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California's Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley produces fine Zinfandels

| Tuesday, May 2, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
David DeSimone
Pedroncelli Winery, “Mother Clone” Zinfandel complements traditional spaghetti and meatballs with homemade sauce and cheese.

Zinfandel may have European origins, but no place produces better quality Zinfandel than Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley on the California North Coast.

Consider the 2014 Pedroncelli Winery, “Mother Clone” Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, California (Available nationally online at around $16 per bottle; in Pennsylvania, Special Order Liquor #575046; $13.89—call 1-800-332-PLCB, option #1 to order). Highly Recommended.

The wine epitomizes delicious, unpretentious pleasure. Lovely red and black fruit aromas open with a touch of brown spices and black pepper. Full, ripe flavors follow with just the right amount of fresh acidity and elegant tannins. With 14.9% alcohol by volume, it has some power. But the wine holds all elements in perfect proportion and neatly avoids the fallacy that bigger is better.

Instead, “Mother Clone” Zinfandel delivers immediate, fresh pleasure to complement classic dishes such as spaghetti with homemade meat sauce and cheese.

“We strive for balance between Zinfandel's ripe berry fruit and the black pepper component we get from the Dry Creek Valley terroir,” says Julie Pedroncelli St. John, granddaughter of Pedroncelli Winery founder, Giovanni Pedroncelli.

And what a truly beautiful and distinctive terroir. At every turn along the Dry Creek Road just outside of the town of Healdsburg, gorgeous ranks of vines cover the steep hillsides and the flatter bench terraces leading down to the Dry Creek river bed itself. Nearby, Pedroncelli Winery lies on Canyon Road towards Geyserville.

The high quality of the Zinfandel grown here turns on pronounced maritime influences, brilliant sunshine and diverse, infertile soils.

“Foggy nights during the growing season develop the balance of acids and sugars in the grapes,” Pedroncelli St. John says. “We sometimes go from over 90 degrees during the hottest times down to 50 degrees at night.”

Each night, the Dry Creek Valley — located just 20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean and 70 miles north of the San Francisco Bay — draws chilly fogs into its narrow 2-mile wide width. Sheltering mountains around the valley, however, trap early morning heat that by 10 a.m. burns off the marine fog as sunny conditions prevail.

Cool nights allow grapes to retain acidity to give backbone and structure to the wines. Warm days make for jammy, rich fruit flavors and ample alcohol levels.

Meanwhile the Dry Creek Valley's alluvial gravel soils and rocky hillsides force Zinfandel vines to struggle and focus their energies on smaller but more intense berries. Complex aromas and flavors result.

Beside climate and soils, crucial human factors play a role with Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels. French and German settlers began planting grapes here in the mid-19th century, and the first commercial Zinfandel appeared in 1872. Italian grape growers arrived in the early 20th century to continue the traditions. After purchasing the Home Ranch property in Dry Creek Valley in 1927, the Pedroncelli family carefully maintained the head-pruned, dry farmed Zinfandel vines. When the family began replanting the vineyard in the 1980s, they “cloned” the old “mother” vines.

“Cloning meant using historic budwood, planting in the same head-pruned style on the same root stock along with the same vine spacing,” Pedroncelli St. John notes. “If you saw the vineyard in the 1960s and now, it looks virtually the same.”

Pedroncelli's signature “Mother Clone” Zinfandel uses fruit both from the Home Ranch vineyards and other vineyards cultivated in sustainable, traditional style.

Another key to success involves picking at just the right moment. As a relatively thin-skinned grape, Zinfandel requires skilled eyes and lots of tasting during maturation. If the grapes hang too long, the berries turn prune-like; pick them too early, and unpleasant “greenness,” inadequate alcohol and high acidity result. The Pedroncellis engage in the art of winegrowing, not wine manufacturing.

After deciding to pick, the family and its team harvest manually with meticulous attention to detail. In the winery, John Pedroncelli oversaw winemaking until he passed away at age 90 in 2015. Montse Reece, a Spanish and California trained winemaker who had assisted John Pedroncelli since 2007, then took the helm.

Like John Pedroncelli, she lets the wines speak for themselves in an understated style. The time-tested approach faithfully presents Zinfandel's enduring beauty wrapped in the Dry Creek Valley's rural spirit. Don't miss it.

Dave DeSimone is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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