Practical Travel Tips: Alexander Valley, California

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Not as famous as the wine region of Napa and Sonoma but just as good.

Jim “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about The Berkshires, Portland, Oregon, The Road to Hana, Maui’s “upcountry“, Hong Kong, Austin, San Antonio, Valley of Moon, California, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Split, Croatia, Krk, Croatia, Koper, Slovenia, Mendocino County, California, Auckland, Oslo, the small German town of Speyer and Deidesheim, Oahu, Napa Valley, Venice, Singapore, Bangkok, Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, and here are his tips should you decide to visit Alexander Valley

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Alexander Valley, which straddles both the Russian River and Highway 128, was only designated its own wine-growing appellation in 1984 but it has been getting a lot of notice in recent years. On the weekend before our visit, Governor Newsom signed legislation making Highway 128 eligible for official designation as a “California Scenic Highway.” Also, Budget Travel magazine named the largest town in Alexander Valley (Cloverdale, population 8,803) one of America’s “coolest small towns” in 2010. It makes a near-perfect hub for reaching multiple wine-growing regions in a single trip: the better known and more densely-populated areas to the south (see Sonoma County and Valley of the Moon), Mendocino County to the north and pricier Napa Valley to the east.

Tip: Economic development is a two-edged sword; plan your trip here before all this well-deserved attention changes Alexander Valley’s laid-back charm.

A rustic, yet refined chateau

Chateau Poulet, a 4 room cottage in Cloverdale, was our home – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

We booked “Chateau Poulet” through AirBnB and were exceptionally pleased with our choice! The owner is a fount of knowledge about local wineries, restaurants, and boutiques as well as the local arts scene. The property itself is rustic yet refined. For about the same price as a 250 square foot hotel room in Cloverdale, you get 4 rooms — a spacious French-style kitchen with high-end appliances and fully stocked pantry, a bedroom with a very comfortable queen bed and mattress, a living room with cable TV, a study with quick Internet, a full-size washer and dryer and an upscale bathroom with spacious shower. But that’s only the beginning! Outside, you get a private courtyard, access to a grill and dozens of very well cared-for chickens, rabbits, doves, etc. to keep you company. The owner will provide fresh eggs for your breakfast; all you need to do is ask.

Tip: Pick up a loaf of cinnamon-walnut bread from Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg on your travels and use fresh eggs from the on-site hens to make a killer French toast for breakfast!

5 wineries and a lunch stop…

Soil and weather conditions in Alexander Valley are nearly perfect for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – but since many wineries source fruit from different appellations there’s no shortage of other varietals to sample at the Valley’s 42 wineries. Here are 5 tasting experiences and a memorable food stop – all within 20 minutes of each other in the heart of Alexander Valley:

Jordan Estate and Vineyard, 1474 Alexander Valley Road

Jordan Estate chateau courtyard – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Anticipation begins to build as soon as you turn off Alexander Valley Road onto the winding drive that leads to the ivy-covered chateau of Jordan Estate and the experiences from which you can choose here certainly don’t disappoint. Winner of 7 straight “Certificate of Excellence” awards from TripAdvisor, Jordan is best known for its voluptuous Cabernet Sauvignon. We did the “Chateau Block Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard Tasting” ($75/pp) which starts off with a glass of Chardonnay in the chateau’s courtyard to learn about Jordan’s history and winemaking philosophy. From there, you walk about 5 minutes to a knoll overlooking the chateau to one side and Alexander Valley on the other. Picnic tables are set with glassware and charcuterie platters to pair with a “vertical” of Jordan’s Cabernet Sauvignon (our tasting included the 2006, 2011, 2013 and 2015 vintages). Other experiences are available, too, from a “Library Tasting” ($35/pp, daily @ 10am and 2pm) to a 3-hour “Estate Tour & Tasting” during which you are driven in style to vineyard vistas, the chef’s garden and the estate apiary – all while enjoying al fresco wine tastings of some of Jordan’s finest wines complemented by food pairings ($125/pp, Thursday-Monday @ 9:45am, May-October). The latter was named “best vineyard experience” by Celebrated Living magazine in 2017 and 2018.

