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Alexander Valley

Rustic Alexander Valley stretches from southeast Healdsburg north for over twenty miles, encompassing 75,000 acres. Nearly every varietal grows here with some success, but it is chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon that have brought the former prune-growing region its current acclaim.
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Alexander Valley

by Michele Anna Jordan

     The rustic Alexander Valley stretches from southeast of Healdsburg north for over twenty miles, encompassing Asti, Cloverdale, the old town of Preston and a portion of the Russian River and its surrounding watershed.  The boundaries of the 75,000 acres within this approved viticultural area were officially recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in 1984. There is tremendous diversity of soil, and temperatures vary widely. Over the decades, pears, apples, pomegranates, citrus, prunes, sheep, dairy cattle, and market produce in addition to grapes have thrived here. Today, grapes dominate.


     Because of such wineries as Geyser Peak, Clos du Bois, Chateau Souverain, and Jordan, all highly visible nationwide, the region may be better known outside Sonoma County than it is here at home. The Jimtown StoreShow on map, which opened on January 1, 1948 and is now owned and operated by John Werner and Carrie Brown, was profiled in the New Yorker in 1985.  But ask a friend what they know about Alexander Valley and the response is often, "Hmmm, well, it’s really remote, isn’t it? I don’t get there much. Where is it exactly?"  Yet from downtown Healdsburg, it takes under five minutes to reach the valley’s first winery, Simi, located on the edge of town just before Alexander Valley Road.  The Jimtown StoreShow on map is another 10 minutes away.


     There are nearly 30 wineries in this appellation and more than 260 vineyards. The Rodney Strong, Robert Young, and Alexander’s Crown vineyards were among the earliest vineyards of the valley’s renaissance to distinguish themselves.  This revival of the region’s wine growing began in the 1960s, when grapes began to replace prunes, a change that unfolded rapidly and was precipitated by decreased demand from the European market, long a major consumer of our domestic prunes.


     “I went away to college in the mid 1960s,” Ron Marchand, a builder and farmer who was born in the valley in 1946, recalled recently, “and that’s when we saw prune orchards start to come out.  It went pretty quickly.  Between 1965 and 1966 you could hear the difference.  There were no orchards to absorb the noise, no trees to muffle it.  You could hear the traffic, it was enough to keep you up at night,”


     As late as 1968, prunes commanded a good price.  Yet by 1969 and 1970, the price had plunged so low that farmers didn’t bother to pick their crops.   Today, the few remaining prune orchards are abandoned and, with grape prices at an all-time high, there’s a frenzy of vineyard planting.


     The history of Alexander Valley, including its winemaking, stretches back much earlier than this fairly recent transition from orchard to vineyard, to the arrival of the man for whom the valley is named, CyrusShow on map Alexander. 


     One of the region’s original settlers, Alexander established himself here in the 1840s and planted the valley’s first vineyard in 1846.  By the end of the 19th century, there were about 300 acres planted to grapes and quite a few wineries, including several whose names we know today, including Simi, Geyser Peak, and the now closed Italian Swiss Colony, though none have operated continuously. Falling grape prices, phylloxera, Prohibition, and the Great Depression devastated Alexander Valley viticulture. 


     Only Seghesio Winery, built in 1902 by Edoardo Seghesio and first planted in 1895, continued winemaking, for decades selling bulk wines to other producers. In 1983, the well known family introduced the Seghesio label, which thrives today in neighboring Dry Creek ValleyShow on map, with vineyards in several appellations, including Alexander Valley.


     In 1962, the Wetzel family purchased the original CyrusShow on map Alexander property, which included a schoolhouse, Alexander’s residence, and an old family cemetery, along with substantial acreage that remained from the original 9000-acre land grant.  Today, a new winery thrives and the old buildings have been restored; there’s a bountiful flower and vegetable garden.


     Five varietals make up over 85 percent of vineyard acreage in Alexander Valley.  Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon dominate both in acreage and acclaim, followed by merlot, sauvignon blanc, and zinfandel, including substantial century-old vineyards of gnarly, head-pruned vines.  And although the wine industry is in the midst of a boom--why wouldn’t you plant grapes, at today’s prices?--there are pockets of other agriculture, notably market gardens, a few olive orchards, and, in southern Cloverdale, Sunshine Farms, where Egmont Tripp grows his highly prized garlic.


     Renee and Joel Kiff have been farming in Alexander Valley for 20 years and selling at the farmers market, which Renee Kiff now manages, for 19 years.  They were among the first farmers to grow the luscious Ambrosia melon; they also harvest marionberries, olallieberries, quince, Asian pears, Lakota winter squash, eggs, and cut flowers from half an acre maintained by their daughter Sarah Kiff.

   
     When Renee Kiff took a class from Paul Vossen, farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, Vossen was searching for a farm in Alexander Valley where he could plant an experimental apple orchard, a test plot to study the effect of the valley’s particular climate and temperatures.   A connection to a farmer’s market was a requirement, so that the apples could be sold.  It was perfect for the Kiff’s three-and-a-half acre farm.


     “We personally are enjoying it and the customers are getting a real kick out of it,” Renee Kiff commented one morning at the Healdsburg market, as customers quizzed her about the latest apples.

 
     The experimental orchard includes two trees each of 63 varieties, planted just four feet apart on dwarfing root stock and pruned in espaliered rows.  The trees are kept short, so that all pruning, thinning, and picking can be done from the ground rather than on a ladder, a requirement that increases the cost of harvest considerably.


     Since late July, the Kiffs have been selling the apples.   Each variety lasts about two weeks, and every week brings a few new ones.  Harvest will continue through October.  So far, all but one have been successful.  Pink Sparkle, a large pink-flesh apple with gorgeous red skin, went from sour to mushy and so they hang on the trees like early Christmas ornaments, beautiful and useless.


     William’s Pride, an early red apple is showing potential for organic farming; during heavy rains it had very little apple scab, the biggest threat during wet years.  The orchard includes nine types of Gala apples and eight types of Fujis.  Among Kiff’s favorites are the Almatta, a pink-fleshed apple similar to Pink Pearl, and the big red Enterprise apple.  If you want to make great applesauce, now is the time.


     You don’t have to be a wine expert to understand this region; there are easy ways to get to know the Alexander Valley appellation.  There are the wines, of course, many of which are accessible and inexpensive, yet full of regional character.  The Wine Library, located at the Healdsburg branch of the Sonoma County Public Library, includes several volumes of oral histories that offer fascinating details of family and community life as well as stories of the valley’s viticultural and agriculture. 


      There’s Jimtown StoreShow on map, with its 1940s and 1950s toys and antiques and its superb deli (do not miss the sandwich with chevre, prosciutto, and fig tapenade; it’s sensational).  For a study in contrasts, stop by the Alexander Valley Store, too, where at noon you’ll find farm workers buying burritos and in the evening, you can enjoy a beer at the old timer’s bar. At the restaurant at Chateau Souverain, Martin Coleman puts out consistently excellent fare at great prices.   And even if you never get out of the car, a drive along Alexander Valley Road on a fall afternoon, when the setting sun burnishes the MayaShow on mapcamaShow on maps with golden light, is one of the more pleasureable ways to enjoy this remarkable place we call home. 

 

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