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Justin Meyer was a monk whose mission was to save souls, but ultimately he became a winemaker who found grace in a bottle of cabernet sauvignon.

Meyer, who died in 2002, was a pioneer of Alexander Valley cabernet, a man who championed the region's expression of it even though the spotlight was on Napa Valley. When he was the winemaker at Silver Oak Cellars, Meyer understood that the quality cabernet coming out of the Alexander Valley was Sonoma County's best kept secret.

For many, it still is.

"Most people know Sonoma County for its pinot noirs and chardonnays, and even zinfandels from the Dry Creek region. But Alexander Valley's warm microclimate produces ripe, rich and supple cabernet sauvignons," said David Duncan, president and CEO of Silver Oak Cellars.

Silver Oak offers keen insight into the secret of Alexander Valley cabernet because it devotes itself to that varietal and because of its geography. It has one winery in Alexander Valley and another in Napa Valley, each producing a cabernet — fraternal twins of sorts, although Napa's is better known.

"I think Napa is somewhat of a perfect storm in terms of public relations," said Daniel Baron, Silver Oak's current director of winemaking. "It's close to San Francisco. It has attracted a quasi-celebrity group of winemakers and the county and the valley have the same name. Sonoma has a bit of an identity crisis because it's such a large county with the Valley of the Moon, the Sonoma Coast and Dry Creek ... It's harder for wine consumers to wrap their mind around what is Sonoma. It's more of an uphill battle."

Baron said because of Sonoma's reputation for making great pinot noir in the Russian River and Sonoma Coast regions, more people are drawn to the area and wind up in Alexander Valley tasting cabernet sauvignon.

Geographically, Alexander Valley is in the north end of Sonoma County, a 22-mile stretch that varies in width from two to seven miles. The valley is named after Cyrus Alexander, who arrived on horseback in 1840.

Alexander Valley Vineyards is the site of Alexander's original homestead.

"Cyrus is buried right here on the property," said winemaker Kevin Hall. "There's a strong connection ... Cyrus never grew grapes here, but he saw Alexander Valley as good, fertile land."

Alexander Valley is more landlocked than other nearby regions and doesn't have maritime influence, as the lower Napa Valley does with cool air streaming in from San Pablo Bay.

"It gives us a well-paced growing season, a nice gradual progression so we don't have the aggressive tannins," Hall said.

Baron, who makes a Napa cab and an Alexander cab, said one is not better or worse than the other.

"It's just a different expression of cabernet," he said. "We make a mistake in wine appreciation. It's not a football game. We're not trying to find the best team. Wine appreciation should be about embracing the diversity. It's like asking, &‘What composer is best?'"

For Baron, "embracing the diversity" transcends the cabernet in his glass. He appreciates the rustic charm of the wine culture in Alexander Valley, as well.

"Alexander Valley extends from Healdsburg to Geyserville to Cloverdale, but Geyserville is really kind of the &‘soul center' of the valley," said Baron, referring to the town's rustic charm. "There's a group of locals who play liars' dice every day at Catelli's (restaurant) at a table across from the bar."

Other examples of Geyserville's refreshing earthiness are Diavola, a casual pizzeria (21021 Geyserville Ave.), and Bosworth & Son's General Merchandise (21060 Geyserville Ave.), where people can shop for western clothing, tackle and fishing rods.

As for Cloverdale, Baron said he's crazy about the half-pound burger called the Swiss Albert at the Hamburger Ranch (31195 North Redwood Highway ) in Cloverdale.

"It keeps us going during harvest," he said.

When it comes to Healdsburg, Baron said he's smitten by the home-made food at Jimtown Store (6706 Hwy. 128, Healdsburg).

"During harvest, when walking through vineyard after vineyard, it's one of the bright spots with its quirky atmosphere, its chocolate pudding and old fashioned toys," he said.

Carrie Brown, owner of Jimtown Store, said people who work in the wine community are her regulars, from executives to winemakers to cellar rats. "Most we know on a first-name basis," she said.

Brown said the pulled-pork sandwich with spicy bread-and-butter pickles on a home-made bun is the house favorite of the wine crowd, and the favorite toy for winemakers is the cheese-making kit.

"It appeals to the geeky side of them," she said. "We have a big picture window and we have a view of vineyards 365 days out of the year, so we're very much in tune with the cycle of grape growers," Brown said. "Here in Alexander Valley we're sandwiched in by vineyards. ... We're in the middle of it. We're watching them. We're smelling them. We're seeing our neighbors make wine."

Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

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