I am a “locavore,” not in the original definition of the term — someone who only eats food grown or produced nearby — but rather in the sense that I seek out and enjoy local specialities native to particular regions or places.
Until recently in human history, most local or regional specialties, from mochi cakes to açai juice and beyond, were unavailable (and in most cases completely unknown) to the outside world. But sometimes a local delicacy’s reputation spreads nationally or even globally, and suddenly there is a growing customer demand for a product (such as Greek yogurt or boba tea) which until that time had been made only in limited quantities. Into this gap step counterfeiters and name-stealers who profitably pass off to an unwitting public an inferior (or at least inauthentic) product passing as the real thing.
Perhaps the best-known example of this deception is “Parmesan cheese.” Originally known locally as Parmigiano (from the region around Parma, Italy), it gained fame regionally over the years as far and away the best topping for pasta. As long as pasta remained a local Italian dish, there was enough real Parmigiano to satisfy domestic demand, but after WWII when pasta quickly spread around the world as a newly popular meal, suddenly there was not nearly enough real Parmigiano being produced for all those diners from Honolulu to Helsinki who needed something to sprinkle on their spaghetti. And so imitators popped up across Europe and America to make a cheap substitute (spelled “Parmesan” for easy pronunciation) that was vaguely similar to but not nearly as good as real Parmigiano. Consequently most people now think of Parmesan as a type of salty sawdust found at pizza parlors rather than a piquant and delectable regional specialty from Parma.
To prevent this kind of brand degradation, many countries have recently established strict food labeling laws; the European Union, in particular, has an extensive and rigorously enforced system for identifying and protecting local specialties. This system was itself derived from an earlier system of “appellations” specifically meant to protect the reputations of local wines which had had earned international fame. Some appellations, or legally protected regional wine names, date as far back as the 18th century; the four oldest ones are Chianti from Italy, Tokay from Hungary, Port from Portugal, and Champagne from France. Each language of course has its own term for these laws, but the French appellation has become the standard catch-all name, since France established the first and most extensive labelling laws to guarantee the authenticity of its legendary wines.
In the United States, the term we use for American wine appellations is “AVA,” which is not a word but an acronym standing for American Viticultural Area. We as a nation are comparative newcomers to the appellation scene; our AVA system was not established until 1980, which is right around the same time (not coincidentally) that American wines began to garner a reputation equal to or even surpassing that of European wines.
By now there are over 200 AVAs across the United States, with more of them in California than in all the other 49 states combined. AVAs can be of almost any size, with some of the largest spanning several states, while others occupy just a few acres at a single winery.
Recently we were given the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the most desirable AVAs in the country, Dry Creek Valley AVA in Sonoma County, part of California’s world-famous Napa/Sonoma wine country. We jumped at the chance, specifically to answer the age-old question: What makes local specialties unique? Is it the climate, the culture, the people, the recipes, the very dirt under our feet? The answer in all cases, it turns out, is “Yes.”
Dry Creek Valley
California’s “wine country” is actually two adjacent counties, Napa and Sonoma. Of the two, Napa remains the best known internationally, but Sonoma is a close second. Within each county are several highly localized wine-growing mini-regions, most of which have been granted official “AVA” status. The Dry Creek Valley AVA occupies a narrow creekbed in the northwest of Sonoma’s wine-growing area.
As we were to learn on the tour, Dry Creek Valley’s micro-climate and particular soil characteristics were long ago discovered to be absolutely perfect for growing one particular type of finicky grape known as Zinfandel, and as far back as the 19th century Dry Creek was already known for its high-quality Zinfandel wines — a reputation that has never dimmed.
Despite its comparatively small size, Dry Creek Valley is jam-packed with wineries and vineyards covering nearly every available square inch of land. One could spend weeks touring them all, but we had only one afternoon and limited our visit to just four.
Our first stop was at Fritz Underground Winery at the northern end of the valley where our oenological education began with an “Aromatics Seminar” led by Fritz’s winemaker Brad Longton.
Wine connoisseurs will often differentiate appellations and vintages by noting the subtle aromas given off by each glass. At Fritz we were given the opportunity to test our olfactory skills: we were not only allowed to sniff and taste a series of Fritz’s best wines, but then also presented with fruits, flowers and spices to smell which supposedly matched the complex aromas of each wine sample.
While it was a pleasant exercise and certainly easy to convince oneself that the Sauvignon Blanc really did exude the aromas of sweet-pea flowers and pineapple, as we were informed it did, even so I got to wondering whether the seminar participants would have identified the same aromas if we had not all been told ahead of time what to expect. So on the Zinfandel portion of the demonstration I closed my eyes and tried to discern, without any prompting from an expert and without bowing to group psychology, what aromas I smelled. I detected kiwi fruit, burnt matchsticks, and horehound drops, which was better than it sounds and quite different from the “ripe raspberry, bittersweet chocolate and ripe plum” that I was supposed to detect. Fascinating! And quite an education on the subtle differences between various local wines.
