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by Ken Zinns

After taking a few wine courses through UC Extension in the early '90s, Bay Area architect Ken Zinns developed a serious interest wine. Ken has been touring and tasting wines for nearly 20 years, and has come to love not only the wines, but also the people behind them. Ken's interest in wine is more than passive, and he's been working at several urban East Bay wineries since 2001, and is the assistant winemaker for both Eno Wines in Berkeley and Harrington Wine in San Francisco.

Solano County - November 2013


Egan Cellars / Galvan Family Cellars
Forlorn Hope Wines
Ledgewood Creek Winery
Vezér Family Vineyard / Wasted Grape / Stuessy Cellars
Wooden Valley Winery

Most people familiar with California wine know about the wines of Green Valley…or do they? What many don’t realize is that there are not one but two Green Valley wine regions in California. There’s the well-known Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA, but that’s not the oldest Green Valley appellation in the state. Established one year earlier in 1982, Solano County Green Valley was the original Green Valley AVA in California. Along with its neighbor, Suisun Valley – also recognized in 1982 – these two growing regions in Solano County are little-known, yet they both actually border the Napa Valley AVA and share much in common with that famed region.

I had time for a day-trip after the 2013 crush season was over, and took the opportunity to explore the wines of Solano County Green Valley and Suisun Valley. I also visited a couple of vintners there who source much of their fruit from other areas although they do buy some local grapes as well – Egan Cellars and Forlorn Hope Wines. I had hoped to visit Elyse Egan Perry of Egan Cellars and Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope earlier in the year, but we weren’t able to coordinate our schedules at that time. Things worked out this time – a good thing since Elyse was preparing to move away very shortly afterwards.

Green Valley is the westernmost of the two Solano County growing areas, just across the mountains from southern Napa Valley – it’s actually less than 10 miles from downtown Napa. Just to the east is larger Suisun (pronounced soo-soon) Valley, which runs from relatively flat countryside near the city of Fairfield on the south to warmer and hillier land extending into the Vaca Mountains. These areas are roughly as far south as the Napa Carneros region, but being farther from San Pablo Bay, they don’t get quite as cool as that area. Still, the southern portions of both AVAs do feel the Bay influence (Suisun is said to be an Indian name meaning “west wind”) while things warm up noticeably the farther north you go – sort of miniature Napa Valleys in that respect. Soils are similar to those in parts of Napa Valley as well.

The area’s fertile soils and mild climate led to plenty of agricultural uses over the years, and fruits, grains, and legumes have been grown there. Viticulture in the region dates back to the 19th century, though as in so many areas, Prohibition meant the end for most grape-growers. Winegrape production has been slow to recover. Even today, many growers in the two appellations sell most or all of their fruit to wineries outside of the region, mainly to those in Napa and Sonoma – nearly always that fruit has been used in larger blends so that few know of the Solano County connection. It’s only recently that local wineries have been making any impact, and there are still only a relative handful of them (barely 20 in the entire county). Suisun Valley has a small Vintners & Growers Association, while Solano County Green Valley still lacks such an organization. But in addition to these wineries, we’ve been seeing more producers from elsewhere source fruit from these Solano appellations and proudly label their origins, including wines from Broc Cellars, Rock Wall, Rosenblum, and Rock Wren, slowly raising the prominence of these growing regions.

And a major Napa player soon will be moving into the area – Caymus recently gained approval for a large winery near Fairfield and they plan to begin construction in 2014. Being built mainly to reduce the production load in their Napa Valley facility, the first phase will be over 100,000 square feet, and future phases over the next few years will double the size and increase the capacity to 32,000 tons of fruit and 5 million gallons of wine. Production will mainly be for the Meiomi, Mer Soleil, Conundrum and Belle Glos labels, all owned by Caymus’ Wagner family. The Wagners are already buyers of Solano County fruit, and they’re looking to plant up to 50 acres of Zinfandel and red Rhône grape varieties in the area. It could well be a sign of things to come for the Solano County wine region.

Monday - November 18, 2013

Egan Cellars / Galvan Family Cellars

I had an easy drive from Oakland along Interstate 80 on a cool Monday morning. My first stop of the day was at GV Cellars, a few miles west of Fairfield and in the heart of the Solano County Green Valley AVA. I wandered into the winery building and quickly located Elyse, as well as Sal Galvan of Galvan Family Cellars. Sal has made the GV Cellars wines and started his own custom crush business (Galvan Wine Services) there a few years ago – Elyse’s Egan Cellars is one of their custom crush clients. In addition to making wine for her own label, Elyse has been the assistant winemaker for both GV Cellars and Galvan. Both Elyse and Sal are now in the process of moving to different locations. The day of my visit was actually one of the last days there for Elyse – she and her husband Jeff would soon be moving to Lodi, where Elyse found a new position as assistant winemaker at Bokisch Vineyards. And Sal will be moving his operation into a Green Valley facility of his own in 2014.

