Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Alexander Valley Vineyards – The Home of Cyrus Alexander in Alexander Valley, California

During my recent trip to the Alexander Valley two weeks ago, after visiting Lancaster Estate and Field Stone Winery, I ate lunch and then visited my third and final winery of the day - Alexander Valley Vineyard.

The valley and the winery were named after the 19th century pioneer and explorer Cyrus Alexander. A native of Pennsylvania before coming to California, Cyrus was a fur trapper in the Rockies and then later was involved in gold mining in California. In 1840 he was hired by a Captain Fitch to find several thousand acres suitable for ranching. So, at the age of 35 Cyrus Alexander rode horseback from San Diego to the Alexander Valley where he acquired the land from the Mexican government. Fitch then asked Alexander to establish and manage the ranch where he bred thousands of horses as well as large herds of cattle and sheep. As a reward for his labors Cyrus was given a large parcel of land on the eastern side of the Russian River, later named the Alexander Valley, where he built a home for his large family on a knoll alongside a creek. He also went on to build the valley’s first schoolhouse.

The estate remained in the Alexander family until 1962 when it was purchased by Harry and Maggie Wetzel. Today, the house built by Cyrus Alexander is the home of the Wetzel family, and the schoolhouse is now the Wetzels’ guest house. But the Alexanders are still at the winery. Up on a hill, under a huge oak tree behind the winery as Cyrus and Rufina Alexander are buried along with five of their ten children. Not far away in Healdsburg, is the George Alexander House, a Queen Anne Victorian house built in 1905 by Cyrus’ tenth child, George, and his wife, Nellie. Today it serves as an ornamented bed and breakfast inn.

After purchasing the property, the Wetzel family then restored the residence and planted the property with premium grape varieties establishing Alexander Valley Vineyards. The winery is a family-run business with Hank Wetzel, the oldest son of Maggie and Harry, serving as the winemaker. In 1974 Hank earned a B.S. in Fermentation Science from the University of California, Davis. For his senior project, he developed a plan for a small winery, which became the blueprint for Alexander Valley Vineyards.

As winery construction commenced in 1975, Hank’s wife Linda set up Alexander Valley Vineyards’ accounting system. She and Hank were the only employees, so she helped with the first harvest later that year. With the arrival of her first child in 1976, Linda assumed dual roles, managing the office while raising her family, balancing the needs of business and babies. Hank and Linda’s four children grew up with Alexander Valley Vineyards, in their home next door to the winery.

Hank’s younger sister, Katie Wetzel Murphy, joined the family business in 1979. She serves as ambassador for the family business traveling the country representing the winery. Now the third generation of Wetzels has joined the winery with Harry Wetzel IV serving as the assistant winemaker while younger brother Robert is the National Sales Manager.

The Wetzel Family Estate now grows 14 grape varieties, cultivated on 150 prime acres of diverse sites stretching from the banks of the Russian River up onto the hillsides. Alexander Valley Vineyards produces 100,000 cases annually, 17 varietal wines and proprietary blends. Seventy-five percent of Alexander Valley Vineyards’ production is red wine. Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon constitute roughly half of total production. Other varietals include Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer, Syrah, Sangiovese, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc. Cyrus, a limited production, proprietary red wine, named in honor of the pioneer Cyrus Alexander, is Alexander Valley Vineyards’ flagship wine.

The tasting room has an extensive portfolio and while visiting I sampled the following wines:

My first wine was the 2008 Alluvia, a co-fermented blend of Syrah, Viognier and Grenache. This wine is light ruby in color with fresh cherries, orange peel and licorice on the nose. On the palate it is medium bodied, has medium tannins and fairly high acidity. It is a welcomed nice alternative to the run-of-the-mill mélange of red wines on the market. This wine sells for $35 a bottle.

My second wine was 2006 Big Barrel Syrah. On the nose I picked up dried black fruits, beef jerky, forest floor, leather and a hint of herbs. On the palate it has BIG gum gripping tannins and high acidity. This wine sells for $35 a bottle.

The third white sample was the 2009 Primativo, a blend of 75% Primativo and 25% Zinfandel. This wine displays fresh cherries, brown sugar, and spice. On the palate it has good acidity and displays dried black fruits on the finish. A nice wine but a bit pricy at $40 a bottle.

The fourth wine pour was 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a dusty-earthy wine with black fruits, anise, and a hint of mint on the nose. On the palate this wine displays dried fruits, toasted oak and has BIG tannins with a firm grip. This wine sells for $40 a bottle.

My next pour was the 2005 Cyrus, a blend of 76% Cabernet sauvignon, 10% Cab Franc, 2% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. On the nose I picked up cassis, black cherries, dark chocolate, anise and dried herbs. After 7 years of ageing this wine still displays big tannins on the palate and good acidity so you could drink it now or hold on to it for a few more years. A nice wine but not competitively priced at $65 a bottle.

My next pour was the 2006 Cyrus, a blend of 58% Cabernet sauvignon, 5% Cab Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. Still youthful in appearance, this wine is deep garnet and violet in color with aromas of dried currants, duty earth, forest floor, cigar box, and black olives. On the palate it is dry with supple tannins, medium-full bodied with a long earthy finish. This wine sells for $65 a bottle.

My final sample in the line-up from the tasting room was the 2007 Cyrus, a blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. This wine is garnet in color and on the nose it displays blackberries, new leather, dark chocolate, caramel and a hint of anise. On the palate this wine has BIG tannins that are astringent and have a lot of grip. Undoubtedly this wine needs some more time in the bottle before it calms down or a big fat steak to bring it into balance. A nice wine for $55 a bottle. If I were in the market to buy a BIG Meritage, of the three vintages of Cyrus that I tasted I’d buy this one.
I then did a tour of the wine cave where I was afforded the opportunity to do barrel sample tasting of their Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cyrus from both American and French barrels. Unfortunately, because the cave is dimly lit and having my hands busy carrying a wine glass and spitting cup I wasn’t able to take any notes. But, in general I’d say I was a lot more impressed with the barrel samples for although the tannins were extremely gripping the wines were very fresh and vibrant.

To visit or for more information:

Alexander Valley Vineyards
8644 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Tasting room hours: Daily 10 am – 5 pm (except major holidays)
Cave tours are available daily at 11 am and 2 pm.
Phone: 1-800-888-7209; 1-707-433-7209

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