The history of the Alexander Valley AVA from prune production in the 1880's to premium wine production.

Joshua Dunning

In 1833, Cyrus Alexander, a trapper and scout, arrived in San Diego, where he worked for Captain Henry D. Fitch, a Californian trader, ranchero, and politician. In 1840, Alexander came to the Russian River Valley searching for an expanse of land suitable for cattle ranching. For four years until 1945, Alexander managed Rancho Sotoyome, a vast landmass granted to Fitch by Governor Juan Alvarado in 1841. Once their agreement expired, Fitch gifted Alexander 8,800 acres of land for services rendered. After stopping in a valley north of San Francisco Bay, later named ‘Napa’ after the river running through its length, Alexander wondered upon what he considered “the brightest and best spot in the world”. The eponymous valley’s fertile alluvial soils and predominately southwesterly aspect nurtured a budding, nascent agricultural industry. Alexander planted vines, apple and peach trees, and probably plum seeds secured from the Russians at Fort Ross. With temperatures well into the 100s, the region was perfectly suited to prune production, later coined the ‘buckle of the prune belt’. Alexander’s agricultural endeavour succeeded—strengthened by California’s 1948 Gold Rush—until the sale of his property in 1876.

Throughout the late-19th century, hundreds of thousands of people came to California, including a wave of Italian immigrants, the largest number in the United States. By 1890, these Italians had built communities in California, planting Italian varieties in Sonoma County as early as 1880. The first of these companies, the Italian Swiss Colony, produced wine in Asti, California, later establishing itself as a leading wine producer. Pre-20th century, multi-ethnic immigration and missions characterised Californian winemaking; Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, German, and California Indians transformed the local landscape, even importing Vitis vinifera vines from the Iberian Peninsula via Mexico. By 1889 the first commercial winery in Cyrus’ namesake Alexander Valley was constructed—Lone Pine Vineyard by Shadrach Osborn.

Pre-prohibition, Alexander Valley was predominately associated with mass-produced ‘jug wines’ made from indiscriminately planted field blends. Nevertheless, the industry helped prop up the sparsely settled county. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Russian River emerged as a vacation resort—a destination for residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. Local industry thrived too; processing plants and factories were constructed along local rail lines, transporting goods nationwide. Sadly, in 1919, prohibition devastated local wineries, many of whom sold their land or planted orchards. Legalities notwithstanding, daring entrepreneurs capitalised on gaping loopholes, namely section 29 of the Volstead Act, which allowed up to 200 gallons of wine to be produced privately for consumption at home. Brazen Alexander Valley vintners printed a disclaimer on their packaging, warning consumers ‘not to place their grape juice in a cool, dark spot for twenty-one days or add yeast lest it convert to wine’. Spunky producers also labelled their products Claret, Port, Muscatel, Burgundy, and Riesling.

Sadly, widespread planting during this period led to overproduction and unprofitability. By 1933, many surviving wineries had turned to producing “sacramental” and “medicinal” wine. Post-prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II further decimated grape farmers, and by 1935 prunes had again settled as the dominant economic crop in Alexander Valley, joined later by apples. In fact, in that same year, the wider Sonoma County ranked tenth nationwide in overall agricultural production. Nevertheless, determined Californian vigneron sought to re-establish commercial wine production, and by the late ’60s to early ’70s, the quality of some local wines was outstanding, albeit a challenging sell internationally. Things were slower in Alexander Valley than elsewhere in California; nonetheless, by 1962, Rodney Strong had established his eponymous winery, planting 15 acres of Cabernet. Then, in 1972, Ray Duncan and Justin Meyer founded Silver Oak Cellars, bottling their first wine in 1979, a turning point for the region. According to Duncan, the company failed to sell wine for the first five years and then consecutively sold out for 28 years. Silver Oak vineyard manager Brad Peterson tells stories of Justin Myer touring restaurants in his VW van pitching Silver Oak’s wine.


