Sonoma County's Booming Cabernet Country
Drive north along Highway 101 from Healdsburg and rows upon rows of grapevines unfold before you. This is Alexander Valley, a dense continent of vineyards as far as the eye can see.
Among Sonoma County’s biggest appellations, tucked in its warm northeast corner, Alexander Valley is bordered by Dry Creek Valley, Chalk Hill, Knights Valley and by the northern reaches of Napa Valley, where the Mayacamas Mountains begin to veer west.
In all, the Alexander Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) encompasses 76,900 acres, measuring 22 miles long and from two to seven miles across. Of that, 15,000 acres are planted with a mix of grapes, predominantly Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Russian River flows throughout.
The region has long been more of a growers’ playground than winery hot spot. While plenty of the grapes stay within the AVA, its reputation for growing quality Cabernet at lower prices than the Napa Valley average—often $1,000 less per ton—lures in producers from across the county divide, cash in hand.
This both helps and hurts Alexander Valley, depending on one’s point of view. The appellation’s growers have a lucrative market for their grapes. However, as Napa’s reputation grows, Alexander Valley perhaps lags behind. Wineries that seek to make the area a more popular destination are left to make their case.
Photos by Michael Housewright
John Jordan (right) with winemaker Rob Davis.
In Search of Identity
Lisa Mattson, director of marketing and communications for Jordan Vineyard & Winery, says the valley has an identity crisis in comparison to Napa or the Russian River Valley. Its wineries run the gamut from conglomerates to tiny producers, and focuses vary.
“They all have very different motivations based on the sizes of their business,” Mattson says. “Everybody still considers Cab their calling card and their best wine. The reason Napa comes over here and tries to poach fruit is because it’s really beautiful fruit, nice silky tannins, blackberry and cassis flavors.
“It’s really pretty, the acidity we get here,” she says. “The climate is more similar to Napa, but our fruit profile’s a little bit different.”
Mattson has an ally in Karin Warnelius-Miller, who, with husband Justin Miller, has been quietly turning tiny family-run operation Garden Creek Vineyards into a next-generation regional superstar.
Born in Sweden, Warnelius-Miller came to Alexander Valley with her family at age four, first living at the site of what is now Blue Rock Vineyards (formerly called Viking Ranch), across the highway on the appellation’s western side.
Miller’s mother is also Swedish, and the two families connected. The couple now runs Garden Creek Vineyards on the eastern benchlands of Alexander Valley along Geysers Road. It’s located between the historic Robert Young estate, also first planted in the early 1960s, and newcomer Skipstone, where famed Napa Valley consultant Philippe Melka makes the wines.
First planted in 1969 by Justin’s dad, Jim, Garden Creek grows almost entirely red Bordeaux varieties, with smatterings of Scheurebe, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne. Farming 70 acres, the Millers sell grapes to 95 clients.
Still, Miller says, one of the dilemmas has been the dawdling average price for Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, about $3,000 per ton, about the same as it was 20 years ago.
“As we start to see the price of fruit start to rise, younger growers and winemakers are starting to take quality on, but pricing has to be there,” he says. “It’s held us back the last 10 years, at least, on really excelling (as a region). And we need to embrace Cabernet as our number-one varietal.”
The couple does everything at Garden Creek, from pruning to winemaking and direct-to-consumer tastings. They remain tiny, and they’re wholly committed to quality.
“Our parents took the chance,” says Warnelius-Miller. “Here we stand, and we can choose how we run our business. We owe a lot to our forefathers.”
While they point to the region’s long history of family operations like theirs as a defining trait, the need to nurture more small wineries is paramount to Alexander Valley’s evolution.
“There are a lot of big guys, not a lot of small guys, and we need a lot more of the little guys making small-production wines to define the valley now,” Miller says.
Garden Creek’s flagship wine is a proprietary Bordeaux-style blend called Tesserae, which they release after several years of bottle aging. The current release is the 2008.
Garden Creek also offers a Chardonnay produced using carbonic maceration to soften the fruit without oxidation.
The 2008 Tesserae, a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc, reveals the winery’s and region’s signatures.
“We take a slower, Old World approach,” Warnelius-Miller says. “Our wines are built to age. There’s more structure on the benchlands.”
On average, Alexander Valley Cabernet tends to be softer on the palate, the tannins quite different from Napa Valley.
“We don’t have the insane elevations, where the fruit is tiny,” she says.
Among the wineries Garden Creek sells fruit to is Jordan.
“There’s definitely a transition with people in their 30s taking over from their dad,” Jordan’s Mattson says.
