Day 3 in Sonoma: A Hit Parade of Red in Dry Creek — Unti, Ridge, & Bella

IMG_5413And finally, the last full day of our time in Sonoma and three producers in the Dry Creek Valley who all must be on your list to visit if you head to California for a wine excursion. It’s rare that you have a day when every wine you taste is great, but these three wineries gave us that and more.

My top wines are written in RED below.

(4202 Dry Creek Road,  Healdsburg, CA 95448, Ph: 707.433.5590)

For years I’ve been meaning to make it to Unti because I’d heard from people I trust that the wines were spectacular. I wasn’t disappointed.

George and Linda Unti with their son Mick are owners of this lovely property located in the Dry Creek Valley. After years of working for large companies in the wine business and drinking California wines, the family felt there was a lack of options for wine lovers that had a more European palate. In 1997, they decided to take their passion for wine and start making wines they wanted to drink from California.

If you listen to the podcast with Mick Unti, you’ll hear about his love for Mediterranean grapes and European wine styles. The Untis are one of the few (ACORN is another) making exceptionally delicious wine from “non-standard” grapes. Located in the middle of Zinfandel country in Sonoma, the Untis make Grenache, Barbera, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, and Syrah. Surprisingly, I think their least great wine is their Zinfandel!  Listen to the podcast for more detail about the Unti philosophy, how they farm, and how they are at the forefront of changing the status quo in Sonoma.  Here is a quick description of the wines:

2014 Rosé (68% Grenache, 32% Mourvedre)IMG_5029
A pale salmon color with aromas of herbs, citrus (orange), and raspberry. Bone dry with high acid, lots of green herb flavor, and a hit of red berry and citrus. A great porch wine. I brought home a few bottles for summer sipping!


2012 BarberaIMG_5543
An ultra dark crimson color, the wine stained the glass on the swirl. Beautiful aromas of violets, sour cherry, dark cherry, and cinnamon. Abundant cherry fruit and baking spice (cinnamon, nutmeg) on the taste with tannin and high acid to keep it fresh. A delicious wine.

2012 Zinfandel (76% Zinfandel, 12% Petite Sirah, 7% Barbera, 5% Syrah)
Dark maroon in color with aromas of black pepper, cinnamon, black cherry, and strawberry. The wine tasted like cherry and strawberry with a touch of spice and moderate tannin and acid. A good wine, but my least favorite of all Unti’s selections.

IMG_55412012 Grenache (85% Grenache, 15% Syrah)
Crimson with aromas of raspberry and strawberry and tons of dusty, kicked up earth scents. It tasted like black fruit, raspberry, and strawberry with lots of tannin and a counterbalance of acidity. A super long, lingering finish. High alcohol at 15.1% but with great balance and so it’s a perfect food wine with something not so spicy. Excellent.

2012 Segromigno (76% Sangiovese, 24% Montepulciano)
Re: The Name, Segromigno is near Lucca in Tuscany and where much of the Unti family is from and still lives.
Ruby colored with high aromatics. It smelled like orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, raspberry, and earth. A very different (in a good way) flavor with red and sour cherry, orange and orange peel, and earth with medium tannin and refreshing acid to keep the wine bright and clean tasting. One of my favorites at Unti.

2012 SangioveseIMG_5542
Ruby color with bright cherry, underbrush scents. If you close your eyes and smell this wine, you’ll get the sensation of walking through a forest. I was in love with the aroma. It had that same forest floor note to taste only balanced by sour, dark, and red cherry notes. Solid tannin to balance the fruit made this outrageously good.

2012 Syrah
A near black color with a complex aroma — blackberry, black cherry, boysenberry, and earth with a violet note. I expected more lush fruit on the palate, but got a reserved flavor with lots of acid and tannin. This is a food wine, and would be delicious with simply prepared meat or root vegetable dishes. It will definitely be better with age, which is why I bought a few bottles to hold!

2012 Benchland Syrah
Also dark purple in color with dark fruit, abundant black pepper, and cinnamon spice and a strong hit of underbrush/forest floor. This wine is much richer than the regular Syrah, with flavors like the aromas and much more powerful acid and tannin that seemed to integrate well with the lush fruit.

