DAY TRIPPING | Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Geyserville

DAY TRIPPING | Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Geyserville

By: Ray Holley

Jan. 13, 2011


 

Most journeys into the Alexander Valley begin in Healdsburg, the nexus of wine growing in northern Sonoma County. Start your trip in town, and travel north along Healdsburg Avenue. Not long after you pass Simi Winery, turn right onto Highway 128, also known as Alexander Valley Road. Pass the turnoff to the county dump, and wind your way through a mildly populated area with small farms, vacation rentals, and rural ranchettes owned by folks escaping the city life but still wanting to be ten minutes away from a cappuccino.

About a mile along the road, you start to relax. As you pass the gates to Jordan Winery on the right (tours by appointment) you can see the Mayacamas Mountains ahead, a rolling horizon that gives the valley a solid, safe feeling.

Not long after Jordan, watch for the old prune dryer on the left. It hasn’t been in use for decades, but prune growers kept it busy when Healdsburg was marketed as “The Buckle of the Prune Belt.”

The Alexander Valley campground is on the left, along the banks of the Russian River. Owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria, it offers RV amenities and tent sites. Day use is five dollars and you can splash in the river.

Cross the bridge over the Russian River and the valley opens up quickly, showing off its wide rows of vineyards. If you want a quick lesson in geology and land patterns, watch for thick rows of mixed hardwood and conifer trees—you’re most likely looking at a creek or other seasonal drainage.

At the first and only stop sign in Alexander Valley, the historic Alexander Valley Store and Bar, if still closed for renovations, will reopen soon as a tasting room and purveyor of organic food. It’s a symbol of change. The old place was authentic, with worn steps and cheap eats, a place to stop after work for a cold one. The new venue will undoubtedly be nice, but it won’t be the same. Then again, neither is Alexander Valley.

The valley was changing back in the 1840s. Hannah Clayborn’s excellent history of the valley tells us that the native Indians had been ravaged by disease and disputes with Mexican soldiers, and were hired by Cyrus Alexander to tend the cattle and crops of Henry Delano Fitch, who had hired Alexander to manage the 48,800 acre Rancho Sotoyome, which included much of the area around Healdsburg.

One can only imagine the valley filled with native oaks, creeks and streams, wild oats, and wildlife that likely included bears, coyotes, foxes, eagles and more.

Back in the present, waiting at that stop sign during our historical digression, you now have a choice—you can follow 128 left towards Geyserville, or keep going to Jimtown. Let’s go straight.

Jimtown once had its own post office and legal identity. It’s still found on some maps, but what’s left is the venerable Jimtown Store, first built in 1895 and now re-imagined as a modern treasure. In 1989, John Werner and Carrie Brown bought the old store after it had been closed for a couple of years.

John and Carrie created a modern general store. You can still stop by for a 12-pack or a cup of coffee, but you can also get the Sunday New York Times, whimsical toys and gifts, good wine and interesting antiques.

Jimtown also makes great food. The baked egg sandwich is terrific, the chocolate pudding is astonishing, and daily sandwiches and salads excel. Watch for the bread pudding. Made from yesterday’s unsold baked goods, you might find a savory pudding concocted from ham scones or a sweet and hearty pudding made from day-old muffins. If your name is Jim, be sure to sign the “autograph hound” and become part of Jimtown lore.

Next door to Jimtown is one of the valley’s newish wineries. Stephen and Paula Hawkes have grown grapes in the area for many years, and recently opened a winery with their son Jake. Check out the teapot collection and say hello to the winery dog, Windy.

A little ways down the road, you’re faced with another fork. Take a right and drive along the valley. You can zigzag to and fro along the road and visit lots of great wineries, but don’t miss Hanna and Field Stone. Hanna wines win plenty of sweepstakes awards at the annual Harvest Fair; the tasting room has lovely landscaping and a great view of the valley from its perch on land that starts to bench up into the Mayacamas.