Tasting Notes: Barrel Samples & Current Releases

Egan 2013 Albariño, Terra Alta Vineyard, Lodi (barrel sample). Made entirely in neutral oak. Light yellow color, with bright citrus aromas plus herbs and a stony mineral note. Medium-bodied with a moderately creamy texture and a crisp finish, this should turn out very nicely.

Egan 2013 Vermentino, Las Lomas Vineyard, Carneros (barrel sample). Made entirely in neutral oak, with some lees-stirring. Slightly cloudy light straw color, this had less upfront fruit than the Albariño, but showed some stone fruit and earth elements. Medium weight on the palate with fine acidity and a bright finish.

Galvan 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Russo Family Vineyard, Solano County Green Valley (barrel sample). About ? of the fruit was left on the skins for 48 hours, made in neutral and one-year old barrels. Light yellow color, this showed lots of spice on the nose along with characteristic grapefruit and herb notes. Richer mouthfeel than many Sauvignon Blancs, with a slightly rough finish that should smooth out with more time in barrel.

Egan 2013 Verdelho, Capp Family Vineyard, Suisun Valley (barrel sample). Tasted from a stainless steel drum. Cloudy light straw color, this was fruit-forward and slightly sweet – still not quite finished fermentation – and featured stone fruit and spice. Fairly full-bodied, with a long finish.

Galvan 2013 Chardonnay, Bacigalupi Vineyard, Russian River Valley (barrel sample). Made in about 50% new oak. Light yellow color, this was also still finishing fermentation and slightly sweet, with apple, pear, vanilla, and spice. Rich and creamy on the palate, with good balancing acidity and a tasty finish, nice.

Egan 2013 Tempranillo, Liberty Oaks Vineyard, Lodi (barrel sample). Medium reddish-purple, displaying earth, plum, black pepper, and dried herb aromas. Medium-bodied with plenty of structure, this should be a winner with more barrel age.

Girl on the Hill 2013 Red Wine, Solano County (barrel sample). Blend of mostly Malbec and Petite Sirah, with about 5% Zinfandel. Dark color, with ripe boysenberry and darker fruit, spice, and pepper notes. Big and fairly rich, with a moderately grippy tannic finish.

Egan 2013 Graciano, Terra Alta Vineyard, Lodi (barrel sample). Medium-dark color, showing somewhat reductive funky/earthy aromas at this early stage, but with darker berry and mineral components showing through. Medium weight with moderately big tannins.

Egan 2012 Graciano, Terra Alta Vineyard, Lodi (barrel sample). Medium purple color, this featured bright wild berry and plum fruit, herbs, earth, and a touch of smoke on the nose. Medium-full bodied with great acidity and moderately grippy tannins on the lively finish, nice.

Egan 2013 Sangiovese, Las Brisas Vineyard, Carneros (barrel sample). Medium color, with earthy and gamey elements upfront, plus dark cherry fruit and spice. Medium weight on the palate, with a slightly tart finish with plenty of tannic structure – an intriguing barrel sample that showed promise.

Galvan 2013 Cabernet Franc, Russo Family Vineyard, Solano County Green Valley (barrel sample). Dark color, aromas of dark berry fruit, tobacco, and touches of pepper and flowers on the nose. Medium-full bodied with a lively texture and big, chewy tannins – this should be quite nice with more age.

Galvan 2010 Gamay Noir, Solano County Green Valley. About 50% of the fruit underwent carbonic maceration. Medium color, with bright red berry fruit, spice, and a touch of earth. Very lively and fresh, with mild tannins and a tasty finish, nice.

Galvan 2011 “Viejo,” Solano County Green Valley. From Wirth Ranch, 54% Zinfandel, 16% Syrah, 16% Gamay Noir, 14% Petite Sirah, aged in puncheons, about 50% new. Medium color, showing lots of spice along with boysenberry and blueberry fruit and a touch of vanilla/oak. Medium-bodied with a moderately grippy finish.

GV Cellars 2011 “Super Rosso,” Solano County Green Valley. 56% Sangiovese, 27% Syrah, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. Medium color, this displayed bright black cherry and plum fruit, along with touches of herbs and earth. Medium-full bodied with chewy tannins on the finish that could use more time to resolve.

