Welcome to Alexander Mountain

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Alexander Mountain is too often overlooked as one of the Sonoma County Wine Country's most spectacular areas. A vibrant history, beautiful scenery, home of one of the highest-elevation vineyards in the state, and producer of some of the most intensely-flavored grapes anywhere, Alexander Mountain should be viewed by anyone passing through the Wine Country.

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Located on the east side of Alexander Valley, Alexander Mountain is a 35,000-acre section of the Mayacama Range. Of that, about 5,400 make up vintner Jess Jackson's Alexander Mountain Estates property and of that only 774 are planted to grapes, while the remaining land retains its natural biodiversity and abounds with streambeds, redwoods and ancient oaks, providing habitat to cougars, owls and wild boar.


Alexander Mountain Estate towers above the Alexander Valley floor where the northernmost ridges of the Mayacamas Mountains meet Black Mountain and Geyser Peak, its vast and rugged terrain in sharp contrast to the pacific Alexander Valley below.

From an elevation low of 400 feet at the southern boundary, it rises steadily northward through the ranch towards the Geysers, to a high 2800 feet at the northern border, The 5400-acre ranch encompasses five distinct ridges and four different creeks. Sausal Creek, the main watershed, has its headwaters on Black Mountain and traverses the property on its way to the Russian River, its upper branches fed by the numerous sweetwater springs on the ranch.

The mountain is a network of diverse ecosystems: grassland, oak and madrone woodlands, chaparral, streambeds and wetlands, redwood and conifer forests, and agricultural land. This land supports an astonishing array of wildlife. Red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, and golden eagles can often be seen soaring in the thermals. Cougar, bobcats, black bear and coyote prowl the ridges and canyons in search of prey. The waterways are home to mallards, mud hens and Canada geese and other waterfowl, as well as trout and steelhead. Deer, fox, raccoon, possum, skunk, rabbits and field mice are also among the over 150 animal species that inhabit the ranch.

The Alexander Valley has been peopled for at least 2,500 years. The first known residents, the Wappo Indians, had two main villages in the area, one on the Russian River near what is now Geyserville, and the other at the Geysers, near Alexander Mountain. Their population may have reached as many as 1,000; but with the arrival of other peoples in the middle of the 19th century, their numbers diminished rapidly. By the time of the census of 1910, there remained only 73 Wappo anywhere.

At the northern frontiers of the Mexican territory of California, the vicinity of Alexander Valley was made into four Mexican land grants in the 1830’s, in an attempt to check Russian expansion from Fort Ross, to the west. An Illinois fur trapper named Cyrus Alexander arrived in the Valley in 1840, and was appointed to manage the vast Sotoyome Rancho. En 1847, his services were rewarded with a payment of 9000 acres on the east side of the valley that came to bear his name. The Caslamayomi Rancho, which encompassed the lands of the present-day Alexander Mountain Estate, was granted to one Enrique Montenegro in 1844, who never even saw his land before returning to Mexico, There he sold the macho in 1848 to William Forbes, a British merchant and quicksilver miner, whose application for title took 35 years to resolve, due to conflicting claims on the property among settlers who had long since occupied the land. His heirs ultimately sold the rancho in 1883 to a group of over thirty settlers for $80,000.

The Geysers and Hot Springs were discovered in 1847, and became a scenic attraction second only to Yosemite for 19th century sightseers in California. The discovery led to an influx of settlers in the valley’s foothills. The first American settler on the mountain, retired sea captain John Ray, capitalized on the trade by operating stagecoach stops on the steep road to the Geysers that passes through present-day Alexander Mountain Estate.

Captain Ray’s home and well-tended orchard became a popular way station on the road to the natural wonder, and was at one point awarded a Gold Medal for the best farm in California. Ray was also the first to plant vineyards on Alexander Mountain.

Other settlers arrived, some acquiring the land with military script from the Civil War. The discovery of quicksilver nearby, at Pine Flats, led to still more arrivals. With its ample spring water, mild climate and productive soils, the land supported numerous farms and ranches along the road to the Geysers, with most of the settlers, by the late 1860’s, engaged in sheep ranching. While they may have had orchards, vines, and a few barnyard animals, they were generally for local market and domestic use rather than commercial production. The remnants of these stage stops and early settlements can still been seen today on Alexander Mountain Estate.

By the 1890’s a drop in wool prices and increased predation caused a decline in sheep ranching, forcing some to sell out while others turned to cattle, and to experiment with commercial fruit growing, mainly pears, apples, and prunes, with notable success made possible by advances ii, transportation. At the turn of the century, ownership had been consolidated, with two families, the Youngs and the Jacobs, emerging as dominant owners of the land at Alexander Mountain. The U.S. declared war on the Germans in World War One, and the California Department of Agriculture declared war on predators; the one renewed demand for wool and mutton, the other increased the supply, allowing sheep ranching to once again become the principal enterprise in the foothills, well into the 1940’s.

After World War 11, a former pilot and New York stockbroker, William Dana, consolidated 21 separate parcels, then owned mostly by descendants of the original Jacobs and Young families, into one vast 7000-acre ranch he named J Bar B Ranch. Dana’s first venture of breeding Irish Wolfhounds failed, but he found considerable success breeding and training cutting horses, and won several top awards at State Fairs throughout the west. He also raised sheep and cattle. He died in 1965 of a heart attack while preparing to show at Sacramento State Fair.

