Monday, August 9, 2010

The Excellent Wines of Alexander Valley Vineyards in California

Picture: Harry Wetzel and Christian G.E.Schiller in Washington DC

Zinfandel and Other Excellent Wines of Alexander Valley Vineyards in California

Co-owner and winemaker Harry Wetzel of Alexander Valley Vineyards was at Pearson’s in Washington DC a few weeks ago and I was lucky to participate in the tasting.

American Wine

The US is the fourth largest wine producing country in the world following France, Italy, and Spain. The US has produced wine for over 300 years. It is the home of several native species of grape, but it was the introduction of the European Vitis vinifera that led to the growth of the American wine industry. Today, all 50 States make wine, although not all States grow their own fruit.


California accounts for nearly 90 percent of the American wine production. Here are the main wine regions:

Picture: The Wine Regions of California

The first wineries were established by missionaries in the South of California. The Gold Rush in the mid-19th century brought waves of new settlers to California. The wine industry moved to the northern parts of California and took hold in the Sonoma and Napa regions. The late 19th century saw the advent of the phylloxera epidemic which had already ravaged European vineyards. Fortunately the remedy of grafting resistant American rootstock was well known and the Californian wine industry was able to survive. At the turn of the 20th century, nearly 800 wineries existed in California and worldwide recognition seemed imminent, when Prohibition hit the industry in 1920. By the time that Prohibition was repealed in 1933 under President Franklin Roosevelt, only 140 wineries were still operating in California.

Californian re-entered the international stage at the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition, when Californian wines beat out French wines in both red and white wine categories. Today, there are more than 1,200 wineries in the State, ranging from small boutique wineries to large corporations. In general, by German or French standards, American wineries are large.

Alexander Valley

The Alexander Valley is located north of Healdsburg in Sonoma County. It is the largest and most fully planted wine region in Sonoma. The Russian River flows down the valley, surrounded by vineyards on both sides.

Viticulture dates back to the mid-1800s, when Cyrus Alexander established vineyards in the area. For most of its history, the region was predominately associated with mass-produced bulk and jug wines. The modern era of quality wine production began in the late 1960s with Simi Winery starting to produce wine in the Alexander Valley.

Picture: Maps of Sonoma County and Alexander Valley

The Alexander Valley is known for a wide range of grape varieties but in recent years the area has been noted for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines. Jancis Robinson has speculated that Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc may prove themselves to be best suited to the climate and soils of the Alexander Valley.


Zinfandel is a red grape variety planted in over 10 percent of California vineyards. It was long considered to be the “American Grape”. But new research revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, and also the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in the "heel" of Italy, where it was introduced in the 1700s. The grape found its way to the United States in the mid-19th century.

The arrival of Zinfandel in the US may have been via the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria, which likely obtained the vines during the Habsburg Monarchy's rule over Croatia. After World War II, medium sweet White Zinfandel became immensely popular in the US. At the end of the end of the 20th century, red Zinfandel wines came back into fashion.

Alexander Valley Vineyards

Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley was mostly prune orchards and pastures when, in 1962, Maggie and Harry Wetzel purchased a large portion of a homestead built by Cyrus Alexander, the valley’s nineteenth century namesake. They raised livestock, cultivated bountiful gardens and restored Alexander’s original home, making it the center of family life. With an eye to their neighbors in nearby Napa Valley, the Wetzels boldly planted premium grape varieties, among the first in the area. Then the family built a small winery. Hank Wetzel, oldest son of Maggie and Harry, produced Alexander Valley Vineyard’s first wine in 1975. Now the third generation of Wetzels has joined the winery. Harry Wetzel IV is assistant winemaker while younger brother Robert is the National Sales Manager.

Today, the Wetzel Family Estate grows fourteen grape varieties, on 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. Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon constitute roughly half of total production. Other varietals include Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer, Syrah, Sangiovese, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc.

Sustainability of winemaking is an issue for Alexander Valley Vineyards. Grape stems and pomace (the solid remains of the grapes after they are pressed) for instance, are composted, turning them into a nutrient-rich material that can be used in the vineyards. Glass bottles and the foils that protect the cork are regularly recycled.

Wines are fermented and aged in French and California oak barrels. Alexander Valley Vineyards buy ther barrels from more than a dozen different cooperages, and replace about a quarter of them every year. The staves are harvested from French or American oak forests and left to cure for two years before being toasted to varying degrees.

What We Tasted


Winery Notes: When we added Temptation to our family of Zins, we wanted to show how the grape California has adapted as its own can wear many faces. If the Redemption Zin is a bit more regal, then Temptation is fun-loving and pretty laid back.

This new release displays all the trademark elements of a fine Zinfandel from Sonoma, where this varietal gained its fame. It's predominately a blend of Zin from Sonoma's Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys. There's also some Zinfandel from Solano to the east of Napa, adding some nuance to this great value Zin. We suggest picking up a few bottles, kicking back and enjoying the fun flavors here of Bing cherries, blackberries and cranberries along with notes of cloves and cinnamon.


