Tasting Proves Alexander Valley Has Arrived

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The coming-out party was swell, even if the debutante was downright stony--not to mention 20 miles long and five miles wide.

In fact, the guest of honor was a geographical feature. The occasion was to recognize Alexander Valley's new stature in the constellation of California's important appellations.

The noble vine has inhabited Alexander Valley for a hundred years or more. But within the last decade or so the Alexander Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) has joined the handful of California appellations claiming clear viticultural identity--in this case, as a producer of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines that rival those from neighboring Napa Valley.

Long known primarily for contributing luscious, richly-flavored grapes to wines bearing a Sonoma County appellation, the Alexander Valley AVA has gradually asserted its own distinctive high-toned fruit and smooth tannins, especially in elegant red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

The potential was signaled more than a quarter century ago by early Cabernets from Simi and Jordan, and Richard Arrowood's vineyard-designated Chateau St. Jean Chardonnays, Rieslings and Gewrztraminers from the Robert Young and Belle Terre vineyards. But for decades, most Alexander Valley fruit went into the general Sonoma County blend.

More recently, producers such as Simi, Silver Oak, Jordan, Iron Horse, Clos du Bois, Geyser Peak, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Stonestreet and Murphy Goode (not a complete list by any means) have committed to defining the valley's voice through appellation-specific reds. Since the early 1990s those wines have achieved the kind of distinction that elevates an appellation from a marketing tool to true viticultural distinction.

Alexander Valley is a skinny necktie of a river channel through the coast range. It conducts the Russian River through a meandering 20-mile stretch between its Mendocino County origins and the big bend east of Healdsburg where it hangs a right toward the sea.

The long, narrow valley's geology embraces the most cataclysmic chapters in the violent history of the coast ranges. In the deep past, volcanoes, earthquakes, plate tectonics and massive flooding have all contributed to the terrain. Eons of soil movements and depositions have created a valley floor that might be called a horizontal hillside, with rocky, well-drained soils resembling those found in the surrounding hills.

The climate is well on the warm side of the wine grape range. However, cool ocean air flowing in from the Russian River Valley tempers the heat, keeping the vines refreshed and the grapes balanced. A winemaker working with Alexander Valley fruit starts off with intense high-toned flavor, crisp acidity and big, soft tannins.

Alexander Valley's coming of age was celebrated last week at the 2001 Sommelier Summit sponsored by Franciscan Vineyards (which owns Simi). Some two dozen of the nation's top palates, most of them accredited Master Sommeliers by the U.K.-based Court of Master Sommeliers, convened at historic Simi Winery for seminars and tastings devoted to the Alexander Valley AVA.

The centerpiece of the viticultural coming out party was a retrospective tasting of 30 years of Alexander Valley Cabernets from Simi, Silver Oak and Jordan. From the 1970s through the late '90s (beginning with the sensational Simi Reserve 1974, still fresh and regally powerful), the tasting unfolded a sensory picture of the steadily vigorous campaign to unlock the secrets of regional typicity and express it with grace.

The tasting was led by a panel that included two of the most influential figures in Alexander Valley's coming of age. Zelma Long joined historic Simi Winery (founded in 1876) in '79 and guided it into the first rank of California producers before retiring in 1999 to head her own group of wineries. Michel Rolland is a Bordeaux-based enologist who consults with about 100 wineries worldwide; his refined sensibility has helped numerous California producers elevate their red wines toward suppleness and elegance.

In her opening remarks, Long mentioned another influential figure who wasn't present. When the legendary Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff began consulting in the early 1970s, Simi and Jordan were among his first clients. At that time, she said, California Cabs tended to be overly extracted and thus extremely tannic and high in alcohol. "But Andre's weren't," she said. "They were more elegant and rich. That's because Andre was a more evolved, sophisticated winemaker than those of us who had only been making wine for a few years."

By the mid-'80s, the forefront of California winemakers--including Simi, Jordan and Silver Oak--had evolved to more general sophistication. "That was when we gave a lot of attention to things like trellising, managing extraction and proper use of barrels," said Long. "It was a time of big changes, and they showed in the quality of the wines."

At that time all of California was still looking at Bordeaux as a model. Going into the '90s, that relationship was reversed. Now the global wine world--the French included--follows California's bold, fruit-driven style of wine. But the challenge inherent in that style is to balance the power with finesse, and that's where Rolland comes in.

"A winemaker has to have a philosophy," he said, "but a consultant has to have no philosophy. I try to understand the soil and climate and grape, and make the best wine possible. When I came here 15 years ago, the Californians were trying to make Bordeaux, and making lots of mistakes. Now we're making wines of terroir--and Alexander Valley has very good terroir."

In the tasting, each winery's throughline told a slightly different story of enlightenment. The Jordan wines showed how winemaker Rob Davis (a Tchelistcheff protege) learned to balance the Jordan estate Cabernet's inherent herbaceousness with richer cherry and tobacco tones. The older Silver Oak Cabs were aggressively oakey and awkward on the palate, but vintage by vintage the oak (always American, a stylistic choice) has assumed the offstage role of broadening the palate and enhancing the bright Alexander Valley aromatics. Current winemaker Daniel Barron's Bordeaux experience shows in the fine balance and structure of recent vintages.

The Simi Cabernets have gone from strength to strength--from the early sophistication of its winemaking program to the intensive development of a world-class estate vineyard. That's a more subtle story about winemaker Nick Goldschmidt refining the art of fusing deeply concentrated fruit and big tannin into sleek, supple wines of heroic dimension.

In a subsequent tasting, the sommeliers were asked to taste 14 unidentified 1997 Cabernet-based wines. Eight were from Alexander Valley, six from Napa Valley. The object was to distinguish the Alexander Valley wines from such Napa Valley heavies as Joseph Phelps "Insignia," Merryvale "Profile" and Quintessa.

The majority picked about half correctly. About two-thirds mistakenly identified the Simi Reserve as a Napa Valley Cab and Quintessa as Alexander Valley. A particularly embarrassing show of hands revealed that most confused Silver Oak's Alexander Valley Cab with its Napa Valley bottling.

That made two things clear. On one hand, the sensory profile of Alexander Valley terroir is still in the process of being defined. But more significantly, the Alexander Valley wines were clearly in the same class as their more celebrated neighbors.

And that seemed to be the message the sommeliers would be taking back to their customers in high-profile restaurants around the country. California's second important Cabernet Sauvignon appellation has emerged.

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