Galvan 2011 “The Sweet Spot,” Solano County Green Valley. 70% Dolcetto, 30% Gamay Noir, about 0.7% residual sugar. Medium color, with cherry and raspberry notes plus a notable eucalyptus/mint component. Medium-full bodied, the slightly sweet finish helped offset firm tannins.

I’d first met Elyse while helping to bottle wine with Ed Kurtzman in San Francisco – she was one of Ed’s main winery interns a few years ago. Since then, she’s returned the favor by helping to bottle at Harrington Wines, where I work part-time. Elyse grew up in New York, but she and Jeff lived in San Francisco for 17 years until her recent move to Lodi. I’ve kept in touch with her as she worked her way up the winery ladder, going from Ed’s winery to Bin to Bottle in Napa and then GV Cellars. And I was excited to see her launch her own Egan label with a very good Albariño and Tempranillo from the 2011 vintage. Fruit for both of these wines came from vineyards farmed by Markus Bokisch in Lodi – he’s one of the area’s finest growers and winemakers. So although Elyse has diversified her fruit sources over the past two years, it’s fitting that she is now working with Markus and Liz Bokisch. Production is growing slowly but remains small, with only about 500 case this year.

I had not met Sal before, but it turned out he was friends with Sasha Verhage of Eno Wines, another one of my part-time winery jobs. After growing up in Sacramento, Sal discovered Napa Valley wines while in his early twenties. Like Elyse, he worked his way up from positions at tasting rooms and cellar rat jobs – with stops in El Dorado County and at Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda – before becoming assistant winemaker at Napa’s Chateau Potelle Winery. Sal and his wife Claudia launched Galvan Family Cellars in 2002, and also started their Galvan Wine Services business for vineyard management, wine consulting, and custom crush clients. They currently consult for and manage about 60 acres of vineyards, and strive for sustainable farming practices. The winery is now producing around 3,000 cases per year.

I followed Elyse and Sal into the barrel room, where we sampled a selection of both their wines in barrel, going back and forth between their labels from the lighter whites to bigger reds rather than tasting through each of their wines separately. Many of the barrel samples were brand new ones from the 2013 vintage. It’s always tough to judge wines at this very early stage of their development, as some are going through malolactic fermentation (or even still finishing their primary fermentation), or show the funky phases wines often go through in barrel. Even so, it was instructive to check out the direction that the new wines from these two vintners are headed.

Egan Cellars started out specializing in Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties, but is now branching out into Italian varieties as well, with Albariño, Verdelho, Vermentino, Sangiovese, Graciano, and Tempranillo either released or in the works. Although 2013 is only the third year of production for Egan, Elyse has already been making subtle changes in her winemaking. Her 2011 Albariño was made entirely in stainless steel, the 2012 was 50% each stainless and neutral oak, while the 2013 is being made in 100% neutral barrels – the change has given the wine more body and texture. Red wine production is changing too – the 2011 Tempranillo was made in both French and American oak (though not in new barrels), and Elyse told me that she is moving away from American oak and using more Eastern European oak now. Beginning with the 2012 wines, everything is fermented with native yeast. In addition to the fruit from various Bokisch vineyard sources in Lodi, Elyse buys Vermentino and Sangiovese from Francis Mahoney’s vineyards in Carneros.

With her move to Lodi, I asked Elyse about how she was handling her wines currently in barrel. She said that she’ll bottle her 2012 reds and 2013 whites at GV Cellars, then move the remaining 2013 red barrels to Bokisch. She’s looking forward to sourcing other interesting grape varieties from the Lodi area, with so many available from noted growers such as Ron Silva of Silvaspoons Vineyard.

Sal’s winemaking for Galvan Family Cellars includes native yeast fermentations and unfined, unfiltered wines. Most fruit comes from Solano County and from Napa Valley, and we tasted a new Chardonnay from Bacigalupi Vineyard in Russian River Valley as well. One source from Solano County Green Valley is Russo Family Vineyard, which also sells to some well-known producers including Coppola and Caymus. Other locally-grown grapes include Gamay Noir, from dry-farmed hillside vines planted in 1948. Is this real Gamay Noir, as opposed to the more common Valdiguié found in the region, which has often been mistaken for Gamay? Tough to tell, and a couple of vintners I spoke with who work with Gamay Noir expressed their doubts. Regardless, the fruit makes nice wine, and the Galvan 2010 Gamay Noir was one of my favorites of the bottled wines I tried with Elyse and Sal at the GV Cellars tasting room after our barrel tasting. In addition to barrel samples of Sal’s own Galvan wines, we tasted a red blend he makes for Girl on the Hill, a label owned by Dan Schwartz and his wife Denise Revel. Their 2,600-foot elevation vineyard on Mt. Vaca includes Zinfandel, Malbec and Petite Sirah (Sal said the vine cuttings came from famed Napa grower John Caldwell).