Picture: Zinfandels of Alexander Valley Vineyards


Winery Notes: Sin Zin is arguably our best known wine. Most folks are initially drawn in by the label, but once they taste what's inside the bottle, they quickly realize that this is no novelty wine. That may be why Sin Zin remains one of the most popular Zins in America and why, according to Wine & Spirits magazine, it's the Zin of choice in many of the nation's restaurants.

The 2007 is a classic Alexander Valley Zinfandel. In the glass, you'll find generous aromas of black cherries, blueberries, vanilla and spice. The big fruit notes are apparent right at the front end. The hefty flavors of cherries and plums carry this wine right through the mid-palate, paving the way for a lengthy finish, where a touch of spicy oak rears its head.



Winery Notes: Original Sin is in the Alexander Valley. You must trek to Dry Creek for Redemption. Of course we are talking Zinfandel here, as in Sin Zin, our signature Zin, and Redemption Zin, the wonderfully lush companion.

Several years ago, we received some great lots of Zin from vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, about a dozen miles to the west of our estate. It presented a perfect opportunity to make a Zinfandel with a personality different from Sin Zin, illustrating the distinctive qualities of each region.

Since then, we've been producing a Zinfandel that captures the best the Dry Creek has to offer. The 2006 Redemption Zin shows substantial blackberry and plum flavors along with a healthy dose of black pepper and subtle notes of orange peel and glycerin.



Winery Notes: One of the lessons we've learned over nearly a half century of grape growing is that there are certain varietals that are perfect for the Alexander Valley and there are others that are best left to other appellations. Gewurztraminer is one of those. It grows best in cooler climates like Mendocino's Potter Valley, the source for this 2009 Gewurz.

This latest release shows an expressive nose of pineapple, lychee and pear and flavors of grapefruit and apple along with a big mineral component. You'll also notice the wine exhibits a creamy mouthfeel, nicely balanced by the wine's acidity.

We know a lot of folks have a hard time pronoucing the name of this grape. So we've made it easier for you. We call this wine simply "Gewurz.



Winery Notes: While rosé can be produced from any red grape, we think Sangiovese provides all the elements to make a world-class rosé, particularly depth of fruit and great acidity. We sourced the fruit for the 2009 from a single vineyard that was farmed with the intent of making a rosé from the grapes.

The fruit was picked at 22.6 Brix, allowing us to make a lower alchohol rosé. Harvest began before dawn so that the grapes would be cold when they arrived at the winery. The fruit was then cold-soaked for 6 hours and the juice bled off when it had attained the dusty salmon color we were seeking.

This new release is a worthy successor to the 2008, which critic Robert Parker called the best domestic rosé he tasted last year. This perfect spring and summer sipper exhibits notes of strawberry and peach along with a nice minerality. The finish is not only dry, but surprisingly lengthy.



Winery Notes: Winemaker Kevin Hall's philosophy has always been to produce wines that truly reflect the qualities of the vineyard. That approach is particularly true with this 2008 Estate Chardonnay. To make sure the crisp fruit shines through, he fermented and aged 70% of the juice in stainless steel. The remainder went into barrel, where it was subjected to frequent lees stirring before being aged in French oak.

Those steps produced a beautifully textured Chardonnay that exhibits lush apple and pear flavors along with some tropical fruit notes, just a touch of vanilla and a hint of minerality. Kevin's approach also makes this a food-friendly Chard, perfect for dishes ranging from roast chicken to sauteed bay scallops.



Winery Notes: There are few places better suited for Cabernet Sauvignon than the Alexander Valley, which is why it's become our signature wine. Warm summer days tempered by morning coastal fogs combine to help create a refined Cabernet that is at once approachable upon release, yet with the fortitude to develop with time.

In the glass, the 2007 Estate Cabernet displays big aromas of black cherry, cassis, cocoa powder and plum and flavors of cassis, black cherry and plum along with soft, integrated tannins. This is certainly a great wine to serve with beef, whether braised short ribs or a Tuscan steak rubbed with olive oil and rosemary.



Winery Notes: Our marquee wine, a true reflection of the best of the Alexander Valley, earns its stripes in a number of ways. Winemaker Kevin Hall selects the best vineyard lots and decides what blend will highlight the Cabernet Sauvignon that is the foundation of CYRUS. The wine is then aged for two years in French oak followed by 8 months in the bottle.

The Cabernet Sauvignon for the 2005 hails from three different vineyards, a blend of old and new vines offering notes of black cherry and cassis. To balance those big flavors, Kevin blended in equal parts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Add a dollop of Malbec and Petit Verdot and you get a multi-dimensional wine offering beautiful flavors of dark cherries, plums and chocolate.


Alexander Valley Vineyards
8644 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Office hours: 8am–5pm
Tasting room hours: 10am–5pm
(707) 433-7209
(707) 433-9408 Fax

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1 comment:

  1. Alexander Valley VineyardsAugust 9, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    "Christian, it was great to meet you at the Pearson's tasting. Thank you for the very detailed write-up in your blog. I'm glad you enjoyed the wine!"