Dave Stare crowned “Legend of wine”
We don’t often get rewarded for our stubbornness, but that’s not the case with Dave Stare.
The Dry Creek Vineyard winemaker has been particularly stubborn for decades, and it has worked in his favor. Stare, 82, was recently named “Legend of Wine” by Wine Enthusiast magazine as part of its 22nd Annual Wine Stars Awards.
“Dad was just stubborn enough not to listen to the word ‘no,’ which he must have heard often in the beginning,” said his daughter Kim Stare Wallace, now president of the Healdsburg winery.
“He was told a lot of his ideas wouldn’t work, but he didn’t listen to the naysayers. … When we first came to Dry Creek Valley in 1972, Dad’s ideas were not welcome. Most thought he was crazy, and they were upset that he wanted to build a cellar.
Stare’s bold thinking shaped the course of Dry Creek Valley. By the 1970s, most of the land was home to post-Prohibition prune orchards, but Stare was instrumental in applying for U.S. Vineyard (AVA) status. He succeeded in 1983.
The tenacity of the winemaker also gave the unlikely grape variety – Sauvignon Blanc – a foothold in the Dry Creek Valley. Today, it is considered by many to be the first white grape of the appellation.
In the early 1970s, experts told Stare that the region would not be hospitable for grapes. He refused to listen and was the first to plant Sauvignon Blanc in Dry Creek Valley in 1972.
“I believe Dave Stare’s early risk-taking inspired others to explore and push the boundaries of what could be grown and produced in our diverse soils, topographies and climates across the 18 different AVAs,” said said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Grape Growers, a trade association that represents grape growers. “Today, Sonoma County is home to more than 66 different grape varieties.”
Stare also strayed from convention by featuring sailboats on his label in the early 1980s, at a time when racing with a theme was a rarity.
“Sailing has always been a passion of mine,” he said. “I started sailing when I was 9 years old. When we started thinking the label for Dry Creek Vineyard needed updating, I believe one day while cruising with my daughter, Kim Stare Wallace, and my son-in-law, Don Wallace, we came up with the idea to create a label to reflect our family passion. The label has seen many changes over the years, but we remain on the theme of sailing.
Origins of the old vine
Stare’s marketing prowess has gone beyond Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma County, influencing the entire wine industry. For example, Dry Creek Vineyard, under Stare’s leadership, coined the phrase “old vine zinfandel” in the mid-1980s.
Struggling with a modest supply of zinfandel grapes in 1985 and an oversupply in 1986, the decision was made to combine the two. But this combination would make the bottling non-vintage, which would presumably make the label harder to sell.
With the phrase “old vine zinfandel”, the idea was to entice customers with the romance of old vines while distracting from the non-vintage characteristic.
Today, wineries across California have embraced the phrase, whether their bottlings are vintage or not. Although there is still no legal definition, Dry Creek Vineyard referred to vines that were at least 50 years old in the mid-1980s. Today, the average age of vines for the current version of the cellar – the 2019 Old Vine Zinfandel – is 100 years old.
Stare was also behind a marketing move to circumvent the traditional labeling of Bordeaux blends. This tradition requires that a varietal such as Cabernet Sauvignon be made from at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon before that varietal is printed on the label.
“This meant that if Dave made the best wine of his life with a final blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot, the wine would simply have to be labeled as ‘red table wine’ and would be a tough sell”, said Sara Rathbun, director of marketing and communications for Dry Creek Vineyard.
“This was unacceptable to Dave, so in 1988 Dry Creek Vineyard and a small group of American winemakers formed the Meritage Association (now the Meritage Alliance) to identify and promote craft wines made from the traditional “noble” grape varieties. “
Derived from the words “merit” and “heritage”, the Meritage Alliance now has over 300 member wineries, with thousands of bottlings with Meritage printed on the label.
Like trains on different tracks, the wine industry nearly missed out on the benefits of Stare’s dogged genius because his first love—before wine—was railroads.