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CYRUS ALEXANDER AND THE SCHERRER VINEYARD

Updated: Mar 21


Cyrus Alexander and Jacob Scherrer were drawn to Northern California in the 1800's, but not in search of gold. Instead, each sought the promise of rich farmland and the potential of a better life for each man and the family he hoped to raise.


Dramatic panaroa of vines and mountains
The Scherrer Vineryard, in the heart of the Alexander Valley

Cyrus arrived in Mexican California in 1840 helping to lay a claim to an area he later named "Rancho Sotoyome". Sotoyome included nearly 50,000 acres of land which until the Europeans' arrival had been the territory of the A'shochamai people. "Sotoyome" is the name the Spanish and Mexican forces used for the local people, in addition to "Guapas" and then "Wappos". Alexander's use of the name as an honorific rings hollow. He seems to have had contempt for the A'shochamai, comparing them to animals in his writing, though he depended on their labor at his farms. By 1840, the local population was subject to the same fate as so many indigenous groups in North America. Their numbers had cratered with the introduction of European diseases, missionaries, and the Mexican Army. Many of those who survived suffered inhumane treatment indistinguishable from chattel slavery in the east and south of the country. By the time Jacob arrived fifty years later, the local population of A'shochamai is thought to have been under 100.


Both Cyrus and Jacob chose to settle on a bench of land at the foot of the Mayacamus Ridge, perched high above the Russian River in the valley below. This is the southeast corner of what would come to be the original portion of the Alexander Valley AVA. Each had come from far away; Alexander was born in Pennsylvania but raised in Illinois. He nearly died more than once in the Rockies and the Southwest before making his way and establishing connections that would eventually lead him to San Diego and then Sonoma. Jacob, a Swiss-German immigrant, likely connected with a group of Scherrers of Swiss origin that was already in the area, according to contemporary newspaper reports, but those details seem lost to history.


A drawing of Cyrus Alexander
Cyrus Alexander - image from Thos. H. Thompson Co. 1877 Historical Atlas Map of Sonoma County

Alexander, 38 when he arrived, would live another 32 years in the valley. He built a small fortune and a small community, erecting houses, a school, a church, and more than one barn. He planted orchards and started businesses around milling, tobacco, and tanning. When he passed away in 1872, he left behind a much younger wife, Rufina Alexander who had been just 14 when she married the nearly 40-year-old Cyrus.


By 1899, Jacob Scherrer had been in the US for almost thirty years. He made his way across the ocean and the continent and was living and farming on flatland in Windsor, California but was dissatisfied. His grandson Ed says "he wanted to be able to look out onto the hills like he had back in Switzerland". When a local bank offered a large piece of what had been part of Rancho Sotoyome, he purchased "all he thought he could handle", including 83 acres, a farmhouse, a barn, and at least one 46-year-old fig tree. Each had been built or planted by the Alexander family for their children in 1853. 170 years later, the house, the barn, and the now monumental fig tree are still standing.


Scherrer Family in front of a farmhouse in 1900
Scherrer Family in front of their farmhouse, circa 1900. The young boy is likely Fred Carl Scherrer.

Hay and wheat were the farm's main focus, and of course, all work was done by horse and by hand. Where the hills were too steep and the soil too rocky for either, some vines had been planted five or six years before., including 15 acres of Carignan and Golden Chasselas.


In the first decade of the 1900s, Jacob served as a winemaker at the same local winery; a spot that fermented grapes from all of the mixed-use farms in the area but didn't bottle anything by themselves. Jacob's son Fred recalled packing their grapes onto horse-drawn carriages and hauling them three miles down the hill to be crushed. Before World War I, it was one of only three in existence in the valley. Jacob and Fred were paid 1/2 of an agreed-upon price on delivery of the grapes. The rest was reserved until the final wine was sold that winter to one of three or four buyers who would taste and bid on various lots to make their blends. As this was the "wild-west" of wine, most of these wines were marketed as "Burgundy" or "Sauternes".


Sadly, Jacob Scherrer's time in the Alexander Valley proved to be the exact opposite of Cyrus Alexander's. While Alexander lived for three decades after arriving and had a large family, Jacob died just five years later. The Alexanders had twelve children but suffered loss over and over as seven died young, Jacob and Mathilda's only son, Fred, was born in 1891. He inherited his mother's longevity, living until 1980, and pruning vines well into his 80's.


Upon Jacob's death in 1904, Mathilda went to court to secure the estate in her name. Newspapers reported her success and noted that the property was valued at $5095. Details of her life are scant but her family had also emigrated from Europe years before, sometime in the 1870s. Mathilda pulled Fred out of school as an eighth grader to work with her on the farm full-time. She remarried and oral histories recount that she never stopped working.


In 1978 Fred recalled that his mother came to visit the farm in her old age, even taking a bus up from a retirement community in Santa Rosa as a 94-year-old and spending two weeks making "German cookies" for the family as she always had. It is not hard to imagine that those same cookies coming out of her oven in 1901 or 1902 may have been shared with their neighbors, the Alexanders. Rufina, Cyrus Alexander's widow who was only 14 when she married Cyrus, lived in the region until she passed in 1908.


Frederick Carl Scherrer was 13 when his father passed, a middle schooler who may well have met Cyrus Alexander's wife as a neighbor. He lived until 1980, weathering prohibition, the Great Depression, and two world wars. But long before the Scherrer Vineyard would take its place as one of the oldest in California and one of the only centenarian vineyards owned and farmed by the same family throughout its entire life, Fred had to rip out every grape vine on the property and start from the beginning.


Fin, Part 1


Our tribute to Ed Scherrer, Frederick Carl's son and Fred Scherrer's father, who passed in 2020.




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