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Get to know the cabs from Alexander Valley

Skipstone's stunning 30 acre amphitheater shaped estate vineyard above Alexander Valley SonomCounty Cwww.skipstonewines.com.  (PRNewsFoto/Skipstone)

Skipstone's stunning 30 acre amphitheater shaped estate vineyard above Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, Ca www.skipstonewines.com. (PRNewsFoto/Skipstone)

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Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignons to try:

2008 Alexander Valley Vineyards “Alexander School Reserve” ($45)

2007 Chateau St. Jean “Cinq Cepages” ($50), 2007 Francis Ford Coppola “Director’s Cut” ($30)

2007 J Rickards “Five Sisters Blend” ($34)

2008 Jordan “Alexander Valley” ($50)

2008 Medlock Ames “Kate & B’s Block” ($65)

2007 Munselle Vineyards “Coyote Crest Vineyard” ($65)

2008 Rodney Strong “Alexander’s Crown Vineyard” ($75)

or “Brothers Ridge Vineyard” ($75)

2007 Silver Oak “Alexander Valley” ($60)

2007 Souverain “Stuhlmuller Vineyard” ($35)

or “Winemaker’s Reserve” ($45)

And three for less than $20:

2010 Alexander Valley Vineyards “Alexander Valley” ($17)

2007 Geyser Peak “Alexander Valley” ($12)

2010 Souverain “Alexander Valley” ($15)

Updated: July 21, 2012 6:06AM



Cabernet Sauvignon is one of those grapes that grows well in wine regions all around the world but already, even before this sentence is halfway through, the names of a few of those places have popped into your head. Maybe you even see images of those places. Hey, it’s your brain.

If one of those places was not the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, it should be. If it was, well, congratulations.

“As a whole, the best place for Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County is the Alexander Valley,” says Geoff Kruth, a master sommelier and the wine director at the Farmhouse Inn Restaurant in Forestville, Calif.

Sonoma County is huge, and parts of it are renowned for other types of wine, notably Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But if you seek the big grape, Cabernet Sauvignon — the “novel” of writing, the “oil painting” of art, the “rock concert” of music — look to the Alexander Valley.

Situated at the north end of Sonoma County, the Alexander Valley is about 20 miles long, stretching from Cloverdale down almost to Healdsburg, with Geyserville roughly in the middle. The legendary Russian River bisects the valley, as does the 101 freeway, making it easy to get up and down quickly.

If you go for a visit stay off of that highway as much as possible because the winding, hilly roads of the Alexander Valley are picturesque, and along those little two-lane ways is where you will find the most joy. You might find even more joy floating down the Russian River in a canoe stocked with Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Alexander Valley cabernets are approachable,” says Bret Munselle, the president of Alexander Valley Winegrowers. “You can sit down and have a bottle on Friday night at home or have that same bottle at Cyrus, a Michelin two-star restaurant just down the road in Healdsburg. We’re not trying to make the most dramatic Cabernets. We’re trying to make balanced wines that are expressive of the place they come from.”

It is difficult to generalize but in these wines you can count on high food-friendly acidity and flavors that range from raspberry, cassis, black cherry and plum to chocolate, cedar and spice. These are steak wines, as most Cabernets are, but they can be restrained enough to pair well with other grilled meats and fishes, including salmon and halibut.

Remember that for a wine to be called “Cabernet Sauvignon” (or any other grape) in the United States, it must contain at least 75 percent of that grape. The other 25 percent can be any grape the winemaker chooses, in any amounts. A bottle that is made of 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon is not necessarily better than a blend.

Alexander Valley Cabernets are not the tannic fruit bombs that some wineries in the neighboring Napa Valley produce (and there is nothing wrong with tannic fruit bombs if that is what you are into), but they do offer the bright New World fruit flavors that make California wines so delicious. And they win in the price game.

“These wines are a better value than Napa Cabernets,” Kruth says. “If you spend the same amount on a Napa Cabernet and an Alexander Valley Cabernet, the Alexander Valley Cabernet is probably going to be a better wine.”

Taking it further, Kruth says if you put six Alexander Valley Cabs next to six from Napa, he might not be able to tell them apart. And if he cannot tell the difference, neither can you and I. Just to be clear, we are talking about very high-quality wines here, in the $50 range. Special occasion wines, albeit with a sense of local charm.

“These wines are down-to-earth, and a lot of them are made by a guy driving a dirty pick-up,” says Munselle, who, as a fifth-generation California wine grape grower, farms 325 acres of Alexander Valley land for about 20 different wineries.

He also made his first wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, in 2006. It is available only through the Munselle Vineyards and Winery wine club or on their website (www.munsellevineyards.com), but it is worth seeking out. If you happen to make it to the Alexander Valley, Munselle will be happy to arrange a tasting for you and a few people. Tastings, he says, are held on his parents’ porch.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail thepourman@suntimes.com.



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