It’s odd that Napa Valley wine drinkers, who can name grape varieties popular in South Africa and name small wine appellations in France, haven’t a clue that right next store, there’s a bona fide wine-growing appellation that’s producing some mighty tasty red and white wines.
The adjacent appellation is Suisun Valley. And if you said “Sue-is-son” you are just following your instincts. But you are wrong.
Locals pronounce it the same as that hair guy – Sassoon - with a little bit more of a “Suh” on the front note. So it sounds like “Suh-soon Valley.”
For the record, it’s where we get the fruit to make our trendy Manifesto! Sauvignon Blanc (see the story elsewhere on this site); it’s where Clos du Bois gets Chardonnay for its North Coast program; it’s where Kendall-Jackson and Sebastiani have long sought inexpensive, ripe fruit.
Suisun Valley, which means “west wind” in an old Indian dialect, is probably the most difficult to pronounce wine appellation in America. It officially became an AVA (American Viticultural Area) 25 years ago, yet few consumers have ever heard of the 8-mile long by 3-mile wide valley that lies adjacent to Napa Valley, on its southeastern flank.
But that’s about to change if Roger King has anything to say about it. He’s president of the Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association and a long time grower of grapes in the valley. (He farms 21 acres and pulls off 80 tons of fruit annually, to be exact.)
The association recently decided to build Suisun Valley into a recognized brand, starting by offering free tastings of local wines in a Coop environment. Sunset Cellars, a local winery, took over the space of a defunct winery, turning it into a tasting room where about half the appellation’s 13 wine producers are pouring their wines.
The tasting room officially opened June 11, 2007 and throughout this first summer will be open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 pm. There is no intention, at this time, to charge for the tasting. Association members feel that if anyone makes the pilgrimage to Suisun, they deserve a free tasting!
The Suisun Valley Coop Tasting Room is about 30 minutes from downtown Napa.
The five brands supporting the venture at this point are wines you’ve probably never seen: Sunset Cellars, Twilight Ridge, King Andrews Vineyards, Shale Peak Vineyards, and Winterhawk. Most of these wines retail in the $15-18 range and offer zippy flavors, integrated wood, and a pleasurable finish.
Grapes have been grown in the Suisun Valley for more than a century. Today, the appellation covers more than 15,000 arable acres, though only 2,000 are planted with vines, according to SVGGA president King.
“About 45 percent of the grapes planted are white, mostly Chardonnay, though there are the odd lots of Pinot Gris and Albarino (aka Alvarinho),” says King. “The rest is red – mostly Cabernet, though some growers are tinkering with Rhone varieties and having early success with them.”
I tasted the efforts of one such producer, Ted Osborne, whose 2004 Olabisi Syrah was my favorite wine of the tasting arranged for me.
100 percent Syrah from a vineyard farmed by Roger King. Rich aromas of earth and dark ripe fruit lift from the glass. There is deep extraction here, lots of spice and dark cherry in the middle palate, and great depth of flavor on the finish. This is a serious Syrah but doesn’t cost like one - $30 retail. I scored the wine 91 points.
To give you an idea of how good this wine really is – it was chosen for the wine list at Gary Danko, one of San Francisco’s very top dining rooms.
“We sold through the case,” says Gary Danko sommelier Jason Alexander. “I thought the wine was really good and I was very excited by what they’re doing in Suisun Valley.”
My other runner-up favorite wines of the tasting:
2003 King Andrews, Ledgewood Vineyards, Syrah. A very compelling $16 wine, though it’s pedigree is a bit quirky – 83 percent ripe Syrah fruit, 16 percent zippity-do-dah high alcohol Zinfandel and a smidgeon of Pinot Gris. I thought the wine had a decent attack, a rich dark cherry interior and a suitably rich finish. I scored this a 90 pointer.
2003 Twilight Ridge Petite Sirah. Spicy, racy, has a Zin-like quality, lots of blackberry notes and – thankfully – no new wood. I scored this pleasing $18 wine 89 points.
If you make the trek to Suisun Valley from anywhere in the Bay-area, don’t be shocked by what you find, or more likely by what you don’t find. This tiny appellation has none of the cache, hype or Louis Vuitton-age elements of Napa Valley. For that matter, it’s not even as built up as the most elemental back roads of Sonoma County where you will find $4 million wineries.
We’re talking basic, elementary, earthy, honest, sincere, REAL folks in a rural setting and the biggest urban center in the valley, Mankas Corner, is little more than three shops on the corner of intersecting country roads.
Think Napa Valley in 1966 and you will get the picture. But what a lovely picture. A veritable Kodak moment worth getting on digital. So bring your camera when you visit.
Suisun Valley Grape Grower’s Association Co-op Tasting Room, 4495 Suisun Valley Rd., Fairfield (for GPS purposes). Open Fri., Sat., Sun., noon to 5 pm. Tel. 707-864-3135.