Last week I wrote about the Napa Valley and the Judgment of Paris. What would Napa look like today, I asked, if the Judgment of Paris hadn’t happened? Or if California wines had not done so well in the famous Paris blind tasting?
I think Sue and I stumbled upon a possible answer a few weeks ago when we were in the Santa Rosa area, where I spoke at a meeting of the Allied Grape Growers. The alternative history of Napa — the road not taken — is there for you to see … and it is very appealing.
If you want to know what I mean, set your GPS for the Dry Creek Valley.
A Tale of Two Valleys
Dry Creek Valley? Comparing DCV with the Napa Valley is crazy from a quantitative standpoint. Napa had about 46,000 vineyard acres and around 420 wineries in 2013 according to American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy. DCV is much smaller, with about 9300 acres and 65 wineries according to the same source. It is a real apples and oranges comparison for sure.
But the two winegrowing regions are not so different in other ways. George Calvert Yount planted the first Napa vineyards in 1836 and Charles Krug established the first commercial winery in 1861. The first DCV vines were planted a bit later, in 1869, by George Block, who with Alex Colson established the first winery a few years after that. Wine was a growing business in both valleys by the 1880s.
Prohibition took its toll on the wine industry in general and it took a long time for growth to return. The Robert Mondavi Winery, for example, was the first significant new Napa winery since Prohibition when it opened in 1966. David Stare’s Dry Creek Vineyards was the first post-Prohibition DCV winery when it opened in 1972. Both valleys were moving ahead by the time of the 1976 Paris tasting.
Both valleys have grown and changed over the past 50 years, but in different ways that take many forms. The city of Healdsburg, for example, has nice places to stay and to eat, but seems to have retained its comfortable small-town feel. The local baseball team — part of a summer college-level amateur league — are the Prune Packers because the valley floors hereabouts were once as carpeted with prune trees as they are today with grape vines.
95 Years in Dry Creek Valley
Driving through Dry Creek Valley with its narrow, quiet roads contrasts with the traffic on Napa’s Highway 29 (or even the usually quieter Silverado Trail that runs parallel to it on the other side of the valley). Sue and I had only a few hours available, so we picked two wineries that we wanted to visit for different reasons: Sbragia Family Vineyards and Pedroncelli Winery
Pedroncelli Winery is a multi-generation story. Julie Pedroncelli St. John’s great grandparents, Giovanni and Julia Pedroncelli, started the business in 1927 (making this year the winery’s 95th birthday). Nineteen-twenty-seven? You are correct: it was during Prohibition. The business was selling wine grapes to home winemakers, who were allowed legal production of 200 gallons of wine per year for non-intoxicating family consumption.
Zinfandel was the mainstay at the beginning and still probably the wine that Pedroncelli is best known for. But this steady theme hides constant change. The first Cabernet Sauvignon (first for the winery and for Dry Creek Valley, too) appeared in 1965 and now a full range of wines is produced, totaling about 50,000 cases a year. We enjoyed all the Pedroncelli wines, but Sue was particularly taken by the distinctive tastes of the different Zinfandels.
Julie explained that each of the wines was connected in some way to the Pedroncelli family, and the way its history is intertwined with that of Dry Creek Valley. A lot has changed in 95 years and Pedroncelli has worked hard to adapt to the changing natural and economic environments.
Dry Creek Valley Roots
Ed Sbragia, the superstar winemaker best known for his award-winning Beringer wines, established his eponymous winery in Dry Creek Valley, not Napa as you might guess, because it was an opportunity to return to his roots. Sbragia’s grandfather immigrated from Tuscany and settled near Healdsburg, where he planted a vineyard, of course, to Zinfandel grapes, which he both sold and used to make wine for the family. Ed Sbragia grew up working in that vineyard and I guess it put him on the path that led to Beringer and fame and then back to the Dry Creek Valley, too.
Adam Sbragia, Ed’s son, worked with him at Beringer and is the winemaker here. Kevin Sbragia, another son, runs the hospitality side of the business. It really is a family affair. We met with Kevin and with Steve Cousins, who is the winery CEO.
The wines reflect Ed Sbragia’s complicated journey. There are Cabernets and Chardonnays from Napa Valley fruit, as you might expect, including one Chardonnay that might remind you of the one that was named Wine Spectator Wine of the Year at Beringer. There are also wines from the Sonoma Valley, including a Zinfandel made from grapes that Ed’s father Nonino planted (and Ed worked) and another from a vineyard his uncle Italo planted.
The wines were excellent, as you would expect, and noteworthy for their balance and freshness. We were drawn to the wines made form the varieties that you’d expect to find in a field blend in this region. Sue was particularly taken with an old-vine Carignane from the Forchini’s vineyard.
Sbragia Family Vineyards shows one path that Dry Creek Valley has taken — sort of a hybrid of Old Dry Creek and upscale Napa Valley. But I think the taste of Dry Creek comes through clearly. Adam Sbragia has created a $25 red blend (imagine that, Napa Valley!) called Home Field. This video gives a sense of the project’s purpose — and a taste of Dry Creek Valley, too.
What If …
So what if the Judgment of Paris never happened. Napa Valley might have ended up looking a bit like Dry Creek Valley, with lower land and bottle prices, fewer tourists than now, and perhaps more diversity in wine grape varieties. It would be a different Napa Valley — that’s for sure — but a very appealing one.
In the meantime, this thought experiment provides a useful lesson. There are many very interesting winegrowing regions in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties and beyond that will reward wine enthusiasts who want a taste of what might have been.
You’ve just got to take the road not taken.
Apologies to Wine Economist subscribers who received a fragment of this column in their email in-boxes a couple of weeks ago. It was what they call in finance a “fat finger” problem. I was trying to schedule the text and keep working on it, but my fat fingers hit the wrong button and it went live. I took down the post quickly, but couldn’t do much about the resulting email but apologize. Sorry!