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ON WINE

Pioneering in the Alexander Valley : A California Region New to the Vine Steps Up in Class

October 19, 1986|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

In California, we're still finding regions where fine wines can be grown successfully. Vineyards less than 10 years old are now thriving in San Luis Obispo County. New appellations--other than the familiar Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino--are being granted; we now see such place names as Guenoc Valley, Chalone, Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, York Mountain and Temecula. There we grow our own Meursault and Montrachet, Clos Vougeot--even Lafites, Latours, and Moutons or Petrus--in lands that, like the Alexander Valley, are new to the vine.

There is not a wine lover in the land today who does not admire the complex wonders of each vintage Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with its classic claret tradition of soft Merlot combined with fine oak aging. Yet, the first vines were planted only in 1972, and the first vintage release was the memorable 1976.

A year ago, dining in the Versailles-like splendor at the Plaza Athenee in New York, I ordered a bottle of 1981 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon with our rack of lamb. Silently, the sommelier poured the wine. One of my dinner guests--actor Burgess Meredith, a known devotee of the Merlot-bred Chateau Petrus of Pomerol--exclaimed, after his first whiff of the wine's bouquet and subsequent taste, "My God! What is this? It's one of the best clarets I've ever tasted."

Nothing so superb remains undiscovered long. That particular vintage was sold out in record time, but the winery retained a few hundred cases for release later on--as a salute to Lady Liberty during the recent Fourth of July celebration. There are still some bottles left, available only at the winery, at a bargain $15 price; they can be ordered by telephone at (707) 433-7209.

The Alexander Valley was pioneered for the vine by two Palos Verdes neighbors, both executives of the Signal Oil conglomerate. Russell Green and Harry Wetzel were only seeking weekend retreats in the Russian River countryside when, in 1963, they acquired 480 acres. The plot had been owned by the last surviving heirs of Cyrus Alexander, who had obtained two leagues of land in 1841 from sea captain Henry D. Fitch, brother-in-law of Gen. Mariano Vallejo.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Green--having in the meantime also purchased the historic Simi Winery and happily settled into his second home on Hoot Owl Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, looked at his sheep- and cattle-grazing land and thought about planting vines. With the assistance of Dale Goode, a young viticulturist who had studied at Fresno State and UC Davis, he planted Chardonnays, Cabernets, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Merlots, Chenin blancs and Zinfandels. As he had suspected, the gravelly loam and sandy soils deposited over the centuries, with tempering breezes flowing in from the nearby Pacific Ocean, formed an ideal area for growing fine wines.

The Wetzel family has spent the better part of 20 years rescuing the Cyrus Alexander home site from ruin and disrepair. Today, with its surrounding vineyards and an enlarged, state-of-the-art winery, it is one of the West's most picturesque estates. The first wine, a Riesling, was released in 1975 to glowing acclaim. Production under young Hank Wetzel III--who apprenticed at Stony Hill, Hanzell and Freemark Abbey after having been trained at UC Davis--has grown to 40,000 cases. The walls of the winery are already covered with medals earned in statewide competitions. Marketing of the wines, now being distributed in 35 states, is under the direction of Hank's sister, Katie Wetzel Murphy.

I recently tasted the current-release Alexander Valley Vineyard wines and found them as superb as I'd expected, with marvelous drinkability. The 1984 Chardonnay ($10.50) is the winery's front-runner. The 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon (12% Merlot) is incredibly smooth, with a flowery bouquet; it is similar to the 1981 ($10.50), which has great aging potential. The 1985 Dry Chenin Blanc ($6.50) is a wholly engaging alternative to Fume Blanc. The 1983 Sin Zin ($6.50) is a not-to-be-missed Zinfandel of garnet beauty; and the 1985 Gewurztraminer ($6.50) is more crisp in this vintage, more appley than litchi.

Still, the pioneering of fine new vineyards continues on the West Coast. Among California's ever-growing roster of wineries, now past the 600 mark, is yet another Alexander Valley winery. In 1979, Goode, Green's pioneering collaborator, joined with grower-friend Tim Murphy to change acres of mostly prune orchards into varietal vineyards, with premium clones of Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. Their first release: a 1985 Murphy-Goode Alexander Valley Fume Blanc ($6.99), grown, produced and bottled by Murphy, Theis, Goode and Ready Wine Cellars.

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