The Galvan Family Cellars line-up includes Sauvignon Blanc, and Mourvèdre/Syrah Rosé, Gamay Noir, Zinfandel (from Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak in Napa), Cabernet Sauvignon, and several red blends featuring these varieties as well as Petite Sirah, Dolcetto, and Sangiovese. Sal also has a label called In Cahoots – these wines have been made in conjunction with GV Cellars and with fellow Solano County winemaker Jake Stuessy. Sal suggested that I visit Jake while I was in the area, and he called and made an afternoon appointment for me – a great example of the cooperation that goes along with competition among many small wineries in California.

I’d planned to just taste with Elyse the morning of my visit, so it was an unexpected bonus to meet and taste with Sal as well. I liked several of Sal’s wines, particularly the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc barrel samples and the 2010 Gamay Noir. I realized that I need to try more of his wines, and I’ll have to return to Green Valley to check them out. Elyse is off to a fine start with Egan Cellars. I’ve been particularly impressed with her white wines – she picks fruit on the early side to retain acidity while still bringing out the aromatics, and her new 2013 white barrel samples were already showing well. Elyse’s whites show a food-friendly style that carries over to her red wines as well – the 2013 Tempranillo and 2012 Graciano were standouts. This was a fun visit for me, and it will be worth watching both the Egan and Galvan labels as they develop and grow in their new locations.

Forlorn Hope Wines

I said goodbye to Elyse and Sal, and headed a few miles east toward Fairfield. Turning onto a small side road that dead-ended just short of the I-80 freeway, I drove up to the large red barn of Tenbrink Vineyards. Linda and Steve Tenbrink own the winery, and also host some custom crush clients there. Scholium Project makes their wine there, as does Forlorn Hope Wines. I was due to meet Forlorn Hope’s Matthew Rorick, and ran into Scholium Project’s Abe Schoener (who’s also the winemaker for Tenbrink) while I was looking around for Matthew. I found Matthew and his assistant Julia in back of the winery building, with a number of their 2013 barrels lined up to pull samples for lab tests and for topping.

Tasting Notes: Barrel Samples

Forlorn Hope 2013 Alvarelhão, Silvaspoons Vineyard, Alta Mesa (barrel sample).
Press lot. Medium purple color, with earthy plum and herb aromas. Medium-full bodied with a grippy tannic finish.

Forlorn Hope 2013 Alvarelhão, Silvaspoons Vineyard, Alta Mesa (barrel sample). Free run. Medium purple color, this had much brighter aromas plus a floral component I didn’t pick up in the press wine. Medium weight and lively on the palate, with less intense tannins than the previous sample.

Forlorn Hope 2013 St. Laurent, Ricci Vineyard, Carneros (barrel sample). Medium-dark color, showing some eucalyptus notes along with gamey, earthy dark fruits. Medium-bodied with a spicy element that came out more in the mouth and finish.

Forlorn Hope 2013 St. Laurent, Ricci Vineyard, Carneros (barrel sample). From a different barrel. Dark color, with less obvious eucalyptus on the nose, featuring more upfront fruit and a savory, herbal component. Somewhat fuller-bodied than the previous sample, the parts of this one were better-integrated – should develop into a distinctive wine.

Forlorn Hope 2013 Verdelho, Vista Luna Vineyard, Borden Ranch (barrel sample). Very light color, displaying tropical fruit and herbs, plus some malolactic fermentation notes. Fairly rich texture on the palate.

Forlorn Hope 2013 Chardonnay, Estate Vineyard, Calaveras County (tank sample). Light yellow color, this had apple and lemonpeel aromas along with a chalky mineral component. Medium weight with bright acidity and crisp finish, nice.

Forlorn Hope 2013 Viognier, Estate Vineyard, Calaveras County (barrel sample). Fermented on the skins for about two weeks. Light color and slightly cloudy with an orange tinge, this showed lemon and spice on the nose. Medium-bodied with a chalky texture on the finish, quite distinctive.

Forlorn Hope 2013 Pinot Gris, Estate Vineyard, Calaveras County (barrel sample). Fermented on the skins for about two weeks. Very light garnet color, featuring strawberry with touches of stone fruit and spice. Medium weight with a little tannic bite on the finish, should develop nicely.

Forlorn Hope 2013 Barbera, Estate Vineyard, Calaveras County (barrel sample). Medium color