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Billionaire Jess Jackson petitions to rename Black Mountain to Alexander Mountain in effort to create new appellation


Sonoma County's richest man may not be able to move mountains, but he may be able to rename one.

Jess Jackson, through his company Jackson Family Enterprises, has asked to rename one of Alexander Valley's more prominent peaks in an effort to better market his wines.

Jackson's company has petitioned to change the name of 3,128-foot Black Mountain to Alexander Mountain, a move that would bolster the vintner's attempt to create a special grape-growing designation of the same name on his property.

"That's why we're doing it, because of the recognition for wines produced within this delimited area," said Pete Downs, a vice president for Jackson Family Wines.

Jackson, 79, an attorney and self-made billionaire, lives on 5,400 acres east of Geyserville that he has named Alexander Mountain Estate.

In an attempt to get a special designation that recognizes the uniqueness of the grapes grown on his property, his company in May asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the mountain's name.

While it's been known as Black Mountain for generations, so far there have been no known objections.

"I'm not aware of any controversy," said Jane Messenger, a cartographer and geographic names researcher for the federal agency.

But she did not know the name change was being proposed for a commercial purpose.

"Will it make a difference? I don't know," she said. "I can't tell you how the board would feel. But the board needs to be informed of this."

Some old-timers were amused at the notion of changing a name that probably has been around for well over a century.

"They ought to just call it Mount K-J and get it over with," said Harry Bosworth, referring to Jackson's flagship Kendall-Jackson wine label.

Bosworth, 70, a lifelong Geyserville resident, owns 350 acres on a ridge behind Black Mountain.

"If my father were alive, he would have told them they're all nuts because Alexander Valley used to be all the way down the other end of the valley," Bosworth said. "We used to call it Russian River Valley. Now they've stretched Alexander Valley all the way to the hills that separate us from Hopland."

Black Mountain does not belong to Jackson, but its peak looms over his property. The mountain encompasses a number of individually owned parcels.

In an effort to gather as much input as possible for the proposed name change, staff members for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names said they are running it by several city councils in northern Sonoma County and a number of Indian tribes with ties to the area.

The county Board of Supervisors five years ago passed a resolution praising the locale for its grape-growing qualities and deserving of a special designation, but was silent on the issue of changing the name of Black Mountain.

The recent information submitted to the various agencies doesn't mention the tie-in to the application for a special viticultural area called Alexander Mountain that would lend cachet to Jackson's wines.

"Geographic Names doesn't really care about all that extraneous stuff," said Downs, Jackson's vice president, referring to the company's goal of creating a new winegrape appellation.

Cloverdale Mayor Joe Palla said the City Council briefly discussed the name change request last month and agreed Alexander Mountain was more fitting than Black Mountain because it reflects the proximity to Alexander Valley.

If he had known the request was part of a wine marketing strategy, he said it probably would not have mattered.

"I don't think it would make any difference, at least to me. Based on location and the sentiment of the Wine Country, it seemed like it (Alexander Mountain) fit better," Palla said.

Black Mountain, which has thick covers of chaparral, lies to the southeast of the more distinctly formed and slightly higher Geyser Peak in the Mayacmas Range.

It apparently was named for its color, which appears darker from a distance. But there are three other summits named Black Mountain in Sonoma County and 266 more throughout the United States, according to the Board on Geographic Names.

Alexander Valley was named for Cyrus Alexander, a native of Pennsylvania who settled in the area and managed a Mexican land grant in the 1840s.

In payment for his services, he received 9,000 acres on the southeastern side of the valley where he built a home, planted an orchard, constructed a tannery and built the first grain mill in the area.

The federal board's case summary for the name change noted there are numerous other things named after Alexander, including a school, church, a historical post office, family cemetery and the Alexander Valley Rancheria, home of the Mishewal Wappo Tribe, which is no longer federally recognized.

Downs acknowledged Jackson Family Wines several years ago applied to federal alcohol regulators for a special "Alexander Mountain" American viticultural area, but there's been no decision.

The grapes grown on the mountain now are designated as coming from "Sonoma County" and are not considered part of the Alexander Valley appellation below.

Downs said it made no sense to call a new viticultural area "Black Mountain" because it was too generic.

"There's four of them in the county. We want to make sure the AVA (American Viticultural Area) has a specific named presence to the consumer," Downs said. "If you say &‘Black Mountain,' there's (more than) 200 of them in the U.S."

There is also a Black Mountain Vineyard label produced by Bronco Wine Co., which puts out dozens of brands, including Charles Shaw, commonly known as "Two Buck Chuck."

Nearby grape grower Jim Young of Robert Young Estate Winery, whose family settled in the area in the 1850s, said he probably would not be opposed to the change to Alexander Mountain and creating a new grape designation.

"It's a different microclimate in the highlands there," he said.

"I've lived here six years; I have no idea what those mountains are called," said Steve Anderka, a physician with a second home in nearby Jimtown. "He can do whatever he wants with it."

His wife, Mary Clare, said that regardless of the mountain's name, "it's all in this beautiful grape-growing region, and as long as it remains that way, it won't impact us at all."

To help promote the summit's new name, Jackson changed the name of the road into his property from Foote Road to Alexander Mountain Road, a county process that Downs said was fairly straightforward, similar to applying for a use permit.

In addition to historical names, an applicant for a special viticultural area has to show it is a distinctive grape-growing location, with temperature, rainfall, soil type and geologic structures that make the grapes unique.

Those are some of the characteristics that make up the French wine term "terroir."

Jackson did not respond to requests for an interview on the issue of the name change, or the appellation request.

A 2007 book, "the Art of Terroir," put out with Jackson's backing, included a number of eye-catching photos of vineyards on his Alexander Mountain Estate.

In a forward to the book, Jackson described the importance of science and technology in the creation of world-class wines, and the elusive term, terroir, "that mystical blending of light, water, soil, air and human touch."

Jackson Family Wines, the largest wine group in Sonoma County, has about 30 different wine brands, including Kendall-Jackson. The company sold an estimated 5.6 million cases of wine last year made from 14,000 acres of vineyards around the state.

But the flanks of Black Mountain seem to hold a special appeal for Jackson and are home to Stonestreet Vineyards, named after his middle name.

In the foreword to the book, Jackson speaks of how growing grapes on the sides of mountains builds character, for both the wine and the people growing the grapes.

"It's not easy farming grapes on mountains, nor is it inexpensive. It requires patience and determination, along with sustainable practices and hard work," he said.

He may need some of that patience. There are 17 or 18 federal agencies that make up the "domestic names committee" that will decide whether to call it Alexander Mountain.

But first, the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names must weigh the request.

Messenger said it can take anywhere from eight months to eight years to change the name of a geographic feature.

Library Researcher Teresa Meikle contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.