Vine Wise
Wine World: California's Newest Theme Park / by Tim Carl / January, 2016

"With so many new wineries and tasting rooms, how else does a wine producer attract customers, other than providing a little entertainment?"


“Disney has a long history with Northern California’s Wine Country,” my journalist friend, Glenda, said as we drove north on Highway 101 toward Dry Creek. I was in search of a special bottle for my father’s upcoming birthday, and Glenda had told me she had just the thing.

“I know,” I said, distractedly. “Disney has links with Frank Family Vineyards and Lasseter Family Winery. Fess Parker was signed by Walt Disney to play Davy Crockett in 1954. Hell, Silverado Vineyards was even started by Walt Disney’s eldest daughter, Diane Disney Miller, back in the 1980s.”

She nodded. “And there are other links, including Coppola’s ‘Captain EO’ and actor Fred MacMurray, who purchased what’s now MacMurray Estate Vineyards. He starred in plenty of Disney films,” she said. “There are probably many others, too, but this is different.”

“I bet,” I mumbled.

I wasn’t really listening. For the last hour in the car, she’d been talking about what she called “the Disneyfication of wine country.” Glenda’s a good friend, but I’ve learned over the years that she can be a little dramatic.

Besides, I had more important things to think about. My father was coming to town and I needed to find a wine he’d never tasted before, preferably from a producer he’d never heard of. Over the years, we’ve developed a game of one-upmanship, each of us trying to find rare bottles of unexpectedly exceptional wine.

I had always thought of Dry Creek as a place for old vine Zinfandel, but my friend told me there were plenty of other excellent varietals grown in the valley, including one of her favorites, Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Dry Creek is so much more than just Zinfandel,” she’d told me more than once. But she wasn’t talking about any of that today. Today, she was focused on a story she was working on.

“What do you think of this title? ‘Wine World: California’s newest theme park.’”

“Over the top,” I said.

“Not at all,” Glenda said. “With so many new wineries and tasting rooms, how else does a wine producer attract customers, other than providing a little entertainment?”

“By making great wine, providing value and having a good story,” I said.

She turned toward me and shook her head. “That sounds so 2010.”

“Watch the road,” I said. She was getting on my nerves.

I checked my phone and Googled “Dry Creek Valley.” I was a little surprised when the names of about 60 wineries and more than 150 growers popped up on the screen.

“Gaudy wineries are nothing new,” I said. “Massive wine caves with expensive lighting and water features are almost common. Even trams that transport visitors to the tops of mountains have been done before.”

“But it’s different now,” Glenda insisted. “Even though wine sales grew more than 4 percent in 2014, the number of producers has grown, too. Wineries have competition from unexpected sources, like the craft beer craze. And don’t forget that America is the number one target for all importers.”

“I agree that competition in the wine business is brutal,” I said. “But wine has a level of sophistication that shuns overt gimmickry.”

“Perhaps,” she said, “but between Napa, Sonoma and Marin, you have more than 1,000 wineries, each making high-quality wine—so how can each winery differentiate itself?”

“By finding a way to attract more customers than their competitors do,” I quickly retorted. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I’d stepped in it.

Glenda smiled back and nodded her head: “Yep. That’s my point.”

We took the off-ramp to Dry Creek, drove under the overpass and the beautiful valley opened up in front of us. Many of the vines had already lost their leaves, but some still held on, their yellow and orange foliage fluttering in a light afternoon breeze. The sun hovered over the blue-gray mountains to the west, and a flock of starlings twisted in the sky, mesmerizing and fluid.

“But wine-lovers are a different breed,” I said. “They’re looking for authenticity.”

“Hope you’re right,” she said, “I’d hate to see this spectacular valley turn into a…” her voice trailed off. She shook her head, took a long, deep breath and continued. “I’d hate to see this place turned into a refuge for dwarves, mutant rabbits, enormous bears and medieval castles.”

I looked at her and, this time, I felt like it was my turn to smile and shake my head.

“That’s never going to happen here,” I said.

Surprisingly, she had no snarky retort but instead continued to drive on in silence. I rolled down the window. The cool breeze felt good, and I smelled the aroma of pine trees mixed with slightly damp earth from a recent rain.

Eventually, we pulled off the road and onto a gravel driveway. Up ahead the old winery barn stood, leaning slightly. I’d never had the wine before but she’d told me to expect intense flavors of blackberry and chocolate, with a hint of mint. “Truly rare and special,” was the way she referred to it.

As we drove on, we both noticed that a new winery facility was under construction on the adjacent vineyard. It looked too big for such a small lot. My friend looked over at me and pointed to the construction. “Rabbits, bears and dwarves, oh my,” she said.

I opened my mouth to reply, but stopped short. I was done with this conversation. Instead, I wanted to focus on the reaction I was sure to get from my father when I presented him the bottle of wine I was going to purchase.

“A Dry Creek Cabernet?” he’d say, adding, “Now that’s something truly special.”