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Hawkes Wine Shows Restraint in Alexander Valley
By Tina Caputo
Jan 22, 2008
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During the Russian River Wine Road's "Winter Wineland" event last weekend, I was lured to an unfamiliar winery with the promise of homemade dim sum, paired with wine.  Since Chinese New Year begins on Feb.  7, I thought the experience could be a good jumping-off point for a column about pairing wine with Chinese food.  Well, it wasn't.  The dim sum was tasty, and a couple of the wines were decent matches for the food, but something outshone the novelty of the Chinese New Year theme:  The wines. 

Due to the current fad for ultra-ripe, high-octane California reds, it's become a bit of a challenge to find wines with food-friendly acidity and balance.  But the Hawkes Winery wines definitely fit that description--particularly the Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Although the cooler climate of northern Sonoma County's Alexander Valley, where the winery's grapes are grown, is partly responsible for keeping alcohol and ripeness levels in check, the style is also the result of a conscious effort by winemaker Jacob Hawkes.

Hawkes' father, Stephen, began growing grapes in the Alexander Valley in 1971.  In 2002, after three decades of selling fruit to the likes of Silver Oak, Sebastiani and Vérité, the family began making wine from its three vineyards: The Pyramid, Home Ranch and Red Winery Road.  Today, Hawkes produces an annual total of 3,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay from the family's 80 acres of vineyards. 

Though Jacob grew up in the vineyards of Alexander Valley, he says he had no real desire to become a farmer.  Instead, he was drawn to the winemaking side of the business. 
 
'I don't want to grow grapes and harvest them at 28 Brix (Brix measures the sugar level in the grapes), and pretend people can tell what they are and where they came from,' Hawkes says. 

He prefers to pick the winery's Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at around 24 Brix, which results in a wine that weighs in at a modest 13.8% alcohol.

Hawkes' Chardonnay sees very little oak--just 15% of the wine is aged in older French oak barrels--and no malolactic fermentation (a winemaking technique used to add softness to wine), which lets the crisp, citrus character of the fruit to shine through.  If you love mouth-filling, vanilla-infused Chardonnays, this is not the wine for you. 

Hawkes says he understands that this style of wine will probably never grab the attention of blockbuster-loving Wine Spectator, critics, but that's OK with him.  'I hope that [more reserved style] ends up being our niche, as opposed to big alcohol bombs,' he says.  "We'll just have to find another way to sell the wine."

Hawkes describes his home region of Alexander Valley as "structured Bordeaux country," which is evident in his balanced, food-friendly wines:   

Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($40):  Leather and spice aromas give way to blackberry flavors, along with balanced tannins and acidity.  The fruit is ripe enough for instant gratification, but the wine's structure makes it suitable for aging.  Yum. 

Red Winery Road Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($60):  This single-vineyard Cab is more fruit-forward in style than the Alexander Valley Cab, with ripe, dark fruit flavors and supple tannins.  A delicious combination of fruit, power and balance. 

Alexander Valley Merlot 2004 ($30):  The wine has spicy red cherry fruit, with a pleasant touch of vanilla.  I also tasted the 2003 vintage, which has darker fruit character and is nicely balanced. 

In 2005, Hawkes plans to release four Cabernets, including a vineyard-designated wine from each of the family's three Alexander Valley vineyards. 

As you might imagine, Cabernet isn't the world's best match for Chinese dim sum, but another Hawkes tasting room attraction is:  Tea.  Stephen Hawkes became an avid teapot collector several years ago while searching for a replacement pot on eBay.  Now he owns more than 100 teapots from around the world, dating back to the 18th century.  About 50 are on rotating display in the tasting room, and Stephen is happy to tell visitors the story behind each one.  Along with wine, the tasting room sells--you guessed it--tea. 

The Hawkes tasting room is located at 6734 Highway 128, in Healdsburg, next to the Jimtown Store.  The wines are also available on the winery's website (www.hawkeswine.com), and are distributed in 10 U.S. states. 

In addition to being a regular contrubutor to Wine Review Online, Tina Caputo is a senior correspondent for Wines & Vines magazine and the California correspondent for Harpers, the Wine & Spirit Weekly.