magine Napa Valley without the hype or the hefty price tag – the same fabulous wines, beguiling scenery and elegant tasting rooms, but no shortage of parking, no exorbitant tasting fees and no wine snobbery. Welcome to the Suisun Valley.
A ridge of hills is all that separates the Suisun and Napa valleys in Northern California. The Suisun Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) in was designated just 6 months after Napa and boasts a similarly favourable grape-growing terroir. But while Napa ultimately attracted corporate winemakers (and tourists) with very deep pockets, Suisun followed a different star. Many of the valley’s wine growers have been on the land for generations, supplying grapes to wineries elsewhere (including Napa) and making small amounts of wine for local consumers. But it’s hard to keep good wine country a secret and those in the know say that “Napa’s Backside” is getting ready to boom.
Fairfield is the seat of Solano County and hub of the Suisun Valley wine region. It’s a modern town with manicured malls, tidy ranch houses and wide boulevards lined with flowering trees, but cross under the highway and you’ll enter another world as urban streets give way to wine country backroads and the hands of the clock rewind.
The sun is rising over the vineyard, setting purple clusters of grapes aglow as Ron Lanza completes an early morning harvest of a barbera grapes for a client in Wisconsin. Lanza and his three brothers operate Wooden Valley Winery and Vineyards. The original Wooden Valley vineyard was planted just after Prohibition and acquired by their grandfather in 1955. Their top-quality grapes are supplied to winemakers all over the US, including big names like Gallo and Coppola. They also make their own wines in the Italian style – designed for the table and convivial company. Their pretty pink sparkling sirah rosé is a deserved best seller but the standout in their tasting room for me was the Lanza Family Petite Sirah, a smooth dark beauty with rich flavours of jam and plum.
Petite Sirah is the signature grape of the Suisun Valley but the region’s microclimate is ideal for growing many varietals. Suisun Valley is part of the California Coast Ranges, located between the Howell Mountains on the west and the Blue Ridge of the Vaca Mountains on the east. If you could throw a stone over that eastern ridge, it would land in the Napa Valley. Cold nights, high daytime temperatures and a breeze from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that appears like clockwork every afternoon (Suisun means ‘west wind’ in the language of the Patwin Native Americans) are the factors that make this small valley a happy place for grapes.
And Salvador Galvan’s garage winery is a happy place for wine drinkers. Sal and his wife Claudia opened Galvan Family Cellars in 2003. Sal’s wines focus on grapes from unique vineyards so his list is constantly changing. He’s an unconventional winemaker whose talent has been recognized by others in the business – he also makes high-end wines for boutique wineries and has supplied Business Class pours for a major airline. Tasting is a relaxed hands-on affair in the barrel room – a mobile bottling plant was rattling in the parking lot when I visited – and promises some exceptional wines and barrel tasting.
Mangels Family Vineyard tasting room is a cool find, housed in a former plant nursery decorated with funky light fittings made from plumbing fixtures. A sweet-faced lady in a string of pearls welcomes visitors to fourth-generation farmer Gary Mangels’ latest venture. Mangels’ great grandfather planted a vineyard in 1876 and won a Gold Medal prize for his grapes at the Panama-Pacific International Expo in 1915 (the certificate is on the wall). Now winemaker Gina Richmond (daughter of pearl-wearing Lou Ann Oberti) is producing wine from Mangels’ grapes. Behind the tasting room is a garden where local musicians play on weekends. It’s a peaceful place to sit in the shade of a tree and sample Oberti’s wines. Don’t miss the delightful Caora, named for the sheep that graze in the vineyard during winter (Caora means sheep in gaelic), a delicious blend of five white varietals.
Blue Victorian surely is the prettiest winery in the Suisun Valley. The namesake villa, in forget-me-not blue with bay window and white trim, sits among the vines at the end of a driveway lined with pom-pom headed phoenix palms. The former home of the Vezér family is now their tasting room, while the barn out back has been repurposed as the winery, with the barrel room also serving as an event space for weddings and other celebrations. The Vezérs grow 15 varietals and produce just 3,000 cases of wine a year under their Blue Victorian and Vezér labels, most of which are snapped up by members of their wine club and sip-savvy locals. Some of these were unpacking sandwiches from a cooler when I stopped in. Blue Victorian is one of the few wineries in the valley that allow guests to bring their own picnic. With a view of the Twin Sisters Ridge, the soft Delta breeze ruffling the vines and a glass of winemaker Jake Stuessy’s intriguing Estate Verdelho (a nod to the Vezér’s Portuguese/Hungarian roots) in hand, Napa was the last thing on my mind.
GV Cellars, the only winery I visited in the neighbouring Green Valley AVA, is a more rustic setup, harking back to old California, before the wine-tourism boom. The winery is small, with a tasting room upstairs and a covered deck overlooking the vineyard, with the Vaca Mountains in the background. GV grow six varietals and are known for their red wines, especially the Dolcetto and Cabernet Franc, but on a late summer afternoon with the thermometer hitting 30 Celsius, their beautifully dry rose, made from Sangiovese grapes, chilled to crisp perfection, had me going back for seconds – and thirds.
On Friday night, the parking lot at BackRoad Vines spills onto the road as locals pull up in front of a cedar shake bungalow with a wall of wine barrels out back. It’s Trivia Night at the BackRoad tasting room and enthusiastic teams from as far afield as Sacramento are looking forward to some competition with their wine. Other nights are dedicated to food trucks, bocce ball tourneys and wood-fired pizza, all accompanied by Backroads’ portfolio of red and white wines. Looks can be deceiving – this ramshackle winery produced the finest Petite Sirah I tasted during my tour of the Suisun Valley. Made with grapes grown in two vineyards, one dry and one irrigated, the wine had a gorgeous, deep magenta hue and a heady nose of blackberry jam, coffee and cocoa. It delivered a powerful rush of flavour, with a lingering, velvety finish.
Things are about to change in this pleasantly sleepy valley, when Napa rockstar Caymus Wines opens a new winery and tasting room within a mile of the BackRoad, Wooden Valley and Blue Victorian wineries. When Caymus Suisun opens (it was imminent at the time of writing), knowledgeable wine lovers will flock to the Valley and with four tasting rooms open seven days a week, this stretch of Suisun Valley Road will become the nucleus of Solano County wine tourism.
Local winemakers are excited about the new arrival. The nod from Caymus proves what they’ve known all along — the quality of the grapes grown in Suisun and neighbouring Green Valley is exceptional, with Petite Sirah leading the charge. Confident of the varietal’s potential, the Vezér family have already trademarked the moniker “Petite Sirah Capital of the World” for their Blue Victorian winery. And when wine tourists discover the unhurried charm of Napa’s neighbour, there will be no looking back.