Are you familiar with California’s Suisun Valley AVA? We weren’t until we drove an alternate route home from Napa Valley that took us over the mountains south of Napa’s Atlas Peak AVA, to Wooden Valley Road, Suisun Valley Road and through picturesque Mankas Corner before joining Hwy 12 in Fairfield. It was the Welcome to Suisun Valley AVA sign that was the giveaway that we were in a new-to-us wine region. I admit I knew nothing about the region or when it was established.
Thanks to the Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association, who assembled a selection of Petite Sirah as tasting samples, we have been introduced to Suisun Valley and a variety they are particularly proud of. We are excited to share our tasting notes and what we have learned about he region.
Welcome to Suisun Valley AVA
Suisun Valley AVA sits west and north of the city of Fairfield and east of Solano County Green Valley AVA. Its northern boundary ends at the Napa County line and is bound by the marshlands of Suisun Bay to the south. The valley lies between a bifurcation of the Northern Coast Ranges with the Mount George Range to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the east. The roughly rectangular AVA is eight miles long and three miles across at its widest.
The southern end of the Suisun Valley AVA is significantly cooler than the northern end thanks to the constant breezes that blow in from San Francisco’s San Pablo Bay between May and early fall. Three distinct climate zones have been identified within the AVA. Suisun Bay mitigates frost risk in the southern end of the region.
Four soil types have been identified on the valley floor: Brentwood clay loam, Rincon clay loam, San Ysidro sandy loam and Sycamore silty loam. The climate is described as Mediterranean.
The Suisun Valley AVA was established on December 27, 1982, making it California’s 12th viticultural area, and it was included in the larger California North Coast AVA in 1983 when it was established. The AVA is comprised of about 15,000 acres with approximately 3,000 acres planted to vines. More than 28 grape varieties are grown in the AVA, which is best know for its Petite Sirah and aromatic white wines. 12 wineries are located in Suisun Valley AVA, most of which are family owned.
What you see when driving down from the mountains into the northern end of the valley are dense oak forests that become rolling hills dotted with oaks and ranches. Vineyards appear almost immediately. Gradually, the land flattens as you drive south and vineyards become more common along with a variety of other agricultural crops framed by the hills and oaks. You will notice a few wineries, signs for estate-grown olive oil and farm stands. You definitely know you are in farm country, not the city, until agriculture gives way to the city of Fairfield.
The names Suisun (pronounced Sue-Soon) and Solano take us back to the area’s early history. When the Spanish arrived the wider region north of the bay was inhabited by Native Americans called Patwin. The Suisun were a local band of the Patwin and lived in a village near Suisun Bay. A Suisune named Sem-Yeto took (was given) the name Francisco Solano when he was baptized as a boy. Solano went on to be called Chief Solano and it is after him that Solano County is named.
The Bella Vista Ranch website gives a very good history of local Native American history that tracks with what I’ve read elsewhere. And Bella Vista Ranch is located in Suisun Valley AVA. I appreciate that Bella Vista Ranch begins its history by stating that it “was once part of the ancestral lands of the Suisun Indians.”
Let’s Taste Suisun Valley Petite Sirah
2018 Caymus-Suisun Gran Durif Petite Sirah, Suisun Valley — dark ruby with generous aromas of ripe plums and alfalfa hay. Concentrated flavors of ripe blackberries and plums are backed by earthy notes and baking spices. Tannins are fine and drying in a medium body. The finish is long. 15% abv. SRP $60
Caymus is a well-recognized name in Napa Valley Cabernet. Caymus Vineyards was established in 1972 by Charlie Wagner (whose family history in Napa dates to 1906), his wife Lorna Belle Glos (her family history in the Napa Valley goes back to 1885) and their son, Chuck. For thirty years the three managed Caymus. Chuck and his children now manage Caymus along with several wine labels including Conundrum, Mer Soleil, Red Schooner, Emmolo and Caymus-Suisun.
