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Alexander Valley

It’s Sonoma County’s upstart destination for wine and food.

The vineyards of Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, California
Photo caption
The vineyards of Alexander Valley embody the laidback side of Sonoma County.

Didn't wine country used to feel more like country? As the towns in California’s Napa Valley have grown popular, they’ve lost much of their rustic flavor. Although there’s a lot to be said for stylish shops and bistros, even Sonoma County’s once sleepy Healdsburg increasingly bustles. It’s hard to find a bad restaurant there, and it can also be hard to find a parking place.

Which may be why tiny Geyserville, minutes north of Healdsburg, has recently begun to blossom. The town sits smack in the heart of the Alexander Valley, a 22-mile-long basin where serpentine back roads wind through a landscape of oak-studded hills and sprawling vineyards. Once famed for its prune orchards, the area has become renowned in the last 40 years for its wine. The valley, cradling the Russian River 30 miles from the Pacific, is geographically and viticulturally diverse. If the Napa Valley speaks mostly cabernet and the Anderson Valley pinot noir, the Alexander Valley is multilingual: There’s cabernet, sure, but also zinfandel, merlot, syrah, petite sirah, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay. And its nexus is a lazy village with a single three-way stop.

"Geyserville used to be a place people went through as quickly as possible because it was just this little country town," says winemaker Kerry Damskey, who has lived there since 1986. "But over the last few years I’ve watched it evolve into something pretty interesting." Interesting? You’ll find a couple of new tasting rooms, a handful of galleries presenting ceramics and paintings by local artists, three notable restaurants, and nice places to stay. Yet it’s still a "little country town," complete with an old-fashioned general store called Bosworth & Son.

You could spend weeks getting to know the area. The 50 or so wineries that flourish here include big names such as Clos du Bois, where you can taste spicy zinfandels around a giant U-shaped bar, and Francis Ford Coppola Winery, producer of Sofia, a line of rosé and sparkling wines named for the auteur’s filmmaker daughter.

But the region is also home to many humbler operations. In Geyserville, you’ll find Pete and Lorna Opatz pouring fragrant viognier at Route 128 just steps from the century-old bank building where aficionados sip Meeker Vineyard’s big reds. At Locals you can sample wines from 10 boutique producers. Newest is Terroirs, a showcase for Kerry Damskey’s artisan wines. A former saddlery with brick walls, a concrete bar, and leather chairs, Terroirs is the perfect place to stop and figure out where to eat.

That’s a tough decision. Hoffman House serves up creative dishes—try the crab cake Reuben—that you can eat on a patio with a view of the Mayacmas Mountains. Eight-year-old Santi is a warm trattoria justly famous for its bold pastas and braised tripe, which is spicy, tender, and rich. If you’re ever going to eat tripe (and you should), this is the place to do it. Last year Santi’s owners opened Diavola a few doors down, specializing in salads, panini, and sumptuous wood-fired pizzas, including one topped with mascarpone and house-made prosciutto.

Or you could hop back in the car and head down Highway 128 to the Jimtown Store to savor a pulled pork sandwich and slaw while lounging under a shady grape arbor. You are, after all, in the country.

Photography by Gary Crabbe

This article was first published in September 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.