When it comes to red grape varieties, Sonoma County is first and foremost known for pinot noir. But within the warm, northeastern slice of Sonoma Wine Country known as Alexander Valley, cabernet sauvignon is giving nearby Napa Valley a run for its money.
Alexander Valley AVA
A narrow valley extending from Healdsburg to Cloverdale, Alexander Valley (officially established as an AVA in 1984) is Sonoma County’s warmest appellation, which is the biggest reason why cabernet thrives here and not in Sonoma’s cooler, more coastal regions. The hot, dry summers, early morning fog, and gravelly, well-draining soils lead to a slow and long ripening of the grapes – just the way cabernet growers like it. A majority of cabernet vines in Alexander Valley are planted at higher elevations (up to roughly 2,500 ft.) on the region’s benchlands, rolling hillsides, and Mayacamas mountain range. This means greater sun exposure, but also more stressful soil conditions, which are two major ingredients to producing a quality crop.
“Cabernet sauvignon thrives in the rocky, red volcanic soil that forces the vines to struggle and develop deep roots. The hardy underground systems channel valuable nutrients to the grapes and create fruit brimming with power, spice, and complexity,” says Karin WarneliusMiller, co-owner of Garden Creek Vineyards in the Alexander Valley.
Alexander Valley also has a little something extra that makes it ideal for producing cabernet. Pacific breezes coming from both the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast add a unique cooling element that gives Alexander Valley wines their signature acidity. As a whole, this terroir produces wines that are age-worthy and beautifully balanced: dark in color, powerful yet elegant in structure, and high in acid. Notes of black fruit, dried herbs, and tobacco are common.
Top Alexander Valley Wineries to Visit
Proprietor Justin Miller’s family has been farming this Alexander Valley ranch since 1963. His dad, who started with cattle but planted their first cabernet sauvignon in 1969, was a pioneering member seeking the official designation of the Alexander Valley as a wine-growing appellation. Fast-forward to 2001, when Justin Miller and his wife Karin WarneliusMiller – who he’s known since growing up, as her family also had a nearby ranch – took over winemaking at Garden Creek Vineyards and began implementing organic and sustainable farming practices on the ranch, which uniquely has seven distinct soil types. Visit their historic family ranch for an intimate tasting of their highly-allocated wines in the barrel room.
2335 Geysers Road, Geyserville, CA 95441, (707) 433-8345
The Young family’s history in Alexander Valley goes way back to 1858 when Peter Young purchased a ranch there. It operated as a 201-acre prune ranch until 1963, when his grandson Robert Young was the first to plant cabernet sauvignon in Alexander Valley. Then in 1997, Robert’s son Peter Young founded the Robert Young Estate with the help of his three siblings, who all still run the business today. Visit the Scion House on their historic property in Geyserville and book The Scion Experience, which features tastings of their single-block reserve wines, including several 100 percent cabernets.
5102 Red Winery Road, Geyserville, CA 95441, (707) 431-4811
Alexander Valley Vineyards sits on the historic homestead of Cyrus Alexander, the founder of Alexander Valley in 1840 and the first to plant vines in the region. Harry and Maggie Wetzel purchased the Healdsburg property in 1962 and immediately began planting vineyards. Four generations later, the winery is still very much family-owned and operated. Alexander Valley Vineyards offers daily complimentary wine tastings – a true rarity these days – in addition to a complimentary cave tour and barrel tasting every day at 11am and 2pm. Also offered are more elevated tasting experiences available for purchase, like a vineyard hike and lunch.
8644 CA-128, Healdsburg, CA 95448, (707) 433-7209
Jordan Winery has historically made just two wines at its ivy-clad chateau since its inception in 1972: cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Jordan is undeniably an icon of Alexander Valley cabernet and their newest tasting experience is the perfect way to dive deep into the region’s prized grape. The Chateau Block Vineyard Tasting takes place on a scenic hilltop vineyard overlooking the Alexander Valley mountains on Jordan’s 1,200-acre estate. You’ll learn first-hand why this terroir is suitable for premium cabernet and taste three vintages of Jordan cab that spans a decade, all paired with a charcuterie board curated by Healdsburg’s Journeyman Meat Co.
1474 Alexander Valley Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448, (707) 431-5250
When an iconic Napa Valley cabernet producer opens up a second, state-of-the-art facility in Sonoma County, you take it seriously. Silver Oak Cellars opened their uber-sustainable Alexander Valley winery in 2018 – a net-zero energy, net-zero water winery with 2,500 rooftop solar panels that emit 105 percent of their energy needs – and the sole focus here is on the high-end production of cabernet sauvignon. Visit their glass-walled barn with panoramic views of 75 acres of estate cabernet vines and book the wine and food pairing featuring four wines with four bites.
7300 CA-128, Healdsburg, CA 95448, (707) 942-7082