Appetite: Our picks from Dry Creek

Bella Vineyard's African safari tents ranked atop our list for best ambiance at this year's Passport to Dry Creek

Last year's Passport to Dry Creek festival (April 30-May 1) was quite the weekend of hops between wineries in Dry Creek Valley. How was it different than any of the dozens of events in wine country at any given time, you might ask?

Unlike barrel tasting weekends mobbed with drunken carousers and not-yet-mature wines, or smaller events where you gain merely a handful of tastes, Passport includes the majority of wineries in the Dry Creek valley and keeps the crowds regulated enough to be enjoyable. Each winery serves unlimited food and wine, often with live music and engrossing themes.

With a Passport ticket in hand, it's like you're invited to a private party at each winery. Some of the wines triumphed over the others, but then, many of the vineyard settings bested the rest during the weekend's typically brilliant weather. After visiting 24 wineries, here's my take on this year's Passport highlights in the categories of ambiance, food, and of course, wine.



Bella Vineyards: 

Just like last year, Bella's African safari theme and moody, cool caves were a highlight of the entire weekend. Lingering here with a crisp rose is a joy every time.

Truett Hurst Vineyards:

Your drinking buddies at Truett Hurst

Another top spot from last year, Truett Hurst has a memorable zinfandel rose ($15) best enjoyed in the spot's red Adirondack chairs alongside the river running through its property – after you've visited the goats and sheep on the back of the property. A dreamy respite, I always leave this winery relaxed.

Family Wineries: 

I don't go to Family for the wine, nor for the cluster of non-descript tasting rooms situated off the parking lot, but I stop in annually here to spend a happy hour watching the California Cowboys play. A truly an awesome country band that keeps it real with tunes any classic country fan will love (from Waylon Jennings to Roger Miller), plus a few newer favorites. Vocals, musicianship, the Cowboys are top-notch.

Seghesio Family Vineyards:

A bowlful of steamin' zydeco at Seghesio

With a raucous New Orleans theme based on the winery family's NoLa roots, Seghesio boasted one of the top bands of the weekend: Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic. Grilling Cajun ribs and spooning up bowlfuls of seafood gumbo, the spirit was festive and familial here, like one big backyard party.



Frick Winery: 

I'm impressed every year by Frick's complicated bite-sized snacks offered by chef John Mitzewich and Michele Manfredi, a husband and wife dynamic duo. Chef John is known for his site Food Wishes (last year's Saveur winner for best food video blog, nominated again this year).

Manfredi created SFQ sauce, our fair city's first native BBQ sauce (try it if you haven't!). Its East-meets-West flair appeared at this year's Passport in their duck a la SFQ: duck confit in SFQ sauce on a cocoa corn chip, garnished with duck crackling remolata. Yum. 

My two favorites? Main line Philly cheesesteak: mini-baguettes topped with Snake River Farms Kobe-style steak over truffled “cheese whiz” (you read right -- chef John is on the money with this one. I'll take a jar?) Dotted with peppadew peppers and jalapeños, its perfection.

One of the 'simplest' bites was the best: the sausage luxe, Boccalone's sweet Italian sausage dusted with fennel pollen and skewered with a Luxardo maraschino cherry. Seductive and lush.



Quivara Vineyards: 

Quivara's high quality relies on hand-picked grapes and biodynamic farming methods. Its wines reflect care and attention, whether you're sipping its 2008 grenache ($26) or 2008 mourvedre ($32).

Frick Winery: 

Frick is a Dry Creek favorite – from grenache blanc to C3 and C2 (Rhone blends), Bill Frick produces sophisticated wines that maintain Old World balance. This year, I'm really taking to his cinsaut and grenache.

Seghesio Family Vineyards: 

Seghesio's home ranch zinfandel has been an at-home go-to for a balanced zin, reflecting dark berries and the clay soil it's grown in. At Passport, we tasted pre-releases of 2009 Home Ranch Zin ($38), a highlight of the 10 Seghesio wines sampled.

Unti Vineyards:

I've enjoyed Unti's wines the last couple years, and was reminded again last weekend that its 2007 grenache is a standout with blackberry, pepper, and even licorice notes.

Stephen & Walker: 

Besides appreciating their female winemaker, Nancy Walker, who I had the pleasure of meeting during Passport, there was a number of drinkable wines from Stephen & Walker's line-up of 10. The most celebrated is Walker's 2006 Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon ($65). Winner of multiple awards and the vineyard's benchmark wine, it's a fine showcase of the region's cabs.

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