Field Stone Winery is—did you guess?—constructed of old stone, dug into a small hill. It’s a great place to recharge after visiting a group of wineries. Don’t be surprised to see visitors picnicking or napping under the trees as you walk towards the tasting room.

Keep going down 128, around another bend, and bear right onto Chalk Hill Road. This is a major north-south route for bicyclists, so keep your eyes peeled for Lycra. Chalk Hill has a few wineries, but it’s much more rural. The area has plenty of horse and cattle ranches tucked in here and there among the grapevines. The steep hills keep horses’ legs limber and strong as they graze.

A few bends along the road and you’ll come across the pretentious entrance to Lancaster Estate. The massive stucco columns and steep driveway look out of place in the rural flavor of Chalk Hill, but the Lancaster folks are serious about premium wine. Call ahead if you want to schedule a tour.

Not far after Lancaster, look left for the private putting greens a serious golfer put in his yard then enjoy the single-lane Maacama Bridge, built in 1915 and almost torn down about 10 years ago, when a dedicated group of SOB (Save Our Bridge) locals rallied and talked the county into preserving it.

After you get to the top of the second big hill, watch for the whitish rock outcroppings that give “Chalk” Hill Valley its name, and some say, its distinctive white wines.

A good chunk of Chalk Hill Valley is owned by Fred and Peggy Furth, proprietors of Chalk Hill Winery. If you visit the winery before Labor Day, watch for the collection of state and national flags that Fred has placed along the entrance to the wine estate.

The south end of Chalk Hill Road ends in Windsor, which is the subject of another day trip, so let’s teleport back to Jimtown to continue our journey. From Jimtown, you can get to Geyserville on Red Winery Road or Highway 128. Red Winery is probably more scenic and takes you past Robert Young Estate Winery.

Mr. Young, a wine industry pioneer and one of the nicest men ever born, passed away earlier this year, but his family carries on the tradition of growing excellent grapes, and more recently, making fantastic wine.

If you want to get to Geyserville a little faster, take 128 instead, which takes you past Stryker Sonoma Winery, as well-known for its award-winning architecture as for its bold and tasty red wines.

Soon, Red Winery Road and Highway 128 come together and lead you to the village of Geyserville. You’ll pass River Rock Casino on the way. By Indian casino standards it’s a nice place, with decent food and lovely views of the valley.

Geyserville is renewing itself. In a town this small, you can say that even if only two businesses change hands, but Geyserville is changing even faster. Two wine industry giants have taken up residence in the village itself. Pete Opatz has been managing vineyards and growing grapes for other folks most of his life, and started his own winery, Route 128, a year ago. Pete and his wife Lorna started with grapes from the Yorkville Highlands, and their wines are getting rave reviews. Look for them in a little building next to a mini-mart with decent sandwiches and friendly owners.

Kerry Damskey also has a shop in town. Kerry pioneered the introduction of the concept of terroir to winemaking, and his new tasting room is fittingly called Terroirs Artisan Wines. It shares a building with the Konrad Gallery.

Other galleries, notably Terranean and Geyser Arts, make Geyserville an artsy stop. Try the heavenly artisan pizza at Diavola, the brunch at the Hoffman House and the good java at Geyserville Mud. Other downtown tasting rooms include Meeker Vineyard and also Locals, a collective.

No visit to Geyserville is complete without browsing Bosworth & Sons General Store. Originally a mortuary and a buggy shop, Obed Bosworth established a general store in 1911, and his son Harry runs it today. Expect to find good quality western wear mixed in with jewelry, hardware, hand tools and more.

On your way back to Healdsburg, you’ll pass some of the largest wineries in the area, including Clos du Bois, Trentadue, and the former Chateau Souverain, now Francis Ford Coppola Winery, owned by the film director of the same name. If you like quirky, handmade wines, pass these places by, but don’t forget that they got big for a reason—they make good quality wines at reasonable prices.

As you finish your trip, imagine what it was like for Cyrus Alexander 162 years ago, scouting  much of the same route that you have, except on horseback and with nary a vineyard in sight.

 

 

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