May 8, 2013

Appel on wine: Dry Creek proof that, sometimes, simply dependable is enough

I am drawn to wines that ignite passion, that invite the strange, that aim for something high and inchoate but sometimes don't make it. Psychologically conservative myself, I compensate with wines that chart upper-right on the risk/reward graph.

Dry Creek Vineyard, based in Healdsburg, Calif., with vineyards in both the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys, does not produce such wines. Their wines are much more dependable than they are risky. They're so benchmark-y they border on calibrated; so dependable they're almost paternal.

This is good. No matter how adventurously we want to live our lives, there are times to stay on the couch and watch an impeccably produced Hollywood genre film, preferably starring Tom Hanks.

Genre wines don't have to be generic. There are 1.45 gazillion by-the-numbers faceless wines out there that offer no surprises and get by on make-up and plastic surgery. Dry Creek Vineyard wines (distributed in Maine by Pine State), instead, are calm and gracious, non-feather-ruffling, but in interesting ways.

Some people call them "elegant", but I prefer "relaxed": reliable, gracious, confident, sanguine. If you find the name on a restaurant wine list and you don't want to overthink things, this is the wine. If you're running to a party and you don't know who's going to be there, or what kind of food, and you want people to be gently, pleasantly surprised, these are the wines.

Tim Bell is Dry Creek's chief winemaker. He spoke to me lovingly of the variety of vineyards he helps maintain, cherishing both the riper aromatics and fuller fruit of grapes grown in Dry Creek Valley's warmer climes and denser soils, and the cooler, more acidity-bearing grapes from Russian River Valley's marine-influenced vineyards.

These complementary elements are nowhere more evident than with two whites made from the same varietal: The Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($16) and the Fume Blanc 2012 ($14). The latter, produced with estate fruit from both valleys' vineyards, expresses what Bell told me is a "nervous tension we're looking for" between white-peach fruit and precise mineral bite. It's incredibly fun wine with a lot going on, and was undeniable with fish I cooked in za'atar spices and served with a preserved-lemon relish. The Fume Blanc thrives on subtle spicing and secondary flavors.

The straight-up SB uses only Dry Creek grapes, harvested at higher ripeness levels than the FB, and comes across like a chastened New Zealander: gooseberry, spruce and salty sea air, with a finish like a lemon sucking candy. I much prefer the cheaper wine, because with DCV I'm after the small moments of fission and surprise, rather than the more "impressive" episodes of structure and length that the SB offers.

Bell is adamant about "very simple, very honest" cellar work for the whites: cool-temperature fermentation in stainless-steel tanks; no malolactic fermentation that would mute the fresh aromatics and crisp textures; no oak.

The Chenin Blanc ($12) is the first DCV wine I connected with. It's a terrific bargain for something Loire-inspired but unabashedly Californian. This doesn't mean what you think. Most Loire/Vouvray Chenins are full-bodied and rich in fruit, though offset by copious chalk, seashell and rock elements. The DCV Chenin, with grapes bought from longtime grower partners in Clarksburg, is actually leaner and crisper than most Vouvray, malic (apple-y) and taut.

Of course, Bell works closely with DCV's vineyard manager, Duff Bevill, and spends a lot of time tasting grapes and determining pruning, leafing and irrigation strategies. But he's just as adamant that he nurture the relationships the winery has with its grower partners.

A winery that buys sourced grapes (rather than using only "estate grown" fruit) is for some drinkers a shorthand signifier of lesser quality. I used to be one of those drinkers. But when conscientiously managed, sourced fruit keeps more land agricultural, and ensures consistency in particular wines. I started today's column by admitting that consistency isn't my priority in wine appreciation, but for a business trying to maintain long-term relationships with customers all over the country, consistency is important.

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