2018 Mangels Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah — dark ruby with generous aromas of red fruit and dried flower stems. Flavors include plums, blackberrries, dark cherries and cocoa. Tannins are drying in a medium body with juicy acidity. This lovely wine is the lightest style of the group. 14.5% abv. SRP $35
The Mangels’ family history in Suisun Valley reaches back to 1876 when Louis Mangels purchased 240 acres of land and planted grapes. Louis had only immigrated to the US from Germany with his parents in 1866 at the age of 14. His vineyard planting was one of the first, if not the first, in Suisun Valley.
Gary Mangels, great-grandson of Louis, established Mangels Vineyard in 2009 after purchasing land in 1988 and planting vines in 1991. Winemaker Gina Richmond is also the fourth-generation of her family to live in Suisun Valley. The rest of the interesting Mangels family history is told on the Mangels Vineyards website.
2016 Tenbrink Vineyards Estate Grown Petite Sirah — dense ruby-garnet with generous aromas of black currants, blueberry jam and dried orangepeel. Flavors are concentrated and include blueberries, dark cherries and dried herbs with notes of cedar and leather. Tannins are grippy in a medium+ body. The finish is very long. This wine has aged very nicely. 15.5% abv. There is one Petite Sirah listed on the winery’s website under Coming Soon, so stay tuned for that release.
Steve and Linda Tenbrink started farming with no experience. Steve started with a variety of fruit trees, then a rather large heirloom tomato project, walnuts and finally grapes. And now, rather than just selling their grapes, they also make wine thanks to a connection made with a well-respected winemaker over those heirloom tomatoes. You must read the details on the Tenbrink Winery website; they tell the story so well. Winemaking employs native yeast fermentations and minimal sulfur additions.
2017 Suisun Creek Winery Estate Grown Petite Sirah — dense ruby with generous aromas of red and dark fruit, alfalfa hay and cocoa powder. Flavors include dried plums, leather, ripe blackberries cocoa and baking spices. Tannins are grippy in an medium+ body. The finish is very long. 16% abv. (The 2018 Estate Grown Petite Syrah is available on the winery website, SRP $44.)
Brian Babcock cares for the vines and makes the wine for his family’s Suisun Creek Winery. When the farm was purchased by Brian’s father over 35 years ago, it was home to cherry, prune and pear orchards; now the farm is planted to Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdellho, Charbono, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
2018 Wooden Valley Winery Lanza Family Petite Sirah — dense ruby with generous aromas of ripe plums, blackberries and dried dill. Flavors of blueberries and blackberry jam are supported by dried dill and dusty earth. Tannins are grippy in a medium + body. The finish is long and warming. 16.2% abv.
When Mario Lanza became sole owner of Wooden Valley Winery in 1955, he promised brothers Salvador and Manuel Brea, with whom he had founded the winery in 1933, that he wouldn’t change the name of the winery. True to his word, the winery retains the original name even if the road for which it was named, and on which it is located, has changed from Wooden Valley Road to Suisun Valley Road.
Mario and Lena Lanza’s son Richard “Chick” worked with his parents in the winery and was the winemaker for 23 years. Now Chick and Adrienne Lanza’s four sons work with them in Wooden Valley Winery. Rick is winemaker with Ron assists him in winemaking and handing sales and marketing. Larry and Ken manage the family’s vineyards. The very definition of a family winery. In 2017 Richard “Chick” Lanza was honored by Solano County Board of Supervisors for leading the petition for the Suisun Valley AVA.
Suisun Valley AVA describes itself as rustic wine country. I think that means your tasting experience will be authentic and represent the region’s rural character. The wineries here are mostly family owned and in some cases by families that have lived and farmed in Suisun Valley for several generations. The Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association’s website has a lots of geeky information about the region. Consult the Suisun Valley website to help you plan your visit. I think it’s definitely time to plan a trip to Suisun Valley AVA, not just a drive through it!
Thanks to this Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association for this delicious introduction to your region.