The Alexander Valley, that rich pocket of terrain just north of the trendy Wine Country town of Healdsburg, is calling young winemakers with ties to the region back to family lands.
Along with prize-winning pinot noirs and bright chardonnays, three wineries are bringing a particularly youthful energy to the tasting experience, with hikes, picnics, and even an Instagram-worthy yurt.
(Courtesy of Sutro Wines)
Sutro Wines, Warnecke Ranch & Vineyard
If, upon a visit to Warnecke Ranch and Vineyard, you detect a particularly artful way of doing things, you'd be spot on: The creative juices have been flowing on this land for more than a century. Located just outside of Healdsburg, the 245-acre property has served as a sheep farm, a family fishing retreat, and as the satellite offices of architect John Carl Warnecke, who famously designed the Arlington National Cemetery tomb of President John F. Kennedy. It was here that, in the 1980s, the retired Warnecke planted Bordeaux grapes in the pasture.
In the mid-90s, direction of the vineyard fell to another family architect, Margo Wernecke Merck; and in 2010, young Alice Warnecke Sutro, an artist and John Carl's granddaughter, became assistant vineyard manager. That same year she cofounded, along with her aunt Margo, the onsite Chalk Hill Artist Residency program.
In 2012, Warnecke Sutro and her husband, Eliot Sutro, launched Sutro Wines and quickly started garnering awards: Their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, with complex aromas of black cherry and blackberry and notes of violet and dark chocolate, earned gold in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition; it was also named one of Sunset magazine's best reds under $50 last year.
But it is only with a reservation for a tasting that one can truly connect with this family and their land, and the Sutros go about it in a thoroughly modern way. Rather than pulling up a chair in a fancy tasting room, guests (in groups of two to 10) are treated to a nature walk of the property guided by 33-year-old Warneke Sutro, who brings a youthful energy and a minimalist outlook to the production of good wine. On this hike, she offers a personal look at the 45-year old vineyards and their views of the Russian River, Mt. St. Helena and Geyser Peak. The tour ends at the country-chic Jimtown Store with a three-wine flight paired with meats and cheeses.
"It's super personal, informal, and back to the land," she says. "I think my generation is all about connecting to the earth and to our community. Raw experiences, that's what we've got."
// 90-minute tours ($35/person) are available with reservations 48 hours in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 707.509.9695; Chalk Hill Rd (Healdsburg), sutrowine.com
The tasting tent at Bannister Wines(Courtesy of Bannister Wines)
Another family affair, nearby Bannister Wines is also personalizing the wine tasting experience with unexpectedly bohemian vibes. Founded by Marty and Gary Bannister in 1989, Bannister is now under the stewardship of their son, Brook Bannister, who's making pinot noirs—his 2013 Campbell Ranch pinot picked up a silver medal in the American Fine Wine Invitational—bright chardonnays and, as of last year, a robust rosé of pinot noir with hints of ripe cherry, strawberry and rose hip.
To get a taste of Bannister's varietals, make a reservation to join Bannister himself inside a canvas tent, placed in the middle of oak savannah and grazing land and outfitted with colorful geometric rugs and patterned textiles and furnishings sourced during the winemaker's former days as the proprietor of furniture and architectural shop in Oakland.
Developing a typical tasting room is expensive, Bannister says; the tent "allows me to have clients come over as my personal guests. I really want to see the people who are seeking my wines and want to learn the story behind them and the process...The style more than fits with the environment—I think it feels more natural than a building would."
// Tastings ($50) are available with advance reservations by emailing email@example.com or calling 707.387.0124; 1139 Sunnyside Dr. (Healdsburg), bannisterwines.com.
Picnicking among the vines at Carpenter.(Courtesy of Carpenter/Facebook)
Jake Hawkes grew up on a farm in the Alexander Valley, and wanted nothing more than to leave Sonoma. His father grew grapes on their land, and young Hawkes began making his own chardonnay in high school. But envision a future in winemaking he did not.
And yet it was that in 2002, after working a string of odd jobs, the prodigal son returned to the family vineyards to make wine under the label Hawkes Wine. Now in his early 40s, he and wife Laura Carpenter Hawkes are producing wines under a second label, Carpenter, which turns out small batches of citrusy sémillon, deeply fruity pinot noirs, and creamy chardonnays. The chardonnay grapes the elder Hawkes planted along Maacama Creek back in 1972 are still producing the fruit for Carpenter's wines (as well as fordozens of other Sonoma vintners). In 2009, new grapes were planted on the vineyard that now compose vintages such as the key-limey, melon-y, wet stone–scented 2015 Sémillon.
Carpenter's tasting experience caters to active groups who are eager to get up close and personal with the vineyard and relish a joyful experience. Outside in the sweet Sonoma air, up to eight guests can taste without worrying about keeping the noise to a respectful minimum during a picnic among the vines with Carpenter Hawkes, who gives the skinny on the label's winemaking process. // Sixty to 90 minute tours ($40) include cheese pairing; for appointments, call 707.385.8177; 14255 Chalk Hill Rd. (Healdsburg), carpenterwine.com