Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg

Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg

By Published On: May 31st, 2022

Interview with Harry Wetzel, IV Alexander Valley Vineyards Head of Operations and Family Partner

After purchasing the historic Cyrus Alexander homestead in 1962, Harry and Maggie Wetzel strived to create a thriving agricultural haven. They raised their children (and their vines), gradually building the iconic Alexander Valley Vineyards (AVV).

Decades later, the Wetzel family’s fourth winemaking generation is again growing up amongst the vineyards – a family tradition. The Wetzel Family Estate now spans more than 700 acres, straddling Highway 128, and features vineyards stretching from the Russian River to the Mayacamas mountains.

AVV  is famous for its award winning wines, historic property and friendly tasting room. We interview Harry Wetzel, IV Alexander Valley Vineyards Head of Operations and Family Partner to learn more.

Harry Wetzel, IV Alexander Valley Vineyards Head of Operations and Family Partner: One of our most popular tasting experiences is our grape to glass vineyard hike. Guests go on a short hike through the vineyards with a guide. 

Along the way they taste wines made from those specific vineyards…the Chardonnay in the Chardonnay vineyard, the Cabernet in the Cabernet vineyard. 

Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg
Alexander Valley Vineyard Hike. Guests get an insider’s view on AVV’s Vineyard Hikes. This is a grape to glass tour tasting each wine where it grows.  By reservation only.

Along the hike they also get to see our extensive gardens, and some of the historical buildings originally built by Cyrus Alexander in the 1840s.  It finishes with a cave tour and a picnic lunch.

Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg
Alexander Valley Vineyards Caves:  AVV ages their wines underground in their naturally cool caves. They have one half acre underground and are currently digging another half acre cellar.

What type of wine do you specialize in?

Harry Wetzel, IV: We definitely specialize in Cabernet, but again, we make a lot of different wines.  Cabernet, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Merlot account for nearly 80% of our production.

Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg

What makes your wine unique?

Harry Wetzel, IV: I would say that we make wines of distinction for everyone.  We want to make wines that showcase the Alexander Valley, and the terroir that comes from it, but do so in a way that is both approachable and not going to break the bank.  We always aim to exceed the customers’ expectations for what they paid for the bottle.

What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?

Harry Wetzel, IV: The family, the history and just the beauty of the location.  Cyrus once said that the Alexander Valley (even though it wasn’t called that at the time) was the “brightest and best spot on earth”, and I’m in total agreement.  

Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg
Harry Wetzel, IV (left) Alexander Valley Vineyards overlooking the valley. (right) Alexander Valley namesake Cyrus Alexander settled in this valley in the 1840s, calling it the “brightest and best spot in the world”, today the Wetzel Family continues the tradition of family farming that he began.

There is so much history in the property as well, and of course the family aspect of it all.  My grandfather started everything 60 years ago, my parents and aunt continued that theme and now my brother and I are getting the torch.  

There are many family members directly involved in the business, again, my parents, and brother, but also my aunt, uncle, wife and even some cousins.

Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg
AVV is family owned and operated.  Hank and Linda Wetzel founded the winery in 1975.  Sons Harry Wetzel IV – Operations Manager, and Robert Wetzel – National Sales Manager lead the winery.

Favorite wine to make at Alexander Valley Vineyards?

Harry Wetzel, IV: My favorite wine to make is the Cyrus because the focus is simply on the best lots of wine.  We aren’t necessarily aiming for consistency from vintage to vintage, we just want to showcase the best from that vintage.  As a result, you can get some distinct differences from one year to the next.

Talk about enjoying the wine.

Harry Wetzel, IV: That’s a favorite topic I like chatting with our guests about. People can find wine pretentious and intimidating.  

I try to take that out of the situation with guests, especially with guests that are new to wine.  I tell them to ignore the descriptors and simply decide whether they enjoy the wine or not.  In the end that is all that really matters.  

Once they start to feel more comfortable, that is when I can go into descriptors and they have that “Ah Ha” moment when they can see what I am describing.  Again, though all it really boils down to is “do you like it or not?”

Describe your winemaking approach.  

Harry Wetzel, IV: It’s pretty simple, use a minimalistic approach to the winemaking to best show what we get from the vineyards.  We try to have as little impact, from a winemaking standpoint, on what we get from the fields. 

How did you get started in the wine industry?

Harry Wetzel, IV: Alexander Valley Vineyards is a family business…I have been involved in it from a very young age.  

I have been working in both the vineyard and winery, basically for as long as I can remember.  As far as who inspired me to “get into it” I would say my dad and my grandmother.  

I’ve always loved the wine industry, and where I grew up, and it was a logical fit. The deciding factor however, was when I was trying to decide what to study in college. I love to cook, so I was thinking about going culinary school.  

My grandmother pointed out that I could cook as a hobby, and that winemaking as a hobby it very time consuming and costly.

First time you fell in love with wine?

Harry Wetzel, IV: I think when I was around ten.  I know it sounds funny for a ten-year-old to fall in love with wine, but I distinctly remember my dad opening a bottle of 1986 Cabernet.  He let me try some, and it was so different than the previous vintage.  

It had such a bigger tannin structure and long finish.  I was amazed that something that came from the exact same source could change so much from one year to the next.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a winemaker?

Harry Wetzel, IV: Ha, that is a good question.  I worked at a lab when I first got out of college where we did a lot of analysis for home winemakers.  I learned a lot about what not to do from those folks. 

It is not to say that they weren’t passionate about winemaking, just that a lot of them either didn’t have the time, money or resources required to make a good wine at home. I realized that there are a lot of people out there that think “I just add some yeast to grape juice, ferment it and then come back in two years to amazing wine!”  

There is just so much more to it than that.

Do you have a favorite story about working at your winery?

Harry Wetzel, IV: I have lots of stories, too many to list them here.  You meet a very diverse group of people in the wine industry.  

I got to give Jane Goodall a tour of the property once.  That was pretty cool!  I got her to sign a 3L bottle of our Cabernet-based blend, Cyrus.  I still have it in my cellar.

Do you have any winery traditions with your team? 

Harry Wetzel, IV: We do a pre-harvest dinner at my parent’s house every year to thank everyone for their hard work (and hard work that is about to begin) and to introduce our harvest interns.  

We hire interns from around the globe for about 3 months in the Fall to help with harvest, and the pre-harvest party is their chance to get to meet the rest of the team.

How does your team help you as a winemaker?  

Harry Wetzel, IV: My team is invaluable!  Like I said about home winemaking, there is a lot that goes into making a great bottle of wine.  

While yes, the wine does need to sit and age, it also needs constant attention. Topping the barrels, running lab analysis, sampling the various barrels, making adjustments when needed, and on and on.  

Without my team we couldn’t pull that off.

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