Visiting Gustafson Winery, Dry Creek Valley AVA, 1800 feet elevation

Visiting Gustafson Winery, Dry Creek Valley AVA, 1800 feet elevation

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Gustafson Family Vineyards, Overlooking Dry Creek Valley from 1800 feet

Having spent time regularly visiting Sea Ranch, on the coast West of Healdsburg, Dan Gustafson began looking for property in the Dry Creek Valley area. He wanted to grow grapes. Having raised his kids on a working cattle ranch, in the midwest, he was used to work outside and was ready to invest long term in Sonoma County. Early in life he’d worked in restaurants, gaining exposure to food and wine. During the same period, he developed a taste for California wine because, he says, it was what he could afford at the time.

The point on the Mountain Range is St. Helena, photo taken looking East from the Gustafson house, located on the West side of Dry Creek Valley on Skaggs Spring Road, near Lake Sonoma

In the midst of a trip out to Sea Ranch, Dan Gustafson drove by a property on Skaggs Spring Road with a For Sale sign. He jumped the fence to look at it, and discovered a wealth of Madrone trees throughout. Viticultural folk knowledge says that where Madones grow, vines will too–they both need to keep their feet dry. The property also already had several clearings throughout that meant no dry grading was needed to start building, and clearing wasn’t required to plant vines.

So, Gustafson moved an Airstream to the top of the property to live in while he planted vines and started construction on the winery. In 2004, the Heritage Tree Block was planted with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah. Over time what was found was the site did best for Petite Sirah, and so that became the bulk of the property’s focus.

In 2006, construction on the winery began, close to the house site, with a barrel cellar built beneath. The layout arose naturally from the demands of the ground itself–it turned out to install a proper foundation, the crew had to dig 18 feet down to bedrock. The space between the foundation and the house floor, then, built into the hillside, became the winery’s barrel storage.

The reality of planting an entirely new vineyard site rests in a process of learning the soils. The vineyard manager and winemaker, Emmett Reed, likes to say the vineyard is young and still learning itself.

The site located at 1800 feet elevation on the Northwest side of Dry Creek Valley has no vineyard planted neighbors. As a result, there is no blueprint for what does best in the area, nor neighbors to ask for advice (there are other vineyards further up the road, but in uniquely different slope, aspect, etc than Gustafson Family Vineyard).

With vintage variation as well, Gustafson wine is also, in some ways, getting to know itself. Reed is happy with how the 2012 harvest has gone, and with how the quality has progressed through the last several vintages (including their weather challenges).

looking Southeast down Dry Creek Valley

The Gustafson site has 3 natural springs, and a wealth of both Redwood and Madrone. The winery is bonded for 4000 cases, and makes approximately 3400 currently. Much of the fruit from their site is sold, with two of the primary customers being Orin Swift Wines, and Eric Cohn’s Shoe Shine Wine. The Gustafson fruit is preferred for the cleanliness of the site that comes with its elevation, but especially for how precisely Reed is able to follow the clients’ vineyard protocol.

looking Northeast towards Lake Sonoma, and the Rockpile AVA

The elevation over Dry Creek Valley comes through with the inversion effect–Gustafson is warmer at night, and cooler during the day, offering a narrower overall temperature range. The site is also only 18 miles from the coast, located at one of the higher points between the coast and the valley.

steep slope vineyards at Gustafson

With elevation, the individual berries on a cluster tend to be smaller, offering more concentrated flavors. This proved true even in 2012 when the overall cluster size was larger. This recent vintage, then, offered a unique balance of the concentrated spice from small berries, with still greater volume from larger clusters. The ultimate goal is to establish dry farming throughout the Gustafson Estate. Currently minimal watering is done simply because of how young the vines are.

Sheep’s Barn Pasture

The lowest vineyard on Gustafson Estate offers cool enough overall temperatures to host Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. It is the one area that had to be entirely replanted when the original grapes didn’t handle the cooler area well. It is also the only area on the site that has suffered frost damage from cool air pooling down the hillside into this little flat.

The Heritage Madrone, Gustafson Estate

Gustafson Estate hosts the oldest Madrone in Sonoma County, and what is believed to be the oldest in California as well. The tree is 11.5 feet around its base, and so beautiful.

The Heritage Madrone, with Kaitlin Reed, Gustafson’s Hospitality Manager

The idea of affordability is at the core of Gustafson Wine label, with the wines being priced for genuine value between $20 and $28.

The 2009 Mountain Cuvee, 83% Zinfandel, with the remaining a blend of Petite Sirah, and Syrah, is the clearest value. It offers a nice texture with smooth polish, an interesting complexity, and super clean presentation. They describe the goal of the wine as “to get enough backbone to be recognized as Zin, while avoiding the steamroll.”

The 2007 Petite Sirah is a good example of the quality of their fruit, again offering good value at $28. The advantage of the Gustafson site has shown itself in its love for Petite Sirah–it’s become the most planted fruit, the vine proving to be easy to generate both good crop levels and complexity on the hillside. Thought of as “the poor man’s Cab”, the Gustafson’s Petite Sirah does well at offering the richness and potential weight of a Cab, without going into heaviness that can come in an overdone Petite Sirah. It offers a lot of complexity on the nose, following into the palate with a silky rich mouthfeel and stimulating finish.

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Thank you to Kaitlin Reed for hosting me, and giving me a tour of the Gustafson site. It’s quite beautiful.

Thank you to Kyrsa Dixon.

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Touring Dry Creek Valley: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/11/28/touring-dry-creek-valley-sonoma-california/

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