When I first got wind that Chuck Wagner and family, of Napa’s Caymus winery, were building a massive new tasting compound in Suisun Valley, which I wrote about this week, I was surprised.
Suisun Valley, if you haven’t heard of it (few wine lovers have!) is a small area adjacent to Napa Valley, in neighboring Solano County. It’s been an American Viticultural Area for 40 years, but has just six wineries — well, seven now. None has widespread recognition. The arrival of a globally famous brand like Caymus in such a low-profile wine region might initially seem confusing. Why go to Suisun when you’ve already got a home in Rutherford?
But we shouldn’t be surprised by these sorts of moves anymore. The Caymus-Suisun story is merely one example of an increasingly common migration pattern in California. As Napa, the center of American wine, grows more crowded and more expensive, vintners are pushing out to the perimeters. And that creates opportunities, as well as challenges, for the perimeters themselves.
In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the satellite-wine-region story has become a veritable sub-genre of California wine writing.
It’s the story of Livermore, a region rich in wine history that’s struggling to be taken seriously. Of Lodi, where top winemakers priced out of Napa are buying vineyards. Of Lake County, where a Napa grape mogul is trying to create a market for luxury Cabernet.
Sometimes the forces pushing vintners to lesser-known wine regions are economic. Vineyard land in Napa Valley, after all, can cost more than $300,000 an acre, experts have told us. Who can afford that? Other times, the motivation is environmental, which usually means moving closer and closer to the Pacific Ocean, whether that’s in San Luis Obispo, Point Reyes or Bodega Bay.
Climate change does not seem to have factored into the Caymus-Suisun formulation as much as bureaucracy did. Napa Valley isn’t merely expensive — it’s also strictly regulated, requiring winery and vineyard owners to jump through a lot more hoops in order to do business. Wagner has never been shy about expressing his belief that Napa’s rules for wineries are excessive, and he told me he was drawn to Solano County in part because of its more business-friendly atmosphere.
Yet when I spoke with him, he also seemed drawn to the openness of Suisun Valley in a more elemental way, as if he’s settling the unspoiled wilderness. Last week, as Wagner drove me up a steep hill at Caymus-Suisun in an ATV so that I could get a good view of the valley, he addressed this explicitly. “California is still an open menu,” he said. “It hasn’t been fully exploited. So many areas with coastal conditions and good soils are still unknown.”
He’s exploited some parts of it already, notably Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands, where he established Mer Soleil winery in 1988. (Not that he was the first to get there; a winemaking renaissance had begun in the Santa Lucia Highlands in the previous decade.)
As Wagner waxed, several times, about how much Suisun reminded him of “how Napa used to be,” it wasn’t hard to sense his deep nostalgia for the Napa of his childhood. His family farmed prunes. His dad made homemade wine. Times were simpler. Napa was still an open menu.
Now, Napa is very much a fixed menu: The soils are mapped, the microclimates known, the ideal grape varieties chosen, and the prices set. And as long as it remains so, wine writers like me will have plenty of material for keeping alive the satellite-wine-region subgenre.
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