When I think of Alexander Valley I think of beautiful scenery, and quaint towns. A place with fascinating history, and some of the worlds most delicious wine, it is also now the new home to one of California’s most iconic cabernets and new state of the art winery, Silver Oak.
A Brief Overview of Alexander Valley
The Alexander Valley Is located just north of the city of Healdsburg and is home to the small towns of Cloverdale (Sonoma County’s most northern city) and Geyserville (a small town near the center of the valley. California State Highways 101 and 128 run through the valley shuttling travelers through some of the most picturesque spots in Sonoma County. Running down the valley is the Russian River that brings water and nutrients to the vineyards that are located along it. If you head into the hills along the valley’s rim you will be treated to some amazing views of Taylor Mountain to the south, sprawling vineyards blanketing the valley and hills, the Russian River meandering its way to the ocean, and some beautiful nature scapes as well.
The small town of Cloverdale is home to a vibrant arts community and holds annual events that range from live music and food festivals to car shows and the “all-time-favorite Citrus Fair. This small town is surrounded by vineyards and wineries and is a great place to add to your summer wine country road trip ‘places to visit’. Also located in the valley is the small town of Geyserville. Don’t blink or you will miss wooden laden sidewalks that guide you past 19th-century false-front buildings that are home to some delicious eateries, art galleries, and diverting shops. You will also miss some fun and interesting tasting rooms that allow you to taste many wines in one location. You will have fun tasting a list of small batch wines at Locals tasting room, but you may want to get a bottle for the road to make your experience last just a bit longer.
The story of Alexander Valley starts with Cyrus Alexander in 1840. Cyrus moved to what is now known as the Alexander Valley with employer/business partner Henry Fitch. Cyrus declared the valley “The brightest and the best spot in the world”.
They applied for and were granted 48,800 acres of land from the Mexican Government and named the it Rancho Sotoyome. Cyrus managed the ranch for close to four years and was given 8,800 acres of it as payment for his service. He was the first to grow vines in the valley and soon others followed. In 1889 the first commercial winery, Lone Pine Vineyard, was built by Shadrach Osborn and soon after Red Winery by Horace Chase who’s first winemaker was Broder Frellson came after. Broder’s daughter latter married Osborn’s son, William, and began the family wine making and growing lineage that continues to this day.
Prohibition hit the valley hard and forced winemakers to scale back on production. Only 200 gallons were allowed to be produced by a single household. There was widespread planting done in the area which, at first was profitable, but the price of grapes rose leading to an overproduction of grapes which in turn became unprofitable for growers. It wasn’t until after the end of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II that the area began to see a bright light at the end of what seemed to be a never-ending tunnel. New crops such prunes (which soon became the dominant crop in the region), and later apples, were the common crops growing.
Oh no! Where did the wine grapes go!?
Rest easy dear readers, Vine growing and wine production did return (as we know already) with people such as Rodney Strong and Robert Young. In the year 1971, Rodney found a small hill located in Alexander Valley and planted 15 acres of the famous Cabernet grape (the first vintage, 1974, was the first designated to Cabernet in Sonoma County which set the tone for world class Cabernet that comes out of the valley today). Robert Young also decided to plant 14 acres of the then up and coming variety Cabernet Sauvignon.
Today the Alexander Valley grows nearly 15,000 acres of wine grapes, is home to “a community of family farmers who collaborate with each other to grow and produce would-class wine grapes with the dedication to sustainable farming practices and Cabernet Sauvignon as the varietal of designation in Alexander Valley”
Alexander Valley: Home to Silver Oak’s State of the Art Winery
One producer everyone knows is Silver Oak. For many red wine lovers, Silver Oak has become synonymous with luxuriant bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon over the last 45 years. These food-friendly, dynamic vintages hail from quality fruit met with virgin oak. Often, Silver Oak wines are consumed on special occasions—a reflection of their magnificence. But to truly understand what sets the brand apart requires a visit. Right now, two facilities welcome guests. There’s Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville, CA—the prestigious Napa Valley facility and visitors center. And now Silver Oak’s sustainable new Alexander Valley home, which opened just this year. Suffice it to say, this is a winery fit for the future.
Even before entering, one gets the agricultural influence on the winery structure itself. It looks like a barn from the future. Lead architect Daniel Piechota, from Sagan Piechota, explains to CH, “A barn is meant to be a straightforward structure. The choice became striking a balance between being very intentional and novel versus straightforward yet laying back.” With nothing short of a poetic observation, Piechota continues, “The barns of the Alexander Valley have always held a fascination for me. I have spent a lot of time in rural areas and appreciate the modernism of barns—their form is their utility is their decoration. Barns are honest, the scale allows for deep openings and long shadows, light as it filters through tall boards. The long stretch and linear relationship to landscape, they convey an almost monolithic quality.” This isn’t a modern barn, however; it’s a winery and this is visually understood almost immediately.
A dive beneath the surface reveals something quite extraordinary. The new facility is seeking to be the world’s second LEED-platinum certified winery—the first being Silver Oak’s Oakville location. There’s no higher Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design classification. And this property will be the first winery to be 100% net zero energy and net zero water from the start. Every drop of water has been downcycled three times. Natural light illuminates production rooms. From the solar panels, they will ultimately draw 105% net energy, putting five percent back into the grid. They’re doing all this with an open-source approach. As Ian Leggat, Director of Marketing & Public Relations, says, “we are handing this over as a set of best practices in the industry and anybody who wants to use what we’ve done and do better can go ahead and do so. Everyone benefits.” From redwood reclaimed from another winery to recycled Levi’s used as insulation, nothing has been built without the utmost concern.
The brand has already set into action tech-forward vineyard management. They practice a system that causes the vines to struggle some for their water and nutrients. As Leggat explains, “this creates smaller more flavorful and concentrated fruit. If vines get too much water they take on a vegetal quality.” Then they seek out optimal ripeness and crush it as soon as possible. Other tests include predawn leaf pressure deficits, real time data transmission, and Physiocap measurement (lasers measuring width and shoot length) all to balance vigor and vine health for an even crop. They’ve also begun to use a machine harvester that shakes the bunches—a once controversial now tried and true system.
When Silver Oak launched in 1972, they were only the second all Cabernet Sauvignon house in the region. They were using roughly 25% estate grapes and 75% partner grower grapes. That number has flipped completely. The remarkably speck-free production area features a range of fermenters, each used only once during harvest. There are different tank sizes for different types of results. Nate Weis, only the third winemaker at the company, studied at UC Davis. His knowledge of the plants is extraordinary. From marine fog management to complete control over barrel-making (Silver Oak owns their cooperage), there aren’t many as equipped to produce with such specificity. Finally, the Silver Oak team blends before they put the wine into barrels. This allows the various components to harmonize, marry in fact, over that time. Look no further than their acclaimed 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for proof of success.