The “underground” part of Fritz Underground Winery refers to its unusual architecture, with the winery literally built into a hillside, which allows the wine to flow through the various processing steps by gravity alone, a natural flow which preserves certain flavors and further differentiates Fritz’s wines from anyone else’s. I’d always heard that wine was aged in “caves,” and wondered if that was just a euphemism for a cool storage room, or if it really referred to actual caves. Well, as you can see, in Fritz’s case at least, they really are caves.
Next stop was Mauritson Wines where we got down to the real nitty-gritty of what distinguishes one wine from another: the very soil in which the grapes are grown. Like many of the wineries in Dry Creek Valley, Mauritson is family-owned and so we were lucky enough to have the knowledgable Cameron Mauritson himself present a series of wines from various parts of the AVA paired with samples of the dirt from which the vines draw their nutrients and minerals.
Each of the soil samples was remarkably different from all the others, and as we sipped the delectable samples Cameron explained the centuries of experience and wisdom the vignerons employ in choosing which varietals to plant in which kind of soil, at what elevation, and so forth.
We learned, for example, that red wine grapes do best in rocky, less fertile soil, which stresses the vine and consequently helps produce more tannins and a richer flavor (albeit with decreased harvest), while white grapes require less time to ripen and thus need more fertile soil to get a greater amount of nutrients in a shorter season.
Dry Creek Valley, despite being a very small appellation, has numerous distinct sub-regions, with some vineyards on the valley floor, others on the “benchlands” or flat strips partway up the hillside, and others near the crests of the encircling hills. Each and every vineyard in Dry Creek Valley is essentially unique, with different soils, different elevations, different fertility, more or less fog, sunshine and wind, differing levels of drainage or water retention. All this in a valley just two miles wide and sixteen miles long! Imagine the differences from region to region, state to state, nation to nation. This is the essence of what makes each wine “local.”
Our next stop was the lavish and beautiful Quivira Vineyards & Winery, where we got to commune with the grapevines themselves in a tour of the extensive vineyards and garden — while sampling their wine, naturally.
And “naturally” is the appropriate word, as Quivira is a strictly organic winery, using no chemical fertilizers and nothing artificial whatsoever.
In fact, Quivira takes it even a step further and is now a certified “biodynamic” farm, which out-organics mere organic and treats the entire winery as a living organism.
While there is a lot to admire about biodynamics, it does have an eccentric “mystical” aspect which Quivira freely discusses on its own website, for the sake of full disclosure:
The spiritual side of biodynamics is a bit more difficult to grasp. The originator of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, proposed many techniques well outside the realm of proven science. The mystical side of biodynamics includes making fertilizer preparations during certain moon phases, stirring in different directions at different times, applying the organic matter of cow horns in the vineyards, burying cow horns in our organic garden beds.
Although these types of farming techniques have been around for centuries – from 15th century Italian farms to 17th century Native American garden plots – in these modern times it is harder to allow for the unexplained. Yet we see the results every day out in the vineyards, as vines strengthen and thrive using these techniques.
I admit I’m a little skeptical about the efficacy of Steiner’s mystical and astrological instructions, but they certainly don’t hurt — if the excellence of Quivira’s wines is anything to judge by.
During the tour we finally encountered Dry Creek itself, which wends through Quivira’s extensive estate. It used to be dry most of the year (hence the name), flowing only in winter and spring, but in 1982 it was dammed upstream to create Lake Sonoma, and now a controlled release creates a flowing creek year-round, which allows salmon to spawn there.
Quivira also maintains a huge biodynamic garden, produce from which is used by local chefs, while all proceeds from sales are donated to charity.
And off we went once again through more vineyards to our final destination, Dutcher Crossing Winery, where owner Debra Mathy and winemaker Kerry Damskey welcomed us, along with the winery’s mascot and namesake, Dutchess the Labrador Retriever.
At Dutcher our newfound knowledge was put to the test as each of us on the tour was expected to create our own Zinfandels in a “blending seminar.” Here we learned the final step of what makes each kind of local wine different from every other kind — the proportions of how much each grape varietal are mixed to make the final bottled product. With test-tubes and precisely calibrated pipettes we bravely tried to follow instructions from master mixer Kerry Damskey.
This was no idle exercise, but a serious competition. Our personal blends were then judged on quality by a panel of experts in a double-blind taste test; needless to say, my eccentric combination of 75% Zinfandel, 16% Grenache, 8% Rhone reds and 1% Sirah came in somewhere near last place.
That disappointment was more than made up for by a celebratory dinner literally in the Dutcher vineyards.
It was at this final event that I tasted what ended up being my favorite wine of the day, 2012 Viognier from Thumbprint Cellars.
Even though we had spent all day exploring Dry Creek Valley, we had only visited 5% of the many wineries blanketing the valley, each of which has it own story to tell and its own unique “terroir.” And this appellation is only one of many in Sonoma, which is just one county in California’s ever-expanding wine regions. And each of those regions has their own microclimates and regional characteristics as well.
That’s the beauty of seeking out “the local.” The variety is infinite, yet each delicacy unique.
[All photos and text by Kristan Lawson.]