“You see the younger—Gen X to upper millennial age—a little bit more in the growers. They’re more concerned about marketing than their parents were, and what the Alexander Valley should stand for.”
An overview of Alexander Valley.
Connections with the Past
The region’s modern-day trajectory was put in place in 1963, the year Robert Young first planted Chardonnay here, partnering with winemaker Richard Arrowood to make his grapes famous.
That was about three years before the founding of Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, 13 years before the Paris Tasting put California Cabernet and Chardonnay in the global spotlight, 17 years before Jordan’s first release and 20 years before the official designation of Alexander Valley as an AVA.
Young realized the potential for Cabernet in the valley, planting it predominantly on hillsides with a southwestern exposure, allowing the grapes to capture the right kind of heat for the right amount of hours. There’s enough heat to bring out flavor along with a wide range of soil types, including rare alluvial soils.
The Wetzels of Alexander Valley Vineyards, the Demostenes of Sausal Winery, and the Hafner and Green families were also early to plant grapes here, alongside Jim Miller.
So was the Jordan family. They first put money down on a far-reaching eastern parcel in 1972 with dreams of a Bordeaux-like estate. Since the first vintage, they have produced just two wines a year, a Cabernet and a Chardonnay.
To John Jordan, the winery’s CEO, a history of quality, consistency and making relatively affordable, balanced, food-friendly wines is more important than the shifting demographics of Alexander Valley.
“Jordan is situated differently than a lot of these other companies, in that people see Jordan on the bottle, they may or may not see Alexander Valley,” says Jordan. “The appellation to us is incidental.
“We wanted people to have a sense of where the wine comes from, not say, Sonoma County, because wines that don’t come from a specific appellation tend not to command the prices of ones that do,” he says, “And that is where we are.”
Still, the winery lifts the appellation’s reputation. Jordan pays above-average prices for grapes from fellow growers, and it increasingly welcomes visitors to experience Alexander Valley firsthand, to see its undulations and variations on its large ranch estate.
“For smaller wineries, the appellation is important,” Jordan says. “It’s a bigger part of their identity, and Jordan, in many ways, makes Alexander Valley.
“People probably tend to think more of the bigger players, good and bad,” he says. “Some of the greatest vineyards in California are here, but culturally, it’s a hodgepodge. There’s not a specific identity to it.”
Winemaker Rob Davis has been at Jordan since its first year. He spent his early years alongside legendary wine guru Andre Tchelistcheff, who implored him to always “learn something new.”
“Andre taught me to start seeing the quilt being weaved through the whole growing season, the tapestry, to start tasting the difference,” Davis says.
“Consistency and reliability are the qualities identified with our brand,” he says. “But I want them thinking, ‘Wow.’ I learned from Andre, who died when he was almost 93, he said, ‘I continue to learn things out of wine, one new thing every day.’ Now, after 39 years, I can really see it. There’s so much we perceive now from experience.”
When phylloxera hit Alexander Valley in the mid-1990s, many replanted to better clones and rootstocks, as well as to better benchland sites. It was a rebirth of sorts, the dividends of which are paying off today.
Jordan has done its share to establish Alexander Valley, as have Stonestreet, Lancaster Estate, Rodney Strong, Silver Oak and Verité. The hope for the future is that small growers and winemakers, hidden on the benchlands and hills of the valley, make their mark on the region.
Field hands at Blue Rock.
New Names in the Valley
Kenny Kahn founded Blue Rock Vineyards in the early 2000s, devoting his property to estate-grown Cabernet. That includes the well-scoring Best Barrels Cabernet, made from the oldest vines on the site, planted in 1987.
Using new French oak for aging, it typically includes a small amount of estate Petit Verdot and is remarkably structured.
Kahn also makes a Best Barrels Malbec and Best Barrels Merlot, each in small quantities, each velvety, round and elegantly layered.
It may be his Baby Blue, however, that’s making the widest impact. A Cab-based blend from younger vines aged in neutral French oak, it retails for under $30 and is a delicious expression of Alexander Valley fruit, without much tannin. For the 2012 vintage, 6,000 cases were made.
Winemaker Jesse Katz of Lancaster Estate, known for its Cabernet, makes a miniscule amount of Malbec under his own label, Devil Proof Vineyards. It just released its first vintage, 2012. Katz gets the fruit from a dry-farmed hillside ranch, aging the wine in new French oak.
“Malbec can stand up to Cabs and be a good alternative,” he says. “And the site doesn’t lose acidity, the way a lot of Malbec in the Napa Valley can.”
