Living in Napa, I naturally explore this wine region more frequently than Sonoma County. But when I was invited to attend the Alexander Valley Winegrowers’ inaugural Experience Alexander Valley event, I figured there was no time like the present to be become more familiar with one of Napa’s quiet but extraordinary neighbors.
Experience Alexander Valley is a two-day wine festival in June showcasing intimate and highly-exclusive experiences hosted by participating Alexander Valley wineries. Some of the fabulous winery experiences to choose from were Yoga in the Vineyard at Hawkes Winery, Pizza Making at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, an Ice Cream Making Competition at Simi Winery, and a Bocce Tournament at Trione Winery. With so many unique experiences to choose from, it was certainly difficult to pick just a few, but I loved where I ended up!
Vineyard Hike at Seghesio Family Vineyards
Now I know wine tasting and hiking doesn’t sound like it goes together, but trust me it does. After applying my first layer of SPF 30 for the morning, I laced up my hiking boots and followed hike leader, Jim Neumiller to the vineyards. Jim is the fourth generation vineyard manager at Seghesio Family Vineyards and was the perfect person to lead us on an adventure through 120-year old vines at their Home Ranch Estate in Cloverdale, California.
We were provided with tidbits of behind the scenes information as we ascended hills and valleys on our way to the top of Rattlesnake Hill. There were plenty of hydration pit-stops along the way to help us recharge from the 100° heat. Wine was also poured along the way, giving me an opportunity to sip Seghesio Zinfandel and Italian varietals while exploring the land it was cultivated from.
As we took a breather after our first hillside ascent, a bottle of 2010 Seghesio Aglianico was uncorked. It was my first time tasting this historic Italian grape. It is indigenous to Southern Italy and has found a second home in Alexander Valley where it benefits from the ripening power of the sun. The wine is almost blackish in color and is savory in flavor with notes of leather, dark fruit, and cured meat. It had me craving a steak but alas the hike was moving on.
Jim stopped us at their Zinfandel plot on Sisters Vineyards to check out the developing grape clusters. Still green in color in mid-June, they were only a few weeks away from the onset of ripening. It was here, Jim discussed Seghesio’s commitment to sustainable farming, something I truly respect in the modern wine industry.
We were about to begin our final ascent, which would bring us to the top of Rattlesnake Hill. But before we hiked the 40% slope grade, we enjoyed a splash of the winery’s highly-coveted (and recently sold out) 2014 Venom. This wine is 100% Sangiovese and comes exclusively from Rattlesnake Hill, a steep hillside that is home to America’s oldest planted Sangiovese vines. This wine is powerful, full bodied, and complex with notes of dark cherry, tobacco leaf, and earth.
With a few sips of 2014 Venom in my belly, I began to climb the final steps to the top of the Home Estate Ranch. A welcoming tree-shaded picnic table topped with a spread of local cheeses and meats was my reward for completing the two-hour hike. A chilled glass of 2017 Seghesio Arneis was waiting for me. Another Italian varietal, this white wine originated from northwest Alba in the Piedmont region of Italy. Its refreshing hints of lime and grass reminded me of a white Bordeaux and was the perfect ending to my morning vineyard hike.
If you’re interested in this experience, be sure to join Seghesio on Saturday, September 8 for their next Home Ranch Vineyard Hike event.
Farm Walk and Barrel Tasting at Medlock Ames
My next Alexander Valley experience brought me 20 miles south to Medlock Ames at their Bell Mountain Ranch. Surrounded by rolling woodlands, this mountaintop winery, set amid grapevines, vegetable gardens, and olive groves, is reached only by a twisting country road. I was greeted with a splash of their 2017 Sauvignon Blanc before embarking on a ranch tour.
We strolled the peaceful grounds, periodically pausing in the shade to escape the sun and to talk about our surroundings. Medlock Ames sits on 338 acres of land, 55 of which are planted with certified organic grapevines. The remaining acres are devoted to organic gardens and tree groves or left wild. We walked by two of five ponds on the ranch, all used to collet rain water for the ranch ecosystem. Spanish moss dangled from the trees, adding to the natural beauty of this pristine property.
Ready to beat the heat, we were led to the state of the art winery and barrel cellar. Built on several levels, with the natural slope, the winery produces gravity-fed wines which eliminates the use of pumps. In the lowest and coolest level of the winery is where the cellar can be found and where we found winemaker, Ames Morison.
I immediately noticed how much Morison was in his element as he spoke of farming and viticulture. I was also getting the sense that he could talk forever about soil composition and sustainable farming practices. He is shy at first but comes alive when describing his passion for winemaking and his excitement is contagious. Morison poured four samples of wines still aging in their barrels, giving us a sneak peak of the upcoming vintages. Later we would taste the current releases to compare the before and after.
The experience concluded with a seated tasting of five estate-grown wines paired with a selection of artisan cheeses from local creameries and seasonal items from their gardens. We walked through each wine and cheese pairing separately to fully understand the beauty of the wine and food combination. My favorite pairing was the Point Reyes Creamery Toma cheese with 2015 Kate’s and B’s Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine named in honor of founder Chris James’s wife, Bradley, and winemaker Ames Morison’s wife, Kate. Some of the bites we tried from the Bell Mountain Ranch garden included homemade Alicante Bouschet grape jelly, quince chutney, and estate-grown olive oil.
Ravioli Making at Zialena Winery
My final Alexander Valley experience of the weekend took place at Zialena Winery in Geyserville. Zialena is a newcomer in Alexander Valley but the family behind it is certainly not. Fourth generation owners and siblings, Mark and Lisa, co-founded Zialena to carry on their family’s rich tradition of grape growing. The legacy began in the early 1900’s when their great grandfather, Giuseppe Mazzoni immigrated to Alexander Valley from Italy. The winery now sits on the 120-acre property that has been in the Mazzoni family for almost a century.
Family is undoubtedly the running thread in everything this sibling duo does. The name of the winery pays homage to their Aunt (Zia) Lena who was known for her famous ravioli. The raviolis are so symbolic of their family’s Italian history that a ravioli stamp can be seen on every Zialena wine bottle label.
I arrived to the production facility where the ravioli cooking class was to take place. A temporary kitchen prep station was set up in front of four small tables where the students, like me, were to sit and take it all in. As Lisa was beginning the ravioli filling demonstration, we were poured a glass of Zialena’s 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese (recently sold out). The wine was fresh, vibrant, and tangy and exactly what I needed on another hot day in Alexander Valley.
We were learning the step by step recipe for chicken, beef, and veal stuffed ravioli. Once we tackled the filling, we began to learn how to make the dough which was a fun, hands-on process. We each took turns rolling out the dough and finally stamping the ravioli once filled with the three meat mixture. While we waited for a taste of the final product, our glasses were filled with Zialena’s 2013 Cappella, an interesting blend of Zinfandel, Primitivo, and Syrah. It paired beautifully with the allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon mixture in the ravioli filling. The ravioli was delicious and each member of the class was gifted a printed copy of Aunt Lena’s special recipe. I wish I could share it with all of you, but you may have to visit one of Lisa’s upcoming ravioli cooking classes to learn how to make them at home. Don’t worry, if cooking isn’t your thing, Zialena also offers daily tours and wine tastings.