Every wine at Unti was delicious. A hit parade and a place that’s doing amazing work in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma. A must visit!


(650 Lytton Springs Road Healdsburg, CA 95448. Ph 707.433.7721)

IMG_5084Ridge’s property in the Dry Creek Valley was next. This is an icon of the California wine world. Although the original property is in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the winery sources fruit from Sonoma and has a beautiful tasting room/winery on Lytton Springs Road in the Dry Creek Valley. A word on this cool cave from their site…

“The winery at Lytton Springs is essentially an above-ground cave whose walls are made from a simple mixture of clay from the vineyard, sand, and straw. It is equipped with vents that open automatically at night to bring in cool air, straw bale insulation to maintain ideal temperatures, and photovoltaic cells on the roof to generate energy…”

A must see!

The history of the Monte Bello vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains dates back to the late1800s but its modern history began when a few Stanford Research Institute engineers bought grapes from the mountain property and made a Cabernet that convinced them they should make more wine from this singularly wonderful vineyard. About 8 years later, Paul Draper, another Stanford guy, who had learned about winemaking in Chile, joined the partners and started Ridge on a path to making some of the most lauded, consistent, and respected wine in California.

Ridge is know for its Cabernet and Zinfandel (they make 16 variations) but they make a little bit of Chardonnay and some Rhône IMG_5085varieties too. They set up their second winery in Sonoma in 1991 but have been making wine from Geyserville (northern Sonoma) for more than 40 vintages. Ridge, with its low-intervention winemaking, and meticulous attention to the land, is part of the reason California has a reputation for making excellent wine. Nearly everything Ridge makes is delicious, and it’s not outrageously expensive either.

A caveat here — Ridge is also pretty huge in comparison to every other winery we visited. It makes near or more than 100,000 cases a year and you can easily find it in your local shop. Here’s a quick description of what to expect:

IMG_50872013 Estate Chardonnay (100% barrel fermented, 100% malolactic fermentation, whole cluster pressed, from the Monte Bello Estate vineyard in Santa Cruz mountains), $50
A pale golden color, the wine smelled like caramel, apple, and lemon. It had a strong oaky taste for me — although it was crisp, there was a lot of creaminess and caramel on the palate. A good oaked Chardonnay, because it was more or less balanced, but by no means one I’d seek out. 

