Only weeks ago the Kincade Fire tore through the Alexander Valley, putting residents and wineries on edge as firefighters and first responders heroically battled the ominous flames. Luckily no lives were lost in the massive fire, but several homes and winery structures were destroyed. More than that, the lives and livelihood of those impacted suffered. If you sat at home watching the news (or listening to it from an Eton emergency radio or from your car if you – like we – lost power in the PG&E public safety power shutoff), you felt helpless and wished you could do something.
Other than voting for politicians who will take action to address Climate Change, donating to Corazón Healdsburg or other relief efforts, and reducing your own carbon footprint, you can visit and purchase wines and products made in the Alexander Valley and other areas harmed by natural disasters. Remember it was only two years ago that other parts of Sonoma and Napa were hit hard by the Tubbs and Nuns fires. Each time a disaster hits the wine region, the community rallies together and exemplifies #SonomaStrong. And while the fires may devastate certain properties, the overwhelming majority remain untouched by the flames. My husband and I visited the Alexander Valley November 9 – just a few days after firefighters proclaimed the Kincade Fire 100% contained. Although that fire burned over 75,000 acres and destroyed 374 buildings (over half of which were homes), the vast majority of the valley survived and welcomed visitors back with clear blue skies and rolling hills covered in vibrantly colored autumn leaves. I urge you to plan your visit to the Alexander Valley and buy wines from the region.
The Alexander Valley stretches along the northeastern edge of Sonoma County outside the towns of Healdsburg and Geyserville, approximately 90 minutes north of San Francisco. The warm Mediterranean climate of this AVA produces full bodied but softly balanced Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals. With more than 425 wineries in Sonoma County – 42 of which are in the Alexander Valley, planning a trip can feel overwhelming. That’s why I recommend developing a strategy and game plan based on your personal preferences — whenever and wherever you plan to go wine tasting. Do your research using local online tools like Wine Road, The Press, and Woman Owned Wineries. Personally, I seek out small, family owned wineries – ideally with a woman winemaker, organic or sustainable farming practices, and great wines that are a good value (and by that I mean a quality to price ratio tailored to one’s own subjective palate and budget). These are a few of my personal Alexander Valley favorites.
Where to Taste
In the Vineyards with Stunning Views
Hanna sits perched on a hilltop surrounded by vineyards in the central Alexander Valley. Winery president Christine Hanna leads the operations with vineyards and tasting rooms in both the Alexander Valley and Russian River. Hanna produces outstanding Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals in each location, respectively. But you can taste all the wines in each tasting room and even take home a copy of Ms. Hanna’s own cookbook, The Winemaker Cooks, published by Chronicle Books in 2010. While known for their Sauvignon Blanc, I particularly enjoy the Provençal style rosé of Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay. The tasting room offers a relaxed, casual experience with sweeping views of the valley. Reservations are not required but book ahead if you want to reserve a wine and cheese pairing on the veranda or a picnic under the Oak Tree.
9280 CA-128, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-4310; hannawinery.com
At this family-owned estate, newly appointed head winemaker Maggie Kruse carries on the tradition of making world class Chardonnay in the Burgundian style (leaner, crisp and more acidic than many of the big, buttery and heavily Oakes Chardonnays for which California has become infamous) and Cabernet Sauvignon. A certified sustainable winery, Jordan preserves over three quarters of its beautiful sprawling estate to the natural habitat. Jordan offers tours of the winery and the estate with wine and food pairings. Plan ahead since reservations are required for tours and tastings.
1474 Alexander Valley Rd, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-5250; jordanwinery.com
ROBERT YOUNG ESTATE WINERY
Robert Young Estate Winery produces elegantly balanced and high quality Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other Bordeaux varietals. This family owned and operated estate has six generations in the family business, passed down from namesake Robert Young (1919 -2009) who converted his family’s prune ranch to a winery and was the first vintners to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Alexander Valley in 1963. His scions founded Robert Young Estate Winery in 1997 and operate the winery today. You’ll often find fifth and sixth generations, Robert, Jr. pouring wines in the tasting room and Rachel in the cellar and on social media. At the plentiful member events, the family members greet guests, drive them in a tractor-pulled trolley and causally engage guests in discussions of the wines. My husband and I joined the Robert Young wine club over a decade ago when tastings were hosted at a small counter inside the roadside white barn. That was long before the beautiful new website and hilltop Scion House tasting room that opened in the back half of 2018. It elevates the tasting experience with the best views I’ve seen of the Alexander Valley yet still maintains the winery’s warm hospitality. It’s a required stop for any visit to the area. Thanks to quick action by Robert, Jr. and his father, Fred, to stamp out a pre-dawn brush fire on their property and the valiant efforts of the firefighters to beat back the encroaching Kincade fire, the beautiful estate remains. Read about their efforts and see just how close the fire came here. Open daily 10 am – 4:30 pm.
5102 Red Winery Rd, Geyserville, CA 9544; (707) 431-4811; www.ryew.com
Silver Oak needs no introduction. You’ve seen it offered on wine lists all across the country and may have received a bottle or two as a gift in your lifetime. It’s a brand that exudes luxury. And the Alexander Valley tasting room aptly displays that brand image. Personally I prefer the velvety Cabernet Sauvignons of Robert Young to the heavily oaked and grippy tannins of Silver Oak, but these wines are loved by many and can age very well if you have the patience. Even if you don’t want to taste the wine, I recommend a visit to Silver Oak’s LEED-certified tasting room for the architectural beauty and outstanding gift shop (more than just Silver Oak logo wear, they offered lovely wine totes, cookbooks, ceramic pieces, and jewelry). You can also charge your electric vehicle on their plentiful charging stations. Open daily until 5 pm.
