Alexander Valley

Located in Sonoma County, California, this is a broad inland corridor extending from Cloverdale in the north, south to Healdsburg. The Russian River runs through the center of the valley along a wide, shallow bed, rising during the rainy season to spread alluvial soil over the low lying areas. Alexander Valley is gaining a world-wide reputation for its superb Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays.

Size: 31,000 acres
Average annual rainfall: 40 inches
Average summer day temperature: 87 degrees F
Average summer night temperature: 51 degrees F
Average winter day temperature: 60 degrees F
Average winter night temperature: 40 degrees F Frost-free days per season: 240-270 days

The loam, gravelly loam and gravelly sandy loam soils have been host to a succession of prominent crops: hops, prunes, and currently wine-grapes. The Alexander Valley climate is described as coastal warm. Summer mornings are typically cool with marine fog intruding from the Pacific Ocean, eighteen miles to the west, via the Russian River. The narrowing of the valley at both the northern and southern ends retains the fog, thereby cooling the vines and promoting acid development in the fruit. When the fog clears in mid-morning, the sun warms the earth and ripens the grapes, assuring a harvest of balanced fruit with pronounced varietal character. (information courtesy of Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Healdsburg, California)

History of the Alexander Valley – Courtesy of Chateau Souverain

Thousands of years ago, the Alexander Valley was inhabited by the Pomo Indians, a peaceful tribe best known for its intricate woven baskets. Their life was a good one; the tules and willows along the Russian River provided materials for their baskets and for construction of their homes, as well as some of their clothing. Acorns, the staple of their diet, were plentiful, as were wild game, fish, and a wide variety of edible plants and berries. With their neighbors to the West, the Miwok, the Pomos traded their riches for abalone and mollusk; with their neighbors to the East in the Napa Valley, the Wappo, they traded for obsidian to make arrowheads. The Pomo were the craftsmen of the area. In addition to their baskets, which are prized by collectors as some of the world’s best, they were also skilled bead drillers, bow and arrow makers, and net makers. The tribe lived by rigid rules and customs, handed down through the generations by word-of-mouth. Their ideas about marriage, child-rearing, group living, career training, and even the treatment of emotional problems are remarkably modern. Life in the valley was relatively easy and they had ample leisure time for enjoying games, relaxing, and telling stories. Their life would continue in this way until the first white settlers arrived in 1852.

One of the first of these was a Pennsylvanian born in 1805, Cyrus Alexander, called Aleck by his family and friends. Aleck was a sickly child and spent most of his early years with his head buried in books of adventure and travel. When he grew older, he helped his brothers in their businesses, but he could not forget the tales of adventure that had held him spellbound and, in 1827, he decided to seek his fortune as a miner in Illinois. He soon realized this was not the adventure he had dreamed of and, although he was well aware of the dangers and hardships, he made up his mind to become a trapper in the Far West. He made three one-year trips into the mountains and, even though he was sometimes successful in his trapping, he was never successful in being able to get his furs to the trading post. His last trip would have cost him his life had not some friendly Indians fished him from the freezing river. Although he had gained no wealth from these years, he gained something more important. The sickly boy was now a hardy, robust man, able to cope with whatever should come his way – even grizzly bears.

His last trapping adventure convinced him that he was pressing his luck if he continued in that profession. He journeyed then to San Diego, where he hunted sea lions and otter, learned to speak fluent Spanish, and befriended the wealthy landowner, Captain Fitch. (Fitch Mountain is on the southwestern edge of Healdsburg in Alexander Valley, and is the town’s most prominent landmark.) Captain Fitch had heard of good grazing land available north of San Francisco and sent Aleck to scout it out. He traveled first to the Napa Valley, which had already been granted to Messrs. Yount and Bale. He then proceeded west to the Russian River where he found an as yet unclaimed valley (what is now the Alexander Valley, named after this adventurer) with good quality soil, a temperate climate and an abundance of good water and timber.

In 1841 Fitch secured a land grant, known as the Sotoyome Grant. The original grant comprised some 48,000 acres encompassing the Alexander Valley and was stocked by Fitch with 1,000 horses, 14,000 cattle, and 10,000 sheep. A contract was made whereby Aleck was to manage the ranch, taking half the stock increase each year, and, at the end of the contract, select 9,000 acres of his own.

Mr. Alexander was a good caretaker. He built adobe and redwood buildings, planted fruit trees, sowed wheat, built a tannery to provide clothes and shoes, and fed himself and others by hunting and trapping grizzly bears, panthers, coyotes, and other predators.

In 1844 he was married by his friend, Captain Sutter (of Sutter’s Mill in Sacramento), to Miss Rufena Lucerne, a relative of one of his neighbors. In the following year he built a new home and, on September 2, 1847, he received title to his share of the grant land he had chosen on the eastern side of the Russian River. (Moses Carson, half-brother of Kit Carson, took over the management of the Fitch land.) Here he planted wheat, grape vines, apple, and peach seeds. He moved part of the tannery to his property, built a lime kiln, the first kiln in the county, and a mill, the first in the valley. In all these endeavors, he was helped by his friends, the Indians.

This peaceful existence was soon to be disturbed, however. When California tried to free itself from Mexican rule, the Indians sided with the Mexicans and property was destroyed and burned. Prudent Aleck moved his family to Fort Sonoma until the hostilities quieted down. In 1849 the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill brought vast numbers of people to California, creating a market for livestock, fruit, and vegetables — and for land. President Taylor suggested a state government be formed and, on September 9, 1850, California was admitted to the Union.

Aleck, as might be expected of an adventurer, caught “gold fever” too. His success at gold digging, however, was no better than it had been at fur trapping, and he soon returned to his ranch in the Alexander Valley. There he found that new immigrants had concluded that he owned more land than he needed and “squatted.” Finding that the squatters were willing to buy, Aleck began to sell parcels to these newcomers.

Now a wealthy and aging patriarch, Mr. Alexander turned his attention to religion and education, building a church and schoolhouse for himself and his neighbors. In 1865 he suffered a stroke which crippled him physically, but left him mentally very much alive. He continued to run his business until he died in December 1872. He is buried in the family cemetery, beside his wife Rufena, who died in 1908. Some of the original buildings and the cemetery survive and are now part of the property belonging to Alexander Valley Vineyards.

An article appearing in the Healdsburg Tribune New Year’s edition of 1899 tells us what the Alexander Valley was like then:

“… Just now the valley and the middle coast range of mountains which bound it on the east side are clothed in a carpet of brightest green. A couple of months later Flora will have decked it with her brightest jewels – most beautiful flowers. The great spreading oaks with their drooping, trailing tracery of branches, festooned with new growth, will be sweetening the tops of these small lovely flowers. Green field and blooming orchards will add to the variety of the picture and present a panorama of mountain and valley scenery unrivaled for beauty. The valley is a favorite visiting spot, but just at the present writing, owing to the long continued period of rain, the roads are quite heavy. In the spring and summer months the Alexander Valley is a famous driveway. All of the fruits found growing in other parts of the county also thrive here. There are many fine residences in the valley and to the stranger the outlook is one of prosperity. The principle industry is the cultivation of the grape. There are several wineries located in the valley and the output of wine is considerable. There are about 800 acres in grapes. Besides grapes, there are orchards of prunes, pears, peaches, apples, oranges, lemons, and all of the smaller fruits and berries …”

We are indeed grateful that these words still describe the Alexander Valley we know and cherish today.

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Database used with permission of Vintage Wine Lover’s Software.

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