Dunne on wine: Dry Creek passes the oyster test

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 4D

Dry Creek Vineyard's chenin blanc is like a sports franchise that racks up a wonderful streak of wins, then slumps before regaining its winning ways.

For seven straight years during the first decade of this century, it was among the top 10 wines in the annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, a rigorous series of blind tastings in which panels in three cities – Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco – evaluate a battery of wines to determine which are best to pair with raw oysters, which they eat throughout the judging.

Then came the slump. Dry Creek Vineyard's chenin blanc was shut out of the top 10 for three straight years.

This spring, however, it again was declared an all-star, finishing in the top 10 at the 18th annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. The Dry Creek Vineyard 2011 Clarksburg Dry Chenin Blanc was the release responsible for restoring the winery's standing for producing just the sort of lean, clean and snappy wine to accompany raw oysters on the half shell.

What had happened for three consecutive vintages to account for the wine's falling out of favor? Difficult to say, but judges concluded that the wine wasn't measuring up to what competition founder and director Jon Rowley calls the "bliss factor," by which he means a clear affinity between oyster and wine. It's important, says Rowley, for an oyster wine to be clean and crisp, without a strong lingering flavor that would interfere with the delicate if distinct flavor of an oyster.

Or, as Ernest Hemingway might put it, the wine should be white, cold and crisp, capable of washing away the faint metallic flavor of the oysters, "leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture."

That's how Hemingway put it in "A Moveable Feast." With that combination, he added, he "lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."

That passage is what inspired Rowley in his continuing happy quest to find inspiring pairings of wine and oyster.

Hemingway didn't say what specific wine moved him, but it wasn't the Dry Creek Vineyard chenin blanc, which wasn't made in the 1920s, let alone exported to Paris. By California winemaking standards, however, the Dry Creek Vineyard chenin blanc has been around a long time, since 1972, when David Stare founded the winery.

Though Dry Creek Vineyard is at Healdsburg in Sonoma County, Stare early on was smitten by chenin-blanc grapes grown about Clarksburg in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, widely seen as the epicenter of the variety in California. For decades, the Stares have been getting their chenin blanc grapes from Wilson Farms of Clarksburg.

During the 40 years that Dry Creek Vineyard has been in business, it's had just five winemakers. Tim Bell, the fifth, started work last August just as the harvest was commencing. The chenin blanc is the second wine to be released at Dry Creek Vineyard under his stewardship, following the winery's 2011 fume blanc.

The chenin blanc, however, is the first that Bell has made since graduating with a degree in fermentation science from UC Davis in 1994. (Before joining Dry Creek Vineyard last summer he'd been the winemaker first at Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley and Kunde Family Estate in Sonoma Valley.)

While chenin blanc in many respects – lightness, freshness, fruitiness, crispness – is seen as California's definitive summer wine, it hasn't developed the cachet of chardonnay or the trendiness of pinot grigio. Over the past decade, acreage planted to chenin blanc in California dropped from nearly 16,000 acres in 2002 to less than 7,000 acres today.

Still, Dry Creek Vineyard remains committed to it, to the tune of nearly 10,000 cases made last fall.

"It was exciting for me to meet up with a variety I hadn't made before," says Bell of his winemaking introduction to chenin blanc. "I have a firm background in making sauvignon blanc, and chenin blanc also is an aromatic white wine that is fermented in stainless steel, so I figured it wouldn't be a whole lot different. It's a pretty straightforward wine to make."

The curve he was thrown came in the form of 2011's atypical weather, which included rains lingering through the late spring and early summer, an unseasonably cool summer, and rains returning earlier than usual, at the outset of harvest. He rushed to have the grapes brought in before the rains could do much damage, and fretted that they hadn't developed the sugars needed to yield a typical chenin blanc, which is to say one with a veritable fruit basket of smells and flavors – pineapple, peach, apple, melon and lime.

He later discovered that he didn't need to worry. Both the contents of the glass and the records from earlier vintages, which showed at least one harvest with the sugar content of the grapes lower than what he got last year, confirmed that the Clarksburg chenin blanc retained all the fruit character, solid structure and refreshing acidity that fans of the wine have come to expect.

And perhaps a bit more of each, to judge by its performance at the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2011 Clarksburg Dry Chenin Blanc

By the numbers: 12.5 percent alcohol, 9,987 cases, $12.

Context: Aside from oysters, Tim Bell likes the chenin blanc with simply prepared seafood, halibut in particular, as well as summer salads.

Availability: Bill Smart, director of communications for Dry Creek Vineyard, says the Sacramento area is an especially strong market for the chenin blanc, which can be found in such grocery stores as Safeway, Nugget Markets and Corti Brothers. It is on the wine lists of several restaurants in the region. The wine also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.drycreekvineyard. com.

More information: The tasting room at Dry Creek Vineyard, 3770 Lambert Bridge Road, Healdsburg, is open 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.

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