The acidity on the wine is indeed bright, the aromas quite floral, and yet, the layers of burly blue fruit are lush and soft. At Lancaster, Katz is also clearing the way for new blocks of Malbec.
Another relative newcomer, at least on the winery scene, is the Trione family. Fourth-generation grape growers and former founders of nearby Geyser Peak, they began Trione Family Vineyards in 2005.
The Triones farm nearly 500 acres over three ranches in Alexander Valley and run a tasting room and winery off Highway 101 in the heart of the AVA.
Winemaker Scot Covington uses the top three percent of the family’s output to make the Trione estate wines, while the rest of the grapes are sold to other producers.
This grower-first mentality is one reason why Alexander Valley hasn’t always received huge public accolades, but today it’s part of the region’s appeal.
“There’s a charm and a rustic-ness to Alexander Valley,” Mattson says. “We’re the opposite of Napa and still a grower culture, a step back in time.”
10 Big Reds to Buy Now
Devil Proof 2012 Farrow Ranch Malbec; $80, 94 points. Winemaker Jesse Katz pulled out all the stops to craft this small-production Malbec, proving that the right fruit in the right hands can yield crazy-good results. Having spent time aging in 100% new French oak, the wine needs time to open, but once it does, look out. Concentrated swirls of wild blackberry and truffle frame a soft tannin structure and intriguing finish of measured acidity. Drink now through 2024, easily. Editors’ Choice. abv: 14.5%
Lancaster Estate 2010 Nicole’s; $115, 91 points. The winery’s proprietary blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot, also made by Jesse Katz, Nicole’s is estate-grown and culled from the best blocks. A leggy, ripe study in blackberry and currant, it has back notes of chocolate and coffee to fill in the grooves. The balanced tannins and use of oak suggest aging potential through 2024–2029. Cellar Selection. abv:14.5%
Rodney Strong 2011 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; $45, 91 points. Lengthy and expansive, this wine offers cherry and herb on the nose, followed by a taste of chocolate and anise, with a jolt of spicy black pepper on the finish. Ready to drink now, it’s also structured enough to age 2017–2019. abv: 14.5%
Dashe Cellars 2011 Todd Brothers Ranch Old Vines Zinfandel; $35, 90 points. From 50-year-old vines planted on a rocky hillside, this is leathery and zesty in cedar and black pepper. Balanced and structured, it builds as it goes, finishing with a heavier presence of tannins and black olive. abv: 14.5%
Forefathers 2010 Lone Tree Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; $50, 90 points. Intense in clove, black cherry and currant, this is a layered and complex 100% Cab. Still grippy on the palate, it will gain maturity and further complexity in time. Leathery, with wafts of tobacco and toasty oak, it’s burly but balanced. Cellar Selection. abv: 14.3%
J. Rickards 2011 Zanzi Curve Vines Malbec; $28, 90 points. High-toned anise and lavender mark this estate-grown wine aromatically, followed by balanced layers of blue fruit and leather. A bite of peppery spice on the finish leaves one wanting more. abv: 13.8%
Jackson Estate 2010 Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon; $55, 90 points. Soft and supple in black cherry and currant, this mountain Cab expresses an herbal underbelly of elegance, with finely formed minerality. It’s approachable and juicy now, but will gain complexity; drink 2017–2021. Cellar Selection. abv: 13.5%
Jordan 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon; $53, 90 points. The winery stays true to its reputation for making balanced, more restrained forms of Cabernet in this vintage, offering firm, structured tannins and bright cassis and blackberry around a deft sprinkling of dried herb. Built to age through 2025, it is equally enjoyable now, after a decant. Small percentages of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec factor in. Cellar Selection. abv: 13.5%
Ousterhout 2011 Nance’s Vineyard Zinfandel; $29, 90 points. Exuberant in red fruit, this is a softly textured Zinfandel, high in acidity, with evolved tannins. Layered, complex and food-friendly, the imprint of red berry and brambly blackberry juiciness is joined by swirls of vanilla and a touch of oak. There’s a sprinkling of black pepper on the palate, too. abv: 14.3%
Respite 2010 Indulgence Reichel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; $75, 90 points. This wine was made by Bordeaux-trained winemaker Denis Malbec and his wife, sommelier May-Britt Malbec. They’ve sourced some exceptional fruit from the Reichel Vineyard, 22% of which is Malbec, with 13% Cabernet Franc also blended in. Offering big tannins that await the cellar, it is otherwise a juicy wine that’s rich in black and blue berry fruit, as well as hints of graham cracker and cigar. Enjoy through 2025. Cellar Selection. abv: 14.1%