2013 Paso Robles Zinfandel (100% Zinfandel), $30
A dark maroon color with beautiful floral and peach aromas, which was strange and very cool. The wine was delicious! Strawberry, raspberry, peach, and dried apricot with refreshing acidity. Lovely.
2013 East Bench Zinfandel (their newest vineyard in eastern Dry Creek Valley; 100% Zinfandel), $28IMG_5088
Dark maroon with thick legs, this wasn’t very aromatic. It tasted like dark raspberry, black pepper, and cherry with a bit of violet. A refreshing wine, but middle of the road.
2013 Hooker Creek Zinfandel (from outside Glen Ellen in southern Sonoma; 96% Zinfandel, 2% Alicante, 2% Petite Sirah), $32
Dark plum with dark berry, licorice, and plum aromas. Rich, full, ripe black plum, and blackberry coated my mouth. Medium tannin and acid balanced the wine and there was a spicy, cinnamon red hot note to the finish that made the sweet fruit take on a new dimension. Excellent, tasty wine.
IMG_50902012 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel (in southern Sonoma, near Kenwood, 100 year old vines on a cool site; 90% Zinfandel, 9% Alicante Bouschet, 1% Mataro), $38
Crimson colored with sour cherry, red hot pepper, plum, and some sort of Mexican spice aroma (coriander? chili?). Plum, coffee, earth, and strong spice flavors. A wine with serious dimension — fruit, spice, great tannin and nice acid — you can’t ask for much more from a Zinfandel. Great wine.
 2013 Geyserville (from a warm site in Alexander Valley, field blend; 73% Zinfandel, 17% Carignan, 9% Petite Sirah, 1% Mourvedre), $38IMG_5089
Made from 130 year old vines, this wine is dark plum with dark flower, black plum, blackberry notes and dark soil aromas. It tasted like full black fruit with a cinnamon and fruit cake flavor and harsh tannins but this wine is a baby — it needs 5+ years and then it will be luscious, full bodied, and delicious. 
IMG_50912012 Lytton Springs  (Warm days, cool nights, old vines, great soil; 70% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignan, 3% Mourvedre), $38
A plum ruby color with tons of black cherry fruit and vanilla on the nose. The wine tasted like boysenberry, blackberry, and black tea with black pepper and mint. Delicious with a perfect balance of acid, tannin, and fruit. 
2011 Monte Bello — Ridge’s flagship wine (vineyard in Santa Cruz Mountains, at elevation with ideal soil and a cool climate for a long growing season; 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc), $165IMG_5092
A dark maroon with aromas like flowers, potpourri, fresh green pepper, and wet soil. The wine tasted like licorice, thyme, red cherry, red plum, herbs, black pepper, and baking spice. Strong tannin and acid offset the layered flavors. The finish and complexity made this wine phenomenal — it just keeps giving and giving new flavors with each sip — sweet licorice and chai tea to coffee and earth. One of the finest Cabernets from California and maybe from the New World. A real masterpiece and worth the $165
(9711 West Dry Creek Road,  Healdsburg, CA 95448. Ph: 707.473.9171)
Our last stop of the day in Dry Creek really brought me a lot of stress! A listener, Ryan Schmaltz, who is an all around great IMG_5395guy, became the assistant winemaker at Bella, a Zinfandel shop that I used to love but then became horribly disappointed by on my last visit a few years ago. The wines went from rich, full, and fruity to thin, bitter, and flavorless. I wrote them off but Ryan, whom I knew through social media (he’s a loyal podcast listener!), was so earnest and nice that I promised to go see him. I was so happy I did!
The winery has done a 180 since I last visited and they have returned to making great Zinfandel. Perhaps even a little more balanced and tasty than the original versions I tried years ago. We’ll record a podcast with Ryan to discuss his journey into winemaking and get more details from him on Bella and its transformation/evolution, so here I’ll just concentrate on the wine. Similar to Ridge, I loved that we were able to taste so many Zins side by side, to get a feel for what the different terroir could express:
IMG_53262012 Sonoma County Zinfandel,  (75% zinfandel, 16% petite sirah, 9% syrah), $20
A raspberry color with raspberry and strawberry aromas. The wine was saturated in fruit — dark plum, boysenberry, with a little black pepper and cinnamon spice, and a lovely balance of tannin and acid. A simple Zin, but tasty.
2012 Lily Hill Estate Zinfandel (95% Zinfandel, 5% Petite Sirah) $40IMG_5327
A dark plum color with black pepper spice, raspberry, and strawberry aromas. The wine tasted like plums, dried strawberry, and ripe, black and red berry fruit. It had a striking structure — the tannin reminded me of black tea. A delicious, mouth filling, yet balanced wine. 
IMG_53292012 Rocky Ridge Vineyard Rockpile Zinfandel (95% zinfandel, 5% petite sirah), $45
Rockpile is a sub-AVA known for making powerful, plush Zinfandel and this delivered! Dark raspberry colored with menthol, black plum, and dark berry aromas. The wine rolled around my mouth, coating my cheeks — it was plush, lush, and delicious, with medium tannin, cherry and blueberry flavors and a hit of great acidity to maintain balance. Excellent.
Barrel 32 Zinfandel, 100% Zinfandel, $55
This wine is a combo of the best Zinfandel fruit from Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley.A lovely light ruby color, this smelled like dark flowers, a berry briar and red berries. It was a lighter style, with blueberry and blackberry notes, and firm tannin. A good wine, but way too young to really appreciate it. I think it will evolve well. Right now, not a great sipper. 
IMG_53252013 Grenache (from the barrel, will be available next year)
A bright ruby, this wine was highly aromatic with black pepper and tons of raspberry and strawberry aromas. It tasted like spicy cinnamon, bright red cherry, juicy strawberry, and black pepper with a streak of tannin that gave the wine a complex, interesting structure. The finish was long and flavorful. Amazing.
If you follow this itinerary, I guarantee awesome results. What a day! Perfection in the Dry Creek Valley!
  • Nathan

    We have been to Bella Vineyard and LOVED their products. GREAT wine caves and really nice staff.