Most wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties require reservations for a tasting and then charge at least $20 for what is often less than a glass of wine when all is said and done. And no longer are you guaranteed the fee will be applied to the purchase of a bottle.

So to come across a winery that offers a free tasting as well as a free cave tour is a rarity. Welcome to Alexander Valley Vineyards.

It had been a number of years since I was in the valley, let alone this winery. I’m not sure there is such thing as an ugly vineyard, but there are certainly some locations that are more stunning than others. This is one of them.

This valley is home to 42 wineries, with 15,000 acres of vineyards.

Alexander Valley Vineyards offers free tours of its wine cave. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The Sonoma County tourism website says, “Alexander Valley AVA outlines the path of the Russian River as it flows from Mendocino County southeast to Healdsburg. Over the ages, the river meandered across the valley, leaving deposits of gravel underneath the alluvial soil—ideal conditions for growing great Cabernet Sauvignon, and somewhat similar to the best vineyard soils of Bordeaux. To the west, the AVA includes mountain vineyards where the grapes enjoy million-dollar views.”

The valley is named after Cyrus Alexander. The fur trapper came to this iconic Sonoma County region in the mid-1800s. In 1962, his granddaughter sold the land to Harry and Maggie Wetzel. Their first vintage was in 1975. Today the winery is run by the third generation of Wetzels.

Of the 720 acres the Wetzel family owns, 220 are planted with wine grapes.

On a recent cave tour and tasting the guide was asked how it’s possible to offer free tastings. He smiled and said it’s because with the land being in the family so long the property taxes are so cheap. It’s one way they can give back to those who visit the area.

The original winery has been turned into the tasting room.

On a warm July day it felt good to go into the wine cave. The 25,000-square-foot area is naturally 58 to 62 degrees. While it can hold 8,000 barrels, usually 6,000 fill the space.

Construction on this cave, which is the fifth largest wine cave in the state, started in 1998. Another one is slated to break ground soon. It will connect to the current one, which will then make Alexander Valley Vineyards (AVV) home to the third largest wine cave in California.

Sin Zin is probably what AVV is best known for, but there are so many other varietals that are better. Well, their regular Zinfandel is wonderful, but so too are the Cabernet and Merlot. I also left with a red blend and Chardonnay.

What was so refreshing beyond not having to pay to taste, was the friendly vibe. There was no pressure to purchase anything. The tour in the cave was incredibly informative and interesting, with the education continuing in the tasting room one pour after another.

The tasting room is open every day from 10am to 5pm, with cave tours at noon and 2:30pm.

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