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New Developments in Dry Creek Valley

Wine & Spirits
August 2006

by Wolfgang M. Weber

You would be forgiven for thinking that the view from the porch at the Dry Creek General Store (founded 1881) hasn't changed much in the last hundred years. There's still no traffic light at the intersection of Lambert Bridge and Dry Creek roads, and the pavement is uneven at best. Dry Creek Valley remains an idyllic slice of rural Sonoma County that runs to the northwest from the town of Healdsburg. Vines climb the hillsides amid dense forest, and vineyards cover the valley floor. It's a quiet view that hides recent viticultural changes along the valley's namesake creek. 
Montemaggiore, a new winery high in the southern hills of Dry Creek Valley, has enlisted [biodynamic consultant Alan] York to help in their transition to biodynamic viticulture. The ten-acre vineyard that Vincent and Lise Ciolino bought in 2001 had been conventionally farmed, and they quickly realized that their plot—a steep slope surrounded by dense forest, including a smattering of redwoods—needed more hands-on care. "It's a symbiotic relationship," says Vincent Ciolino as we walk through Montemaggiore's syrah vineyard.

Ciolino, the son of Sicilian immigrants who settled in Chicago, remembers helping this father in the family's urban garden when he wasn't catching a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. It was his first encounter with organic farming. "I used to drive a truck full of manure up to the house for the garden," he recalls. As we cross a small road that separates the upper syrah vineyard at Montemaggiore from a lower section called the Saddle, Lise Ciolino points out the winery's constructed wetland—a gravel pit of flowers and plants that catches wastewater from the winery. The pond acts as a filter, Ciolino explains, and then the clean gray water goes into a holding tank to be reused.

That may seem a small step toward minimizing the winery's impact on the hillside ecosystem, but it's one that fits Montemaggiore's small scale. According to Alan York, it's a practice that's "in keeping with a traditional European model, where there is a sense of dedication to take care of a piece of land and the grapes that come from it."

Its one thing for a rural community to survive in a place as densely populated as the Bay Area, but for one to thrive as Dry Creek Valley has is something else entirely. And perhaps that's the most significant change around here in recent years: A greater awareness of the close relationships between farmer, farm and environment that's leading to some great new wines. It's something to contemplate while relaxing on the porch of the General Store, glass of old-vine zinfandel in hand.

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