Medlock Ames’ Alexander Valley Tasting Room, 3487 Alexander Valley Road

Travel just 5 minutes east on Alexander Valley Road to its intersection with CA Highway 128 to reach Medlock Ames’ Alexander Valley Tasting Room where we have been members for years.

Jimtown Store, 6706 CA Highway 128

Jimtown Store and Hawkes Wines – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Less than ¼ mile south on CA Highway 128 from Medlock Ames’ Tasting Room is the iconic, nostalgic and oh-so-photogenic part country store/part trendy deli that is Jimtown Store which received its historic landmark designation even before it opened in 1991. The property has been around since 1895 when Jim Patrick opened his eponymous general store located halfway between upscale Healdsburg and bucolic (in the best sense of the word) Geyserville. The current owner, artist Carrie Brown, and her late husband, John Werner (who had been a partner in the Silver Palate, a storied Manhattan food store that launched several famous cookbooks) lovingly brought the landmark back to life, opening on Memorial Day, 1991. Jimtown Store serves breakfast and lunch Thursday – Monday. Its menu includes lots of vegan options and no item costs more than $15. I absolutely loved “The Jimtown” sandwich which consists of prosciutto, Point Reyes blue cheese and the store’s own fig and olive tapenade on a French baguette (just $9). Whatever you do, save room for the chocolate pudding ($5); one food writer says everything that needs to be said, “Oh. My. God. This stuff is amazing.”

Hawkes Wines, 6734 CA Highway 128

Right next door (note the red and yellow arrow in the picture above) to Jimtown Store is the tasting room for Hawkes Wine which offers 2 experiences: a seated reserve tasting featuring 6 cabernets paired with seasonal bites or the vineyard tour which takes place in a clearing above the estate vineyard (both $60/pp). The latter experience, which also pairs cheeses and small bites from the family’s farm, focuses more on the terroir and the “back story” of the Hawkes family…which I found utterly fascinating! I seek out family-owned and operated wineries which, sadly, are being gobbled up by conglomerates in what I describe as the “homogenization” of the wine industry. The winemaker here is Jake Hawkes, son of Stephen Hawkes who planted Cabernet Sauvignon 4 years before “the Judgment of Paris” when the main crop in Alexander Valley was prunes, not grapes. (Note: “Prune Packers” is the name for the local collegiate summer baseball team!) The Hawkes were exclusively growers until 1999 when a contract fell through. Left with grapes they couldn’t sell, father and son decided to try their hand at making wine and haven’t looked back. Hawkes does not blend their wines; each is 100% of the named varietal, reflecting the family’s philosophy that this makes their wines “more representative of the vineyards that they come from.”

Tip: Hawkes Wines also has a tasting room just off the Plaza in the town of Sonoma which offers a seated food and wine pairing ($60).

Robert Young Estate Winery, 5102 Red Winery Road, Geyserville (closed Tuesdays)

Less than 3 miles away is Scion House, the brand new hospitality center for Robert Young Estate Winery, which offers a variety of spaces for the wine tasting experiences they offer – from an intimate booth to casual, pergola-covered seating on a terrace overlooking beautiful Alexander Valley. The “Estate Flight” tasting (1 hour, $25, reservations recommended) is offered daily @ 10 and 11:30am and 1, 2:30 and 3:30pm. You can book one of the private rooms for the “Scion Experience” (1.5 hours, $50, appointment required, 8 persons maximum) at 10am, 12pm or 2pm daily for a tasting of the winery’s very best wines paired with light bites. The “Vineyard Experience” includes a stroll through the estate vineyards to a shaded spot underneath a beautiful old oak where you taste barrel samples of Cabernet Sauvignon while learning about the wine-making philosophy of the Young family who have farmed this land since 1852. This tasting concludes in one of the hospitality spaces in the Scion House (2 hours, $100, reservation required 72 hours in advance); lunch can be added for another $25. As is the case at Hawkes Wine, what you taste here is a direct reflection of the story of the family who grows the grapes and makes the wine. Third generation farmer Robert Young was the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley in 1963. He is legendary for propagating Clone 17 Chardonnay (also known as the “Robert Young Clone”) which is resistant to phylloxera, the pestilence that destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century. You can literally taste history in a glass at Robert Young Estate Winery!