7300 CA-128, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 942-7082; www.silveroak.com
SODA ROCK WINERY
Unlike the other wineries mentioned here, Soda Rock Winery failed to escape the wrath of the Kincade Fire, which took its main winery structure and its 2019 vintage. But just a few feet away, the old wooden barn survived and now hosts wine tastings. We visited Soda Rock for a tasting on November 9, when their road sign sign proclaimed “Recovery Begins! Taste Today.” Over the celebratory music played by a live band, wine club members and the public tasted Soda Rock wines paired with pulled pork sliders and sinful chocolate brownies. We walked away with six bottles of the 2015 Lord Snort — a silky blend of Cabernet Sauvignons (50%) and Merlot (40%) — and hearts full of admiration for the resilient spirit of the winery team and the community that flocked there to support them. Visit Soda Rock daily from 11 am to 4 pm.
8015 CA-128, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 433-3303; sodarockwinery.com
Tasting Rooms in Town
HEALDSBURG: While you’re in the Alexander Valley, you’re bound to visit the idyllic town of Healdsburg. As you stroll the charming town plaza, I recommend you visit these tasting rooms.
Lioco is a stylish newcomer to downtown Healdsburg offering restrained California Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Carignan. They also serve the most delicious gluten free crackers. The tasting room feels like a cocktail lounge with bright pops of yellow upholstered mid century chairs walk-ins – make this your stop before dinner on the square. Reservations are not required. Open daily from 12 -7 pm.
125 Matheson St, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 395-0148; Liocowine.com
Portalupi located just one block from the Healdsburg Square is worth a stop on your journey. Portalupi produces Italian style wines by husband and wife owners and winemakers, Tim Borges and Jane Portalupi, sourcing grapes from California vineyards in Carneros, Russian River, and the Sierra Foothills. My favorites include the Barbera and Vaso di Marina (a red wine blend sold in a 1 liter milk bottle inspired by Jane’s grandmother Marina). Open daily from 11 – 6 daily ( until 7 pm on Saturdays and Sundays). Walk-ins welcomed.
107 North St, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 395-0960; portalupiwine.com
GEYSERVILLE: The town of Geyserville feels like it’s straight out of the Wild West with a short block of shops, restaurants, and tasting rooms. My favorite is Mercury Wine.
If nothing else, Mercury makes for a fun stop at the end of the day while you wait for your table at Diavola Pizzeria next door. Listen to a vinyl LP in the convivial tasting room where you’ll likely encounter the winemaker-owner, Brad, his brother, Grady, and occasionally the winery dog, Freddie [Mercury] and be treated to warm hospitality and fabulous wines. My favorites are the Messenger (Cabernet Sauvignon blend) and Mercurio (100% Tempranillo blended solara style and bursting with notes of fig and cherry). Open daily from 12 – 5 pm.
21015 Geyserville Ave, Geyserville, CA 95441; (707) 857-9870; mercurywine.com
Where to Eat
- The Parish Cafe serves soul-satisfying New Orleans fare in a charming cafe in downtown Healdsburg. Don’t miss the chicory coffee and beignets.
- Flying Goat Coffee roasts mighty fine coffee and serves espresso drinks to kick off your day of tasting. Grab a pastry there or at the Downtown Bakery on the next block.
- Los Plebes is a taco truck that parks right off Highway 101 at the Lytton Springs exit. They make a killer carnitas taco you scarf down while standing up hunched over the hood of your car. At only $2 per taco, you can save money on lunch to put toward procuring more Alexander Valley wines. Next time I’m heading there for a breakfast of chorizo and eggs, since they are open 10 am – 4:30 daily.
- Jimtown Store is in the heart of the Alexander Valley and open for breakfast and lunch. Eat outside on their covered patio or inside the charming store where you can browse the culinary provisions, candy selections, and children’s toys while you wait for your order. Pro tip: the housemade tortilla chips are out of this world.
- Oakville Grocery has an outpost on the Healdsburg Square where you can grab breakfast or picnic lunch supplies to take on your wine tasting journey and find a scenic spot to stop between tastings.
Dinner and Drinks
- Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria makes some of the very best pizza in California using their house-cured salted pork parts in a wood-burning oven and outstanding salads and pastas from locally sourced and sustainable farms and ranches. It’s located in downtown Geyserville and should not be missed. Order the Boscailo or Inferno pizza and add some of the housemade sausage. Don’t forget to drizzle it with the Calabrian Chili oil provided on each table.
- Bravas serves Spanish cuisine in a convivial atmosphere just off the Healdsburg Plaza. Sit outside in the charming, shaded backyard where, if you’re lucky, you’ll witness paella being made to order over an open-flame. Try a flight of dry Sherry wines to pair with your Croquetas or Tortilla Española.
- Duke’s serves craft cocktails and tasty bar snacks on the Healdsburg Square. For the full Op-Edible experience, order the Mr. Brownstone (Alley 6 Rye, Toasted Cedar Bourbon, Alessio Chinato Vermouth + Duke’s Burdock Bitters) and the corn dog pops served with stadium mustard.
- Geyserville Gun Club next to Diavola makes a great spot to head for a cocktail after dinner. I always crave hard alcohol after a day of tasting. Order the Oldfellows Manhattan on tap – a brilliant way to expedite service with a batched and chilled cocktail. They also offer seafood crudos and Latin and Asian Streetfood menu items.
A version of this article was originally published on op-edible.com