In 1968 Dana’s heirs sold the property to Edward Gauer, haberdasher and owner of the Roos-Atkins clothing stores. Gauer had barely outbid a successful young San Francisco attorney with deep family roots in farming and ranching, who also wanted the ranch for a country retreat. His name was Jess Jackson.

Gauer raised horses and up to 2,500 head of cattle on the property. He also bottled and sold spring water for use in hotels and restaurants. But most significant, Gauer was the first to develop commercial vineyards on the property. He began planting in 1971, and by 1986 had 400 acres of premium grapes, Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

The quality of the fruit proved to be exceptional. Several wineries produced wines with the “Gauer Estate” vineyard designation. Peter Michael and Helen Turley established reputations with wines made from the vineyard. In 1986, Gauer purchased the Vinwood Winery and produced wine under his own Gauer Estate label. By 1989, he decided to sell all but 80 acres and his home (where his wife still lives) to the land and development division of Chevron Oil, which bought the land with the intention of developing 60 luxury home sites, but also continued to plant vineyards and produce wine under the Gauer Estate label through the early nineties.

When Chevron abandoned its development idea and decided to sell, Jess Jackson was ready; he purchased the property in 1995 and renamed it Alexander Mountain Estate. Jess Jackson and his family broke ground for their home on Alexander Mountain in 1996. Since that time, the Jackson Family has undertaken a program of vineyard development that is realizing the highest potential of the property while preserving and restoring the fragile native wild lands within its borders. Over 80% of the ranch is left in its wild state, maintained as wildlife preserve. Hunting is prohibited on the property.

Tucked among the ridges and hillsides are now over 900 acres of vineyards, spread out in a complex patchwork of nine distinct vineyards sites, at elevations ranging from 400 feet to 2,700 feet above the valley floor. Over 70 % of the vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Chardonnay is now just 14%, followed by Merlot at ll%. Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and others make up the balance.

The Alexander Mountain Estate is the highest vineyard elevation in the Sonoma Mayacamas range. Virtually all of the fruit from the estate is made into upper-tier, luxury class wines. Some of California’s most coveted and rare wines come from this estate. Out of sixty-three wines that preeminent wine critic Robert Parker Jr. recently rated as California’s best, nine were from this estate, including Marcassin Upper Barn and Peter Michael Point Rouge Chardonnay, and Cardinale and Christopher’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

Alexander Mountain, now under consideration as Sonoma County’s 14th viticulture appellation, differs from its valley cousin in several ways. Viticulture in this precipitous terrain is fraught with challenges, yet it is precisely the struggle that produces wine of superior quality, Cultivation is limited by slope, first and foremost. Much of the estate is simply too steep to practically grow grapes—at all. Even where the slope is suitable, it can still present many challenges. The movements of crew and equipment are more difficult and dangerous. Damage and soil loss due to erosion is a constant consideration. Training and placement of the vines is always more technically demanding.

Yet slope is also essential to the quality of the fruit. The soils on these slopes are shallow, rocky, and poor, compared to soils of the valley below. Vines grown in these thin mountain soils are far less vigorous, so produce less foliage and fewer and smaller, intensely flavored berries, with more distinct varietal character. Yields from these vines are meager, as little as one to two tons per acre, in contrast to typical vineyards on the valley floor, which comfortably produce 4- 6 tons per acre. Also, the superior water and air drainage of these slopes promotes healthy vines and diminishes the need for disease and pest control. Slope can play an important role too in the ripening of the fruit by orienting the vines in beneficial aspect to the sun’s rays.

The soils of Alexander Mountain are a complex jumble that reveal an eventful and violent past. Eons ago, extensive volcanic activity—the remnants of which can still be seen nearby in the still- active Geysers—spewed forth lava, ash and igneous rock. Rollicking seismic thrusts upended and Folded ancient beds of sedimentary rock and basalt, and molten serpentine slithered into the fissures and hardened. The continuous processes of erosion and alluvial deposition also have had a large role in creating this tapestry of soils. There are between 25 and 30 soil types on the estate, often several soil types within a given vineyard block, even from one vine to the next, which can impart significant complexity to the wine.

The climate on the mountain is not only distinct from the valley floor; it varies greatly across the estate. Part of the Coast Range, on the fifth ridge in from the Pacific Ocean, Alexander Mountain is neither too hot nor too cool; it is ideally situated to bring Bordeaux varietals and Chardonnay to perfect ripeness with slow and complete maturation. It is generally cooler in summer than the valley below, thanks to the air currents that rise from the valley floor in the warmer months and bring afternoon breezes that cool the vines on the hillside. Winters are generally warmer, promoting earlier bud-break. The microclimates that are created on the property by the interaction of elevation, exposure, wind, water and soil provide a spectrum of viticultural choices.

Water is, of course, crucial to any agriculture endeavor, and here the Alexander Mountain Estate is blessed. There is generally ample rainfall during the dormant months, significantly more than in the valley. These soils have enough water-holding capacity during the critical growth phase, and tend to run dry just as the fruit is ripening. And with the numerous springs anti creeks on the property, irrigation is available as insurance, finely metered to just meet the vines needs, and no more, so as to restrict excess vigor.

These physical elements taken together inform the more obvious aspects of the notion of terroir. But it is also the management of the vineyard, the vinification of the wine, and what Man Kramer calls “the mental aspect,” the vintner’s philosophical commitment to the land and its fullest expression in the wine [the Hallmark] that are essential in defining the unique and distinctive qualities of great vineyards.

A significant selection of Alexander Mountain Estate fruit is destined for Stonestreet and Vérité Wineries, which produces luxury Bordeaux-styled wines