Off-peak weekend in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley

The ultimate picnic spot and more discoveries from our wine editor’s escape to California's wine country
Sara Schneider

The hairpins of West Dry Creek Road require a different kind of California Wine Country crawl―that slow-and-go pace useful for reading winery signs and deciding which you trust for your next glass of wine.

Travel guide:  48 hours in Dry Creek Valley

Here, it’s stop and go. I sneak a quick glance across a vineyard, maneuver a tight loop around one of the valley’s gorgeous barns, then come to a complete stop―you can do that in the middle of the road here in March―to read the highest stack of winery arrows I’ve ever seen in my life.

Even though I’ve come here in the off-season, there’s no doubt I’m in the right place for a few days of wine tastings and the kinds of serendipitous encounters that happen only in Dry Creek.

Score the ultimate picnic spot

A loop around the valley reveals way more spectacular picnic options than one could possibly act on in one weekend. But Bella Vineyards promises a cave and a site above the valley for primo views. I’m sold. The cheese case at the Dry Creek General Store yields some keepers, and I head for that northwest slope.

Adopt a cave dog

Just inside the cave door at Bella, I encounter an ancient border collie with one translucent gray eye on a cork she’s trapped on the floor, the other on the lookout for anyone brave enough to steal it and throw it for her. I take the bait and toss the cork―over and over again―finally giving her the slip.

Negotiations at the tasting bar produce a half-bottle of Bella’s Big River Ranch Zin, which Wine Enthusiast calls “lusty.” Back outside, the best table on the knoll is completely free (well, in fact, they all are). I spread out my goodies and, bundled up under sun and clouds that rule by turns, I’m queen of the valley for an hour, with Molly, my canine court jester.

Talk shop with a winemaker

Amphora Winery is high on my tasting list. After all, owner Rick Hutchinson has been known to let visitors (the female ones, anyway) take off their shoes and get in his fermentors.

There’s no stomping today, but a chat with Rick shatters my Zinfandel-centric view of this valley. It turns out that only 25 percent of the vineyards here are planted in Zinfandel.

But Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah―whatever the grape―Rick insists that all wines from here share a Dry Creek Valley character: "blue fruit" (by which I assume he means the blue versions of berries and plums).

Have a beer with the locals

Serious palate fatigue finally pulls me into the bar at the Dry Creek General Store, where, rumor has it, Gina Gallo hangs out on occasion when tourists are scarce. (She owns the place.) I’m the only person in the room whose name the bartender doesn’t know, but talk comes easy.

The opener from one guy: "You just passing through?" "Sort of," I say. "I’ve been tasting Zin all day and needed a beer." He grins. He’s been working on growing Zin all day, and I soon learn that his family is launching its own wine. No Gina sighting, but I may have just discovered the next big Dry Creek label.

Pick up some jug wine

The next day, I take on the westside hairpins again, because on Sundays you can fill a jug with wine at Preston of Dry Creek. I’m in luck, because Lou Preston has been baking bread in his outdoor oven, and I snag some of that too. Only in Dry Creek.

Next:  Things to do in Dry Creek Valley