A Sunday Drive through Dry Creek Valley

Although, it is just a couple of hours drive from Napa Valley, the Dry Creek Valley Wine Region feels worlds away.  The smaller, predominately family-owned wineries are a far more intimate experience than the large, crowded tasting rooms typically found along the Napa Valley strip.  The curvy roads cary you through the rolling hills of Northern Sonoma County and the region’s 60+ wineries.

Our strategy to determine which wineries to visit:  We would hop from winery to winery based on a trail of recommendations from the people we met along the way.  Staff at each winery we visited sent us to our next stop.  This proved to be a fun and highly successful spontaneous agenda.

Recommendation # 1:  Steve at Platypus Tours recommended Sbragia Family Vineyards.

[Long side note that must be mentioned: We ran into Steve as he was preparing a lovely lunch at Judd’s Hill in Napa for his clients.  While he was cutting fruit and cheese, and we were waiting for our wine purchase, we struck up a conversation.  He made several recommendations and phone calls to his connections to get us into some wineries, and we weren’t even on his tour!  He just wanted to help us have a great trip.  How awesome is that?  The level of service they provide to their customers must be impressive.]

Steve’s recommendation was to drive to Sbragia at the top of Dry Creek Valley (about 10 miles from Healdsburg) and work our way back down the valley which would lead us to our base in Healdsburg.  The hillside patio at Sbragia provides a perfect spot for a picnic, which you can purchase on site, or just sip a glass of your freshly purchased wine if it is that kind of day.

Recommendation #2:  Our host at Sbragia, who grew up in Sonoma, recommended Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves.

A hop, skip and a jump from Sbragia, down a beautiful tiny country road, you’ll reach Bella Vineyards.  We knew we were in the right place when we saw local folks, accompanied by frolicing dogs, who were sipping Bella’s wine (The locals, not the dogs. I think it is illegal for dogs to drink wine in California) and lunching on the lawn. What a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

A hand drawn sign pointed us into the  side of a hill,  so off we went.  There is something particularly exciting and appealing about heading inside a cave for a wine tasting.  Inside, Bella provided a couple of wine tasting stations, the first with a complimentatry fois gras and wine pairing.  Fun and delicious.  The next station towards the rear of the cave, was the location for the next tastings followed by a peek into their (usually) members only tasting room.

Bella Wine Caves in Dry Creek


Recommendation #3:  Our BFF at Bella (how can you not love someone who gives you free fois gras?) sent us down the road to their neighbor, Preston Farm and Winery.  Particularly recommended because it was Sunday.  Sunday at Preston is Jug Wine Day!

Yes, it is the day when the locals come hang out at Preston and refill their jugs full of Preston’s jug wine.  You too can sample the jug wine in a special cellar underneath their tasting room.  I must say, it was pretty darn good.  I wished I had a jug to fill. Or two.

While you are there, you can get a loaf of on-site baked breads and estate grown cured olives which, according to Ian, are some of the best olives he’s ever had.  We wished we had the bread to eat with our cheese at Bella, but we managed to enjoy it anyway.  Preston is an “organic farm and winery” and has lots of picnic items, cats roaming about the property and baby goats.  There were, not surprisingly, a plethora of picnickers here, too.  Picnicking on Sunday afternoon seems to be a popular pass-time of the locals.  I like this.  We bought an interesting Rhone-style blend, pet some cats, looked at some goats, and headed to our next stop.

Preston Winery


Serving Sunday jug wine at Preston


Recomendation #4: The folks at Preston sent us off to, Unti Vineyards, which consequently was also a suggestion of Bella.

Unti was appointment only, but it is a “come right on over” kind of place.  It is a no frills, down to business operation, where your wines are poured by a member of the Unti family who are happy to tell you about their story.  They make good wines.  We walked out with a bottle of Grenache.

That is not to say we didn’t buy something from everywhere we went.  Which we did.  How can you not?  They are great wines and as you’ll know if you’ve been to wine country most places will waive the tasting fee with purchase.  And they make great souvenirs.  You get to pull them out and remember your wonderful days in wine country.

Which brings me to the highlight of our day….

Recommendation #5:  Steve of Platypus enthusiastically recommended, Montemaggiore.

If you are looking for family-run, off-the-beaten-path wineries, this is your place. Vincent Ciolino, the wine grower and “master of all things olive” lives on site with his family (his wife is the winemaker).  Without Vince’s detailed directions it would be impossible to find (don’t rely on a GPS).  It feels like you are entering a James Bond secret compound with gates and secret codes and twisty-turny mountain to climb.  But it is worth the challenge.  Vince gave us a thorough, private tasting and upon our request, an insightful and fascinating explanation of their winemaking process.  It won’t surprise you to know that we left there with so much wine, Vince had to ship it to us, the Syrah being our favorite with the Rose coming in second.

For a great interview with Vince’s wife Lise (by Nikitas Magel) check out Vinterviews and for a description and video of their biodynamic winemaking process visit Wine Country Getaways.




Tasting at Montemaggiore


Recommendation #6:  Vince at Montemaggiore sent us to our first Russian River Valley winery, Acorn Winery, which turned out to be our second favorite of the trip.  But that had to wait for another day…




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