Growing grapes

Today, Alexander Valley—officially established as an AVA in ‘84—spans more than 32,000 acres, following expansion in ’86, ’88, ’90 and 2001. The AVA runs southeast from Mendocino County, touching the Chalk Hill AVA at its southernmost point. The Russian River parts the valley northwest to southeast, and its morning fog covers low-lying vineyard areas until mid-morning. As a result, Alexander Valley boasts the broadest diurnal fluctuation in Sonoma County, terribly warm in the day, cooling each evening dramatically. Unlike its western neighbours, the valley is protected from the Pacific Ocean fog by the Rockpile AVA and neighbouring mountain ranges.

When planting in ’72, Duncan and Meyer of Siler Oak were surely impressed by the valley’s fertile, alluvial soil, well-suited to agriculture. At the time, a ‘regular agriculture’ model dominated Alexander Valley grapegrowing, characterised by high yields and indiscriminate management. Between ’72 and 2010, vineyard management shifted to a quality model. Traditionally, rows were 9-10 feet wide with vines 7-8 feet apart, resulting yields were high and berries large. This quickly changed; shrinking row width and vine spacing encouraged resource competition and promoted lower yields. Although originally vines were predominately cordon pruned, growers began cane pruning short around eight years ago, reducing the total bud count. Canopy management has also evolved to mediate ripeness in a warming climate. Leaves are still pulled; however, this is performed before bloom to delay growth.

When early pioneers first planted, underground water pipes for irrigation already snaked large swathes of Alexander Valley’s newly commandeered vineyard area, laid earlier by prune farmers. To begin with, grapegrowers relied on overhead irrigation, a versatile and cost-effective watering method. However, perhaps the most significant change since the ’70s has been a near-universal shift to drip irrigation. Drip irrigation allows water to drip slowly to grapevine roots; the goal is to place water precisely into the root zone only when required or determined as appropriate. Silver Oak has spent significant time and effort analysing how and when to irrigate—studies have shown this can significantly affect ripening, yield, and flavour potential.

Technological advancements have helped improve the region’s wines, too, at least for those embracing them. Determining when a vine is ‘sufficiently stressed’ is challenging, fluctuating each vintage dependent on weather conditions and more. At, Silver Oak vine water status—a marker of ‘vine stress’—is carefully monitored by vine and soil probes, new methods of monitoring sap flow are also being trialled. Gauging stress, which might inform vineyard decisions, with any significant specificity is difficult, even for experienced grapegrowers; technological advancements are helping Alexander Valley wineries navigate a challenging climate while maximising wine quality.

As it is today

Alas, grape cultivation is not without challenges; water availability significantly strains local wineries. The Russian River, which provides most of the AVA’s much-needed water, is fed by lake Mendocino, in turn, lake Mendocino cannot fill sufficiently without water diverted via the Potter Valley Project—a hydroelectric project delivering water from the Eel River to a turbine in the headwater of the Russian River. In late-2021, PG&E reported the plant might be offline for several years due to equipment failures, substantially reducing water availability in Lake Mendocino. In response, the local authorities repealed water rights, forbidding pumping as the lake dried up. The region’s growing population demands greater infrastructure spending; without this, Alexander Valley will struggle to tackle inevitable climate-related drought. Additionally, environmental regulations are piling up, and while some are necessary, it makes life more difficult for growers.

If the late Steven Spurrier pitched an opportunity, California scored a home run, and Alexander Valley struck a line drive. By 2000, international interest in California’s wines had exploded; around the same time, Brad Petersen recalls a strong sense of achievement in Alexander Valley. In 2007, the ColoradoBiz cited Silver Oak as one of a dozen California wineries that “have reached cult status” for its Cabernet Sauvignon production, in part speaking to Alexander Valley’s potential as a global premium wine-producing area. Today, 15,000 acres are under vine, planted to more than 20 varieties including Barbera, Chenin blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, which Jancis Robinson believes is particularly well suited. Nevertheless, the region’s rich, fleshy, voluptuous Cabernet reign superior. Oz Clarke has written that California “has pried open the ancient European wineland’s rigid grip on the hierarchy of quality wine”, it goes without saying that sedulous entrepreneurs in Alexander Valley continue to be a critical component in this liberalisation of premium winemaking, considerate drinkers ought to discover and drink these wines with fervour.