As we move from the refreshing chill of our brief few weeks of winter to the almost perfect weather of our spring season, we have the luxury in the Hill country of being able to enjoy our favorite reds almost year round. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to share some wines from assorted AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) in the U.S. One of the favorite AVA’s I’ve discovered is the Alexander Valley in Sonoma, California. Situated north of Healdsburg and running up to Cloverdale, just off CA Hwy#101, it meanders in a loose curve to finish back near the Knights Valley AVA, just north of Napa. Simi, and others started the modern trend, but a little winery named Robert Young put the valley on the map when Chateau St. Jean used their Chardonnay grapes to produce California’s first vineyard designated wine in 1975. The valley itself was awarded its own AVA status in 1984.
The original wine history of the valley goes back to some of the earliest Spanish land grants, when in the 1840s Cyrus Alexander was granted two leagues of land (almost 9000 acres), and planted grapes he had brought from Ft. Ross on the Pacific coast. That winery later evolved into Alexander Valley Vineyards, founded in 1962 by the Wetzel family. Now in its 37th year of production, they farm a wide range of varietals, but specialize in Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, a unique trio of Zins (Temptation, Sin, and Redemption), and their premium red blend, Cyrus.
In 1972, Tom Jordan and his family saw the potential for the appellation and established the Jordon winery with an initial purchase of 275 acres (now 1300). They persuaded the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff to consult on their project and hired Rob Davis as their winemaker. Their estate-bottled Cabs were one of the original cult wines out of California, and they also produce an elegant Chardonnay. Their wines were some of the first California wines served at the White House.
Simi is another nearly pioneer when Giuseppe and his brother Pietro arrived in the mid 1850s seeking their fortune in the California gold rush. They found their gold in grapes however, and produced their first vintage in 1876. In 1904, Giuseppe’s daughter took over management of the winery, and in a very shrewd maneuver, cellared all the wineries liquid assets in anticipation of Prohibition. In 1933 when the Volstead Act was repealed, she had over 500,000 cases of aged wine ready for sale. In 1979, the winery hired Zelma Long, the pioneer women winemaker. Today Steve Reeder is the winemaker, and his Landslide Vineyard Red beautifully demonstrates the complexity that the Alexander Valley offers. Only 175 acres in size, they have identified 3 distinct micro climates that offer unique flavor to the blend. Within those three vineyard blocks, they have further isolated over 44 sub-blocks that create a wine of incredible complexity.
Silver Oak has become synonymous with the Cabernet grape for decades now, but I believe the Alexander Valley designate is the sleeper wine in their portfolio for value and taste. In the late 1960s, Ray Duncan also saw the potential for the valley, and began to purchase land in both Napa and the Alexander Valley. Through mutual friends he met Justin Meyers, who was the wine maker at the Christian Brothers winery. Their unique vision was to concentrate on just one varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon, use American Oak to age these grapes and produce a world class red. In 1972, they celebrated their first harvest (pre-dating their Napa designation by seven years).Each appellation produces unique wines in style, complexity and flavor profiles. Their specialized aging program ensures an average 24 months in American Oak, and an additional 15-20 months of bottle aging. Their new vintage release dates at the respective winery locations are now legendary for creating traffic jams on the normally sedate farm to market roads of Geyserville and Oakville.
Other wineries have certainly made their mark on the valley and contributed to the rich portfolios of wines available. Rodney Strong was another of the early pioneers, and now is experiencing a renaissance under the Klein family. Souverain, formerly Chateau Souverain, is producing stellar wines from their new home in Cloverdale under the guiding hand of winemaker Ed Killian, who has worked with grapes from the Alexander Valley for over 25 years. Others to seek out at your favorite wine shop, tasting bar, or restaurant are Field Stone, Hanna, Seghesio, and Trentadue.
After covering a lot of ground, and discussing quite a few wineries, it’s really hard to narrow it down to a favorite. So, when in doubt, go with the human factor. A few years ago, we had the pleasure of meeting Ed Killian at a local vintner dinner and taste thru his wines. His Cabernet really stood out as a wonderful example of the AV style of lush forward fruit, very balanced tannins, and a rich finish. Kathy and I then followed up with a more recent example, the 2006 Alexander Valley Reserve. This one over delivered for the money. Easily accessible at the start, the wine continued to open beautifully, with rich plum, cherry, and blackberry fruit. No hard edges, just soft tannins with subtle layers of vanilla, chocolate, and all spice. Suggested retails from $ 20-24.99, and wine list pricing from $40-44.99. Sometimes a little hard to find, but worth the effort especially the reserve Cab bottling.
I guess the biggest reason I enjoy these wines is that they offer such great value in relation to their Napa siblings. So if we’re out to eat at a special restaurant and our friends offer to pick up the tab for the wine, I will often order a Napa bottling. And when the same friends come to our house for an elegant dinner, I love to surprise them with something special from Sonoma. Or as I saw on a beautiful old rusted farm truck’s bumper… “NAPA for auto parts, SONOMA for wine.”