Off the Beaten Path in Northern California Wine Country

Food Lovers, Offbeat — By NileGuide staff on March 30, 2009 at 12:14 pm

It usually goes without saying that foodies are also winos.  For avoiding the hordes of tourists, my favorite off the beaten path wine escape in the Napa and Sonoma area is Dry Creek Valley. A 16 mile long, 2 mile wide strip of land with one of the longest growing seasons in California, DCV is known for its affordable tastings, knowledgeable locals, and some seriously gnarly old vine Zinfandel.

Historians can trace back the first grapes grown in the region to more than 130 years ago. While many of the vineyards started back then perished in Prohibition, some survived through selling grapes to home winemakers and wine to the Catholic Church (not to mention less legal alternatives). That’s how you can taste Zinfandel made from 100+ year old vines!

The region is pretty small and dense, so I’d suggest renting bikes to explore between the vineyards. Be sure to bring backpacks big enough to pack a picnic and carry whatever bottles you may buy.

Some of my Dry Creek favorites:

Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves: The main reason you should stop by Bella is for the caves. There’s something positively medieval about tasting wine in an underground cave lit by wrought iron chandeliers.

Ferrari-Carano: The grounds here are just so darn beautiful, I make a stop every time I’m up this way. The views, from the hills to the fountain to the garden full of statues and cork trees, are amazing. The wines are great too… I’m a big fan of the Fume Blanc and the Tre Terre Chardonnay. Make sure to go downstairs for the premium pours, totally worth the extra $.

Ridge Vineyards at Lytton Springs
: I grew up with my parents always ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Ridge’s Cabernet Sauvignon. Ridge specializes in single-vineyard wines, mostly Zinfandel, but my favorite element is that of eco-sustainability. Ridge utilizes solar energy for 75% of its electricity and its buildings are created out of repurposed rice straw, recycled timber, and earthen plaster.

Sbragia Family Vineyard: Situated at the top of a ridge, Sbragia offers some jawdropping dead-gorgeous views of the Dry Creek Valley. The wine is also a huge draw here: Ed Sbragia spent 30 years at Beringer before opening his own venture.

Zichichi Family Vineyards: The Zichichi’s grew and sold grapes for years before deciding to make their own wine. News traveled fast of the ridiculously tasty cabs, Petite Sirah, and Zin… so fast that they sold out of wine before ever opening the tasting room. No worries, though: the last time I visited I took advantage of the opportunity to do a barrel tasting and to buy wine ‘futures’.

Did I miss one of your favorites? Do you have your own go-to off the beaten path region? Leave me a message or send an email to!

Tags: Bella, Ferrari-Carano, foodies, Off the beaten path, Ridge, Sbragia, Wine, Zichichi, Zinfandel


  • Samya says:

    Joseph Swan Winery, in the Russian River area (near Forestville, I think) is a great no-frills place, with big dogs outside and giant barrels of wine inside. They usually have a wonderful Pinot Noir (depending on the year, I guess).

  • Wink Lorch says:

    This post brings back some great memories of a visit to Dry Creek Valley in, I think, 1996 when I was teaching about wines of California in the UK. I had two amazingly contrasting visits in this beautiful valley – both fantastic in entirely different ways.

    One was to the Frei Ranch Vineyard where the Gallo Sonoma winery is located. As a ‘special’ visitor I was greeted by a couple of the family and taken round the gorgeous, huge vineyard and then into the winery for a tour and tasting. It was at a stage when the Gallo family (notably Gina Gallo) where just realizing that good PR was about being open to questions and it was still a novelty to them welcoming visitors!

    The other was to the tiny, rustic also Italian family-owned Rafanelli winery, famous for its old vine Zinfandels. I met and tasted with owner Dave Rafanelli and he even gave me a bottle signed in a gold pen to take home with me.

    I learnt masses about the history of the valley, and in particular of the importance to the valley of the Italian immigrants and of the old original Zinfandel vines. I was lucky to have two extraordinary visits at a time when the term wine tourism hadn’t been invented.

  • Victoria Gutierrez says:

    @Samya, thanks for the suggestion. I will definitely check out Joseph Swan next time I’m up there.

    @Wink, I’ve been to Rafanelli as well… what a great little place. Dry Creek Valley was my first exposure to the California wine country and it certainly got me hooked!

  • sandy says:

    very good information!!!excellent wines can be found in California’s Sonoma Valley and Napa Regions.the wines here are generally great quality wines.


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