Alexander Valley Vineyards: An Old Schoolhouse, New Directions and a Dog named Cocoa too

The old schoolhouse was built over 150 years ago and sits on a hill overlooking the Alexander Valley and California highway 128. It’s July in the early summer growing season and the grapevines are lush with clusters pre-veraison, cared for by the waters coming from the top of the Mayacamas Mountains that the land is settled below. I tighten my shoes for my morning run, when a chocolate Labrador retriever barks her approval. I wave and say good morning and Cocoa – so her collar introduces me – trots across the stone bridge towards me, tail wagging and interested in belly scratches and ear rubs. She is enjoying the cool mornings coming off the extreme heat of the day. After regarding my shoes and nodding her approval after her third ear scratch, Cocoa is off to inspect the chickens further up the road.

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon vines at Alexander Valley Vineyard.

Cyrus Alexander knew this land was hearty and fertile and it’s here he made his stake in the 1840s, planting the “first growth” of vines in the northern portions of Sonoma County. It’s from that legacy that Alexander Valley Vineyards – or AVV as it is known colloquially – was born from the Wetzel family’s vision nearly 60 years ago and with whom the expanses of the land which runs down from the foothills and to the Russian River are cared for.

The day will be another warm one in the valley but the vineyards enjoy the heat of the day and the cool temperatures of the night. My run path takes me through the blocks of the vineyards clearly marked by section and row as well as varietal. All and all, the vineyard holds over 12 grape varieties and the winery stores many vintages in its expansive 25,000 square foot cave facility. Workers inspect the many wells on the property as I pass by, ensuring a steady water source to the vines over the past decades. Down the vineyard road a turn left and I’m back out onto highway 128. I have run a mile already and I’m just at one edge of the property, yet it keeps going. The Wetzel family stewards a large section of this part of the valley even though over 20 other wineries make their homes here. The views are expansive and breathtaking.

While the Pandemic of 2020 has changed many things – the way we taste, the way we come together to enjoy wine and company – in many ways it has accelerated the need to keep moving forward.

When I make my turn back up to the road leading to the winery, I see the old Alexander Schoolhouse looming in the distance. A preserved 19th-century structure moved by Harry Wetzel in the early 1970s, it serves as guest house and as hospitality site today. The character of the structure is not lost on me, as a teacher throughout my career I can imagine children across the valley coming to this building in its former location in another time.

The author’s new friend and pre-run coach, Cocoa.

It’s from this history that AVV is charting new directions, while respecting its heritage. While the Pandemic of 2020 has changed many things – the way we taste, the way we come together to enjoy wine and company – in many ways it has accelerated the need to keep moving forward. The winery is one of only 14 wineries in Sonoma County to be certified as an official Green Business – as well as a California Sustainable Winery – and has begun to produce impressively structured organic wines (see my notes for the 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, below). Winemaker Kevin Hall has worked the property for over 20 years, during that time he has created the kind of wine line up that few properties could aspire to with the consistency of quality few winemakers can manage. It’s the intimacy of the place and the time – with a look to the future while respecting the past – that I believe is perhaps the quiet strength that marks AVV’s offerings and production methods.

See the source image
Winemaker Kevin Hall of Alexander Valley Vineyards (photo: San Diego Wine Classic)

We came to this place nearly as accidental – or perhaps by intention – as Cyrus Alexander did two centuries ago. At a wine conference in Michigan in 2019 (by today’s standards normal times) I had the pleasure of meeting Trey Johnson, Regional Sales Director in the Midwest for AVV. I shared our plans to travel up the coast from our home in Southern California the next year and his generous offer to stay at the old schoolhouse led to this day, this visit, this run with Cocoa’s approval through the vineyard.

I sampled nine of the current releases, the consistency and acknowledgement to the terroir is no accident. The winery also boasts a Pinot Noir – grown near the east banks of the Russian River – which can rival most Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley AVA. The Alexander School Reserve Chardonnay – named for the building on the property – is complex with secondary and even tertiary flavors on the palate.

2019 Dry Rosé of Sangiovese

Pale melon color with medium aromas of watermelon and honeysuckle. White peaches and traces of rocky candy on a long finish with some tannins. A very good wine (89)

2018 Estate Chardonnay

Pale golden color with pronounced aromas of apple crisp and butterscotch. Rich buttery palate of peaches and hints of tropical fruit. Long finish with secondary traces of caramel apples. Outstanding wine (90)

2017 Alexander School Reserve Chardonnay

Pale golden color with pronounced aromas of vanilla cream. Big mouth of vanilla, apple crisp and Creme brûlée. Minerality at times on a medium finish with secondary flavors citrus and tropical fruits and tertiary traces of light butterscotch. Outstanding wine (93)

2018 Estate Pinot Noir

Pale ruby color with medium notes of allspice and bing cherries. Cherry pie and traces of leather and granite on a long peppery finish. Medium tannins and acidity. 14% ABV Outstanding wine (90)

2018 Estate Merlot

Pale garnet color pronounce aromas of black currant and dark fruits. Dark fruits and some fig on the medium palate. Very good wine 89

2018 Homestead Red Blend

Pale garnet color medium aromas of red fruits and cyan pepper notes. Dry, chewy cherry cobbler on the palate with minerality on the long finished. Medium tannins. Very good wine (89)

2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Organically Grown

Pale garnet color with pronounced aromas of baked black cherries and black currant. Blue and blackberry traces on the palate with medium tannins. Long finish of black pepper notes and traces of graphite. 100% Cabernet organically farmed from a single vineyard. Outstanding wine drinking well even young (91)

2018 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Traditional Bordeaux left bank blend. Pale garnet color with medium aromas of blueberry and black currant. Blueberry preserves with black and red pepper on the long finish. 14.0 ABV biodynamically farmed. Very good wine a bit young should mature in the bottle well over 10-15 years (89)

2014 CYRYUS Bordeaux Blend

Named for Cyrus Alexander and considered a “first growth” wine of Sonoma County. Pale garnet with pronounced aroma of dark berry cobbler and vanilla. Full dark fruit and leather notes on the palate with a long savory finished of black white and green peppers. Big earthy tannins with secondary traces of forest floor. ABV 14.3% Outstanding wine (92)

Grateful thanks to Trey, Denise and Kristy at Alexander Valley Vineyards for the opportunity to experience this visit.


2 Replies to “Alexander Valley Vineyards: An Old Schoolhouse, New Directions and a Dog named Cocoa too”

  1. Nice article. I have stayed in the schoolhouse multiple times and can say it’s way past interesting. The building is not only historic but it’s rustic in a beautiful way. And if you’re lucky enough,
    you can hear children from days gone by whispering downstairs and happily playing outside in the middle of the night. No joke. Staying there is an unforgettable experience if you’re lucky enough to get an invitation.

    Liked by 1 person

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