The Alexander Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, and justly so. The grapes ripen easily here, among the hottest of Sonoma County appellations, and the vines sink their roots into ancient gravel beds deposited by the Russian River as it indecisively meandered across the valley throughout the eons.
But it’s the mountains that loom above the valley that have lured the most ambitious winegrowers. Jess Jackson, who turned a sideline in Chardonnay into one of the nation’s largest wine companies, Kendall-Jackson was nothing if not ambitious; even seeking, in the last year of his life, to have a mountain renamed after his Alexander Mountain Estate.
In October of 2010, the late Jackson’s effort to rename Black Mountain was rejected by U.S. officials. The best wines made from his mountain estate, meanwhile, which is planted on improbably high slopes above the fog line, but within view of the Pacific Ocean, bear the name Stonestreet – paying homage to a legacy nearly as old. What, indeed, is in a name?
Cyrus Alexander, who posthumously lent his name to the one of the area’s top restaurant as well as the valley, arrived in California in the 1830s, back when becoming a Mexican citizen was a wise business move.
He was a well-established landowner by the 1860s, when a doctor on the opposite coast, and on an opposite side of the Civil War, helped a family in need to deliver a baby during a fierce storm. The grateful family promised to name their first-born son of each generation after him: Stonestreet. Thus, Jess Stonestreet Jackson.
The estate comprises 400 vineyard blocks, up to 2,000 feet in elevation, all separated by fencing. Jackson hired wildlife biologists and trackers so that the corridors that animals use as they pass through the property could be preserved. Where vines aren’t grown, digger pines thrive in the serpentine soil.
The older sections were planted by a previous owner in the 1980s, while tumbledown shacks tucked into the dells are remnants of a previous century altogether; one building, the “lodge,” has recently been a set for an upcoming episode of CBS’s “Undercover Boss,” airing Sunday, Jan. 29.
Down in the valley below, across the way from Jimtown Store , the Stonestreet winery is an impressively-sized yet few-frills affair, with only a modest tasting bar in the foyer and an adjacent conference room for sit-down tastings.
Distractions are limited to a topographic model of the estate, which can also be viewed on the winery’s website via a cool interactive map that flies the viewer, Google Earth-style, across the mountain estate, where various soil types, elevations, and animal corridors may be clicked upon – including animated fog rolling in.
Stonestreet Cabs share only a little in common with their fat, soft cousins over the hill in Napa. Graphite dominates the closed, dark fruit core of the 2007 Bear Point Cabernet Sauvignon ($60), while the 2006 Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) shows a warmer aroma of older wine, with a maple syrup hint to the blackberry liqueur and licorice fruit.
These are big mountain Cabs, built to last – fitting for a brand whose late owner, who was so successful in creating an empire out of quality buy-me-now wines, was also energetic in creating a legacy that would outlast him.
Stonestreet, 7111 Highway 128, Healdsburg. Open daily 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tasting fees $12/$15. Mountain Experience tasting, $25; Mountain excursion drive and picnic lunch in the vineyards, $75 per person. 707-433-9463.