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Alexander Valley Academy: new appreciation for these fine Cabernets


It’s Friday morning, day two of the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy, where I’m moderating a series of panels for about 35 sommeliers, from all over the country, who were invited to the event, which is sponsored by the Alexander Valley Winegrowers.

I think AVW’s feeling is that Cabernet Sauvignon is their primary grape and wine, and perhaps people don’t understand what makes it unique from other regions. This is remarkably similar to what’s occurring in Paso Robles, where I also moderated a panel just a few weeks ago for their Cab Collective, an event aimed–not at somms–but at the public, but also meant to demonstrate how good Paso Cab can be.

Panel 1 yesterday was on Cabs of the southern part of Alexander Valley: Alexander Valley’s Reserve, Lancaster Estate, Hawkes Pyramid, Stuhlmuller Reserve, Simi Landslide, Hoot Owl, Silver Oak, all from the 2008 vintage. It was good to taste these Cabs with a little bottle age on them: All were beginning (as I said) to “turn the corner” from expressing primary fruit to more bottle aged notes. All were very interesting, soft and round in the Alexander Valley way. Some had a touch of the herbaceousness that also historically has marked this valley’s Cabs. All also showed firm tannins, although two–the Lancaster and the Simi–were harder than the others. Most of the wines will benefit from 8-10 more years. My own feeling was that the Hoot Owl was the most advanced, though. That wine was higher in alcohol and riper than the others, more “Napa-esque” if you will, and I thought its future is limited for those reasons as it’s already showing signs of premature aging.

That tasting was held at Hawkes beautiful property, on a windy hillside that is officially in Alexander Valley, but might as well have been in Chalk Hill, for all I could tell. The day had dawned cloudy, cool and rainy, after our gorgeous Spring, not a good omen for the Academy. But it cleared up and turned sunny and mild, with the result that I, who am at risk of skin cancer the result of my fair complexion and overexposure to the sun in my youth, now have a sunburned nose that’s already beginning to blister. Stupid me.

From Hawkes we took the bus up to Stonestreet for a tasting and lecture from their winemaker, Graham Weerts. I was happy to see Barbara Banke, the proprietor, there; I sat next to her and, as she wished to have Gus sit in her lap, I was happy to comply, as was he. I have to say Gus is a rock star on these road trips.

The Stonestreet wines are really fabulous. Such depth and precision, power married to finesse. That’s mountain vineyards for you, as well as the most refined manufacturing process imaginable. I use that word “manufacturing” deliberately, but cautiously. The Jacksons have the technology to bring perfect grapes to the fermenter, and that technology is not available to many. As I remarked to Graham, after he told us about the process by which inferior grapes are eliminated (involving computerized imaging and blasts of air and what-not), “It’s not romantic, old-fashioned winemaking. But it does make for great wine.”

After Stonestreet we went up to Silver Oak’s estate, where somehow I’d never been. They had set up an educational program on corks, where we could smell corks infected with TCA to varying degrees and test our sensitivity, as well as corks that had other aromas, some pleasurable, some not. It showed us how much the cork can bring to the wine.

That evening the somms went to a barbecue at Hoot Owl and then took the bus down to Healdsburg for a night of gaiety and, I suppose, eating and drinking. I did not join them. I had work to do, Gus was hungry and needed walking, and I wanted to wake up early this morning and get this blog done. I dashed into Geyserville, had an icy cold IPA from 101 North, got some chow from a local eaterie, and went back to the Inn. So now, into the shower, a quick breakfast, then onto the next two panels: mid-Alexander Valley and northern Alexander Valley.

  1. I’m liking all of these panels you’re on….

  2. Keasling says:

    IPA you say Steve? We were at Davis Family last Fall when word got out that Bear Republic had just released their double IPA, Racer X. Not more than 10 minutes later, cellar staff were flying out the door to get their mitts on the seasonal golden nectar. Needless to say we followed, and extremely glad we did. If you happen upon some, you’ll be an even happier camper this weekend.

  3. Love my IPAs! Nothing better after a hot day tasting wine.

  4. I’m with you on IPA after a day of tasting wine, my go to.

  5. Sherman says:

    Interesting that the emphasis seems to be on Cab as Alexander Valley’s “signature” grape, as I’ve always made AV my “go to” region for Zinfandel. I appreciate that I can still get a CA Zin that has some semblance of balance and restraint — rather than being all jammy fruit, huge oak-derived flavors slathered all over it and a burning alcohol finish.

    Perhaps the folks in AV also need to have a panel touting the benefits of a more balanced approach to Zinfandel?

  6. Steve, And what about the Cabernet from the Northern end of Alexander Valley. What are the differences with the South?

  7. I often stop at Stonestreet and buy a couple of bottles of “The General.” It’s a great cab to pour for visitors to my home in Chalk Hill that want to know what Alexander Valley tastes like.

  8. Kenny, in my opinion the big difference in Alexander Valley is between floor and mountain or hillside. In general the Cabs from the north are a little riper and higher in alcohol because of the extra warmth. But that’s a huge generalization.

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