This year marks the 30th anniversary of Suisun Valley as an officially designated American viticultural area.
After all that time, you'd think Suisun Valley would be well-established as a destination for wine explorers eager to discover exciting varietals.
Instead, Suisun Valley vintners are apt to hear, "Where's that?"
Then, "They grow grapes there?"
For the record, Suisun Valley stretches north from Interstate 80 at Fairfield. It's compact, running about six miles north and south, two miles east and west. In addition to about 3,000 acres in wine grapes and around a dozen wineries, it's home to several farm stands, a couple of restaurants and a golf course.
Though wine grapes have been grown in the area since the late 1800s, the region has been slow to develop a reputation as a fine-wine appellation. This identity crisis has nothing to do with Suisun Valley's topography and climate, the quality of its grapes or the nature of its wines.
To the contrary, vintners in such nearby wine valleys as Sonoma and Napa discovered early on that Suisun is quite capable of producing fruit on a par with their own. They grabbed it and then blended the juice into wines that ultimately bore such appellations as "Sonoma Valley," "Napa Valley" and "California," with no prominent recognition given Suisun Valley.
Not until a decade ago did more than just a couple of wineries start to appear in Suisun Valley, and with them, vintners began to talk up the region as a producer of wine as well as a provider of grapes.
Still, "Suisun Valley" on wine labels is relatively rare beyond the valley itself. While more of the valley's grapes are going into wines made in the valley, its fruit also still is cherished by winemakers well beyond Fairfield. This past harvest, for example, Suisun Valley farmers shipped about 500 tons of wine grapes to the East Coast, most of it in fruit boxes of 36 pounds each. The equivalent of another 80 tons made the trip east as juice.
Both grapes and juice were destined primarily to home winemakers, but some also went to commercial wineries. There, an old theme familiar to Suisun Valley growers is being repeated. Much of the juice squeezed from valley grapes ends up in wines bearing an "American" appellation, with no recognition given the small region responsible for the fruit in far-off California.
While this lack of acknowledgment frustrates Suisun Valley partisans, they also appreciate that they've developed an unexpected, lucrative and growing market for their grapes. And they hope, just as growers and vintners before them, that this exposure to Suisun Valley grapes among home and commercial winemakers ultimately will raise the profile of the appellation.
Suisun Valley's unusual ties with East Coast winemakers began about five years ago when a couple of representatives of the Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association attended a trade show in Philadelphia. There, they handed out small plastic cups of young wine made with valley grapes.
Several distributors and home winemakers liked what they tasted and began to ask for grapes and juice. They'd been buying Napa Valley grapes and juice, but prices were rising and supplies were tightening. When they looked at a map, saw how close Fairfield is to Napa, and then looked at how much less costly Suisun Valley grapes were compared with fruit out of Napa Valley, they started to place their orders.
"It's a big deal for us now," says Ron Lanza, who heads up sales and marketing for Wooden Valley Winery & Vineyards in Suisun Valley. He and his three brothers, the third generation of Lanzas to grow grapes and make wine in Suisun Valley, manage 300 acres of vineyards in the appellation. About half the crop they harvest each fall goes east.
Many of the home winemakers to whom he sells grapes in the East are pursuing a long family tradition, but unlike their parents and grandparents, they want their homemade wines to compete with commercially made wines, says Lanza.
"They're the new amateurs," he said. "They don't want to make the rough stuff their grandpa or their dad made. They want a high-end product, the same stuff they can get in stores."
The fruit the Lanzas keep for themselves goes into several varietals and blends marketed under their Wooden Valley and Lanza Family brands.
A standout in their current portfolio is the newly released Wooden Valley Winery & Vineyards 2009 Suisun Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite its youth, the wine is one fully developed cabernet sauvignon.
It's strapping but agile, with a fruitiness suggesting fat, juicy Bing cherries so inviting no one paused to wash off the Suisun Valley dust, which could account for the note of mineral complexity in the wine's jammy flavor. It's a firm wine calling for rich food, but its tannins aren't prohibitively rigid. In its concentration, it speaks to a wine made from mountain fruit, though Suisun Valley isn't exactly mountainous.
About 60 percent of the grapes that went into the wine, however, are from the Koch Vineyard, which at around 80 feet in elevation is about as high as the Suisun Valley appellation goes. The vineyard is at the foot of Twin Sisters, "our resident mountain," says Wooden Valley winemaker Rick Lanza. It's on the east slope of the Vaca Range separating Suisun Valley from Napa Valley, and its reddish volcanic soil contains "tons of rock," says Rick Lanza.
He credits the wine's traditional cabernet structure to the grapes from the higher slopes, and the wine's juicy fruitiness to the 40 percent of the blend from grapes grown on the valley floor. To round out the wine and heighten its complexity, he blended in 8 percent each of merlot and malbec.
By making such a spirited and elegant interpretation of cabernet sauvignon, the Lanzas could be complicating their lives. Not only have the owners of the Koch Vineyard, Maury and Gloria Koch, established their own eponymous brand and released their own cabernet, 1,000 or so boxes of cabernet grapes from the vineyard go to home winemakers along the East Coast each harvest.
So far, however, the Lanzas aren't complaining. The name "Suisun Valley" on each of those boxes, and on another local cabernet sauvignon, can't help but raise the standing of the appellation, they figure.
Wooden Valley Winery & Vineyards
2009 Suisun Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
By the numbers: 14.8 percent alcohol, 385 cases, $18
Context: This is a cabernet sauvignon fitting for a rib-eye steak, prime rib or other substantial cut of beef. It also would match well with two recipes on the winery's website (www.woodenvalley.com) lamb chops on spinach with pine nuts and raisins, and "Nonna's pasta sauce."
Availability: The wine is sold only at the Wooden Valley tasting room, 4756 Suisun Valley Road, Suisun Valley, open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.