Suisun Valley, recognized as one of California’s earliest AVAs in December 1982, is an exceptional area in which to grow and make Petite Sirah. If one travels to Suisun Valley from Napa using what locals call the backroads over Mount George (bonus: avoiding Highways 29, 12, and Interstate 80) and enters via Suisun Valley Road, there is a sign in front of Vezér Family Vineyards’ Blue Victorian Winery declaring, “The Petite Sirah Capital of the world.” The reason? “There are so many expressions based on picking parameters, fermentation technique, and aging,” said Vezér’s winemaker, Jake Stuessy. Vineyard management techniques also play a role. For example, at Wooden Valley Vineyards, under the ownership of the third-generation Lanza family, they incorporate cane pruning rather than spur/cordon for their Petite Sirah and other varieties.
Rather than solely being an AVA that excels at one varietal wine, Suisun Valley’s vision is recognition for the nearly 30 other varieties that the 12 or so wineries grow and produce within its eight-mile long and three-mile-wide AVA. “Like other regions that offer the same diversity, you still need to match up the soils and climate of each parcel of land to the appropriate variety, said Ron Lanza, co-owner of Wooden Valley Winery. Added Roger King of King Andrews Vineyards, whose passion has been growing grapes in Suisun Valley for over 30 years, “Here the diversity of climate zones in this compact little AVA allows broad conditions to grow and produce whites like cool-climate Albariño, mid-climate Chenin Blanc, to warm-climate Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, even Assyrtiko.”
King grows and makes a number of varieties in addition to Petite Sirah, including Cabernet Sauvignon, late-harvest Zinfandel, Maya’s Red Blend Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and Six Pac, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Trousseau, Grenache and Vermentino, which he describes as a “wild and freelance co-fermented field blend.” A must-try is the estate Albariño from his McMullin Block planting. One bottling is a traditional still version. The other lot he bottled directly from tank at end of fermentation and sealed it with a crown cap that captured tiny amounts of CO2, rendering a delightful effervescent wine.
Fah Sathirapongsasuti, winemaker at Sunset Cellars – which relocated to Suisun Valley in 2007 because of the grape quality, grower relationships, and sense of community – enjoys making Syrah and Charbono. According to Sathirapongsasuti, Suisun Valley Syrah develops savory and spicy characters similar to that of The Rocks District in Walla Walla, Washington, or France’s Rhône Valley. As to Charbono, “It has the bright blue and dark fruit characters and the deep purple color of Petite Sirah, but it tends to have low tannins, low alcohol, and light body. We joke that it is Petite Sirah without the attitude, “he said with a smile.
Lisa Howard, winemaker and co-owner of Tolenas Family Vineyards, and her family own a Pinot Noir vineyard at their hospitality location (Howard’s former childhood home) in the south end of Suisun Valley with the marine influence of the Suisun Bay. She makes two Pinot Noir wines from this vineyard planted by her father, winegrower and winemaker Steve Tenbrink, when she was in high school. The first is Eclipse White Pinot Noir Clone 667, which she presses and ferments without any skin contact. The other is Totality, a traditional Clone 777 Pinot Noir. “These wines both shine in their uniqueness and show the range of wonderful wines that can be made with a well-farmed Pinot Noir vineyard,” said Howard. She also enjoys making Zinfandel from their uppermost vineyard near their home due to its head-trained vines and dry farming, whose grapes she picks early to maintain a balance of freshness and richness.
At Wooden Valley Winery, the Lanzas are successful at growing and making varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, in addition to Petite Sirah and other varieties. “In 2009 we stared planting Italian varietals to meet the demand of our East Coast grape sales that lead us to some fantastic wines such as Barbera, Primitivo, and Sangiovese Those three are definitely my current favorites,” shared Lanza.
At Vezér, whose flagship grape is Petite Sirah, Stuessy has discovered other favorites to make. One is Sauvignon Blanc, which shows Suisun Valley expressiveness and low-sugar ripeness. He also enjoys experimenting with Syrah and Mourvèdre, adding, “The more hands-off, the truer to nature I find them to be.” Another is Verdelho, which reveals new flavors and capabilities that vary from vintage to vintage. Last, but not least, he makes a Merlot with “brooding fruit, earthy souls, classic cocoa tannins.”
The aforementioned sign in front of Vezér also says, “Napa’s backside is taking shape.” While humorous, Suisun Valley is not the backside, but rather, its own small and mighty, special place. Suisun Valley has upped its game, and it shows in the breadth and depth of winegrowing and winemaking, as well as its tight-knit and vibrant community. “From Albariño to Zinfandel, our little valley has the full gamut of opportunity for winemakers. There is a perfect place to plant each variety,” affirmed Howard. “There’s no better time to experience the diversity that is Suisun Valley.”
Dr. Elizabeth Smith is a former college professor and wine club manager turned award-winning wine writer and wine and writing competition judge. Her day job is wine and winemaker copywriter at Naked Wines USA. Elizabeth is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International Sacramento and Sonoma Chapters, the Circle of Wine Writers and the Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. Connect with Elizabeth at easmith.net/contact.
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