Locals Tasting Room, intersection of CA Highway 128 and Geyserville Avenue, Geyserville

This collective – the first of its kind in California – represents local, small production wineries that can’t afford the overhead of operating their own tasting rooms. Here you can taste what I call a “horizontal” (as opposed to a “vertical” – which is different vintages of the same wine); at Locals you can compare the same varietal produced by different winemakers. Aided by the incredibly knowledgeable people behind the bar, this makes it possible to better understand the particular preferences of your palate. The space itself is an eclectic mix of tasting bar with cases of wine piled high, showroom for local artists and display of vintage clothing and accessories. Tasting here is always complimentary.

Elegantly rustic – Trading Post, 102 South Cloverdale Boulevard

Roast chicken with Caesar-dressed lettuces at the Trading Post – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Drive 11 minutes from Locals to Cloverdale’s Trading Post for a meal that will rival (or surpass) anything you can find in Healdsburg. It’s difficult to recommend any single dish because the Trading Post’s menu varies with the cycle of nature; the menu is built around fresh ingredients from local farmers which are then elevated by the inspired creativity of chefs Erik Johnson and Aaron Arabian. Consider, for example, the lowly and oh-so-common “tater tot.” At the Trading Post, decadent squares of potato goodness are deep-fried in duck fat to a uniformly crispy amber color and served with an aioli made from champagne vinegar and crème fraiche. The salad special the evening we visited was a perfect example of the truth that one eats with one’s eyes. The presentation of Early Girl tomatoes, fresh peaches and shaved goat cheese dressed with elderberry vinegar and sprinkled with an aromatic, yet delicate rose oil was almost too beautiful to eat — but we did, anyway. And if you’re in or passing through Cloverdale Tuesday through Saturday before dinner time, the Trading Post has recently decided to open from 7am-5pm for a “Bread and Coffee Bar” (their artisan breads are so popular they even have a Bread Club).

A vibrant arts community

The energy of Alexander Valley’s arts community results in unexpected pleasures: 2 sculpture trails (27 works in Geyserville and about a dozen sprinkled among the Victorian homes in downtown Cloverdale) as well as the very active Alexander Valley Film Society which sponsors everything from a well-known film festival each October to pop-up drive-in movie classics during the summer.

Parting tip: Plan your visit around one of its many events organized by Alexander Valley Winegrowers (e.g.,  “Experience Alexander Valley” in June or “Access Alexander Valley” in August) or “Taste Destination 128” (e.g., the “Wine and BBQ Cook-Off” in August or the “Black Friday Open House” in November).

About the Author:

I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.


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Comments (2)

  • Bramasole 5 years ago Reply

    Jim’s review of the Alexander Valley was a colorful thumbnail review of what some of Alexander Valley has to offer in the north bay of the northern CA wine region. You could take a lifetime just to explore what is here in our region of the country. We have individuals who book us from all over the country and the world at our own AIRBNB here in Hopland just about 20 minutes north of where Jim was exploring while staying at Chateau Poulet in Cloverdale. What Jim has touched upon in his words and in his pictures of our area is exactly what many are looking for in their quest for new and not so discovered wine regions of our bordering Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Here in our sister counties one can traverse the vineyard valley floors, to the majesty of the foothills to the beautiful rugged California coastline discovering so much of what people are yearning for, country quiet, wine country beauty, the smell of the crush in the air, the sounds of harvest, to experience some of the greatest wines produced in the world to some of the best Michelin rated restaurants you would ever experience anywhere on this planet. We are all truly blessed to live here. Thanks Jim for giving us such a wonderful tour!

  • Kalyan Panja 5 years ago Reply

    I’ll definitely add Alexander Valley to my list. I always tend to go back to the same places in USA instead of discovering more.

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