coast wineries, particularly in Sonoma, where the future seems to lie.
"Why?" you may ask. "What about Napa?"
An answer to that question has three elements:
First, Napa got there first, so to speak. A perspicacious Central Coast winemaker said to me recently - apparently referring to Robert Mondavi's gift for promotion - that if Mondavi had settled down in Sonoma, Sonoma would be what Napa is today in the popular conception of California wines. Many of California's best wines bear Napa labels, to be sure, but even so, Napa's primacy is almost as much the result of shrewd marketing as of winemaking.
Second, it's probably still true that many of the country's most admired winemakers work in Napa, but Sonoma is rapidly catching up. After all, when three generations of talented Gallos decided to move out of the Central Valley and into making premium wines, they could have gone anywhere; they went up to Sonoma, in a big and very successful way.
Their neighbors include Fred Fisher's winery, making prize-winning wines on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains; Clos du Bois, growing into the circle of the country's biggest producers, and, on a less ambitious scale, Ridge Lytton Springs, whose reds, particularly single-vineyard zinfandels, are top-drawer in any market.
Third, Sonoma has much the same vine-friendly climate and soils as Napa, and much more of both, in fact, as a glance at a map makes plain. Add in Mendocino County along the Russian River, and Napa shrinks to the size of a postage stamp.
One stop on my short list of wineries to visit on my latest trip was Dry Creek Vineyard, a stone's throw west of Healdsburg. That's the producer whose labels, reflecting founder David Stare's New England background, feature sailboats. The Dry Creek team includes Mr. Stare's daughter and son-in-law, Kim and Don Wallace, as well as Ohio native Barbara Wolfe Barrielle, a talented publicity director of boundless energy. She and her husband were Toledoans briefly on their way west.
For now, let me call your attention to Dry Creek's wines, particularly two varietals that thrive in the Dry Creek setting, zinfandels and fume blancs.
These are the stars of the winery's production; there's even a sauvignon blanc dessert wine, Soleil; a half-bottle ($20) does what a botrytized wine - affected by the same late-season mold, botrytis cinera, which does wonders in the Sauternes district of France - does so well, with a pate at the approach to a fine dinner and with a fruit flan at the conclusion.
In the spectrum of Dry Creek's output, there are some other fine wines I'll point out in next week's column.