A mellow alternative to nearby Napa.
By Matt Katz
Despite her glittery sneakers, her granite-stern countenance and fixed gaze reveal a seriousness of intent. She is three—almost three-and-a-half, she’d tell you. Her foot twitches like a quarter horse at the gate, her elbows are cocked; in a flash she’ll be amongst the vines. But before she bolts, my daughter looks back at me with an expression of unguarded delight. We had promised her an infinity of grapes, and here at last it was.
My wife and I didn’t plan this trip around our little girl’s fantasy of fruit. It’s just that, well, we have fantasies of our own, and nothing can shut down the machinery of dreams like a disgruntled toddler.
We have arrived in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County, less than an hour north of Marin, with a simple plan: to relax and enjoy the wine country with our two children—and in spite of our two children, the little one just nine months old at the time. Instead of glitzy Napa, we’ve arranged to stay in the bucolic 19th century home of pioneer winemakers Giuseppe and Pietro Simi, whose stone cellars in nearby Healdsburg are still used to barrel age Simi Winery’s finest.
From a wraparound porch overlooking the vineyard, I watch her dash into the rows. The surrounding landscape is wild and calm. Gnarled old oak trees covered in lichen flank the vines, which droop beneath the weight of plump Cabernet grapes just days away from harvest. The sun is bright; a hawk wheels in the sky above.
“This isn’t Napa.” The smug tone of an Alexander Valley shopkeeper belies her sweetness.
I’ve arrived at her corner store just after sunset, hunting crucial provisions: bread and cheese, and more wine. “When the sun goes down,” she continues. “I go home.”
But she hasn’t. Not yet. Instead, she walks me across the gravel parking lot and reopens her shop. With grandmotherly care, she removes a loaf of bread from a wicker basket. “Here, take this,” she says, patting my hand. “It was made this morning; I wouldn’t sell it tomorrow anyway.”
I get the feeling that if you were to raise a pinky while drinking wine in the Alexander Valley you’d be struck by lightning. Here, it seems, quaint is key. Everything comes back to the land, as country idealists, winemakers, cheese makers, chefs, and farmers converge in a sort of epicurean bohemianism.
Sonoma is no secret. With premium winegrowing regions like Dry Creek Valley and Los Carneros joining Alexander Valley and ten other American Viticultural Areas, the county is one of California’s largest producers of wine grapes. Still, this area has long been a low-key counterpoint to its lustrous neighbor Napa—a “four-letter word,” jokes one restaurateur. To be sure, there is a concerted effort amongst residents to distinguish their Arcadian home as a sort of unpretentious anti-Napa.
“One of the things that makes Sonoma County so unique is that we can grow almost anything well,” a local vintner tells me. She’s referring to wine grapes but there’s little ambiguity about where she’s headed. “Napa is more Cabernet-focused. The weather and soil are factors, but also I think some of it is the price of land. It’s so expensive #over there# that they can’t afford to do anything except what they can sell for a hundred dollars a bottle.”
Ground zero for wine and food in the area is the charming hamlet of Healdsburg. Tucked between three lush valleys and built around a central plaza, this is a place striving to retain its small-town character while catering to ever-increasing numbers of wine country tourists. There is, of course, no shortage of tasting rooms. And if you’re looking for local, organic cheese made from the milk of goats raised exclusively on local, organic hay, you’ll find that too.
Sonoma County’s first tasting room—a 25,000-gallon Champagne barrel tipped on its side—was established by a woman in Healdsburg just one year after prohibition was repealed. Isabelle Simi took over her family’s winery as a teenager, in 1904, and with uncommon gumption created a legacy of women and wine that continues today, more than a century on. When Isabelle retired in 1970, Mary Ann Graf, America’s first woman winemaker, joined Simi. Nine years later, the prominent California winemaker Zelma Long led a major renovation of the winery’s fermentation and barrel rooms.
“I really try to respect that heritage, to sort of tip my hat to history,” says the current senior winemaker, Susan Lueker, a willowy blond from a farming family. “Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, I think, ‘What would Isabelle or Zelma do?’”
What Susan does particularly well is craft wines that reflect the best growing regions in Sonoma County. Along with winemaker Steve Reeder and the rest of the current crew, she produces a range of reds and whites that includes plush top-shelf cabs like Simi Reserve—made from the grapes our daughter has so enjoyed plucking.
The warm Alexander Valley is ideal for growing red Bordeaux varietals, and has some of the most diverse soils of any wine-growing region, the result of eons of geologic upheaval. An ancient mudflow that altered the course of the Russian River also created Simi’s Landslide Vineyard: a 170-acre assortment of distinct sections and elevations; the single-vineyard designate wines made from these grapes are velvety smooth yet complex, so ruby dark they’re nearly opaque.
Over wood-fired pizzas and a sampling of Simi wines, I ask Lueker about the parallels between farming and winemaking, trying to get a deeper sense of Sonoma County’s down-home character.
“One of the similarities is that there’s a community spirit with both,” she tells me. “We as winemakers have pride in what we produce and how we make wines. If someone needs equipment, advice, or materials like yeast, filters, or corks, we are there for each other.” She pauses and sips deliberately from a glass of Landslide Cabernet, boiling her thoughts down to a more concise reply. After a moment, she fixes me with an I’ve-got-it look.
“We help our neighbors.”
16275 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, CA 95448
Regional information online at healdsburg.com and alexandervalley.org.