“I’ve learned to trust what my vineyards give me,” says winemaker Graham Weerts of Stonestreet Vineyards & Winery, who arrived from Cape Town, South Africa to work at the 5,100-acre Alexander Mountain estate in 2004. That was the year the winery decided to scale back its efforts and focus solely on its 235 separate blocks of mountainside vineyards.
“Not a lot of people are growing on a mountain at this scale,” he continues. “I’m working in a microcosm—it’s an appellation on its own.”
Weerts says what he’s found at Stonestreet is something entirely different from what he knew before, that he threw much of what he’d learned from textbooks out of his mind, and that he completely focuses on the location’s intricacies. “I’m learning how to take a photograph and plunk it down in a bottle,” he explains.
Weerts says he first learned about Stonestreet in 1999, when he worked the harvest at nearby Varite Winery. From there, he worked as a winemaker for some small South African wineries, then moved on to that country’s larger Bellingham Winery in 2001, where he stayed until joining Stonestreet in 2004.
The biggest thing Weerts noticed when he returned to the North Bay was the professionalism and focus in the industry. “There’s not a big difference between winemakers [here and in South Africa], since knowledge is spread throughout the industry as far as that goes,” he says. But the cost of investment and people’s willingness to extend themselves that way is huge. “They don’t cut corners here—not the high-end producers—and the training is amazing.”
The Alexander Mountain estate began as a ranch in the 1840s. It went through various transitions and, in the 1940s, served as a breeding and training area for cutting horses. Edward Gauer (owner of Roos-Atkins clothing stores) purchased it in the 1960s and continued to raise horses and cattle. In 1971, he began planting grapevines and the commercial vineyards began. By the mid-1980s, he had 400 acres and was selling to Peter Michael and Helen Turley. Wine mogul Jess Jackson bought the property in 1995, and Stonestreet was born (Stonestreet is Jackson’s middle name, after his grandfather). Jackson currently lives on the property but, though he’s involved in the winery’s business strategy, it actually operates as its own entity.
The vineyards are planted between 400 and 2,400 feet in elevation and, although they take up less than 20 percent of the property, there are no plans for more. “We already found the best sites,” says Weerts. “The rest of the land is left to its natural state.”
So what goes where? “It’s a calculated guess as to what’s planted where and why,” Weerts says. Cabernet is planted at every elevation, because it’s more adaptable to different environments and climatic differences. Merlot is planted at mid to low levels and in areas where there’s higher clay content; Weerts says it likes more robust soil. Chardonnay is in the cooler sites, in part because that’s where it was originally planted on the estate: “We’ve seen the benefits of planting it there,” says Weerts. Mid elevations have Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec in the mix.
Certified sustainable by Sonoma County, the winery has an environmental best practices meeting every month. “It’s very much a journey,” says Weerts. “There’s no finish line.” The winery practices erosion control, drainage systems that avoid silt build-up in the river systems, and has recently installed energy-efficient lighting. Not a single tree has been cut down to make way for vineyards. The uncultivated land is maintained as a wildlife habitat for deer, mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, raptors, foxes, waterfowl and beyond. The vineyards are fenced off to keep animals out (although the more determined ones find their way in anyway), but they can otherwise roam free on the mountainside.
Stonestreet offers Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and two red blends: Legacy (under its own label) and Fifth Ridge. The winery uses grapes grown almost entirely on its own property, rather than sourcing any fruit. Its focus is literally to showcase the unique terroir of Alexander Mountain.
The 2005 Alexander Valley Chardonnay was made specifically to go with food. And, according to Weerts, they’re thinking about newer, fusion-style food rather than burgers. (Do people really drink Chardonnay with burgers? Is all hell breaking loose?) It’s a blend of fruit from the estate’s vineyards, which give it a racy acidity. Only a small portion was barrel fermented. The end result is a lively wine with a mellow, subtle oak finish. My tasting notes say, “It smiles.” Or maybe that was just me.
The 2005 Upper Barn Chardonnay is made more traditionally. It’s 100 percent oak fermented, with only a light fining and filtration before it goes into the bottle. This one is silky and smooth—it lays on the tongue and has a lovely, long finish. I also tried the 2006 from the same vineyard (to be released this spring—likely by the time you read this) and, as is often the case between vintages, it had its differences. It’s as smooth as the 2005, only with more stone fruit aromas and flavors. It’s also closed with a Diam cork, which is made of processed cork. According to Weerts, the Diam provides a tighter seal, looks and feels like a traditional cork but acts like a screwcap. A winemaker can manage its volatility.
The 2004 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has earth, ash (turns out there was a fire near the vineyard that year), black fruits and minerals on the nose. “With mountain Cabs, there’s an immense amount of tannin and acids,” says Weerts, “So you have to stick to basics, do them as well as you can, and hope the vineyard shines through.” This particular vintage is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The Syrah came from one of the winery’s custom crush clients, and was used due to the fire. “Moisture is stolen by fire,” says Weerts. “One thing you’ll get up here is a big, blousy Cab. I don’t want to mess that up.”
The 2005 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a bit different, with about 3 or 4 percent Cabernet Franc blended in. It has dark fruit aromas, higher acidity and isn’t as earthy. The vintage was a lot cooler, there was no fire, and the grapes had a long, gentle ripening. It has soft edges, dark berry flavors and is well balanced.
The last thing I tried was the 2004 Legacy. “I’m trying to make the best red blend in the valley,” says Weerts. “There’s some Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from the mountain, but it’s more an expression of the valley. It’s more appellation- than estate-driven.” It also varies every year on varietal composition. Soft and round, it has lots of layers and is easily drinkable.
If you visit the winery (which is open daily), you can taste its limited-production wines while enjoying views of the Mayacamas mountains. It also offers wine and food pairings for $20 per person—and you don’t need a reservation.
When I visited in January, it was time to prune the vines and to think about blends. “This time of year, I get retrospective,” Weerts says about blending. “A real challenge is to get different varietals to work and sing together.” Sounds like a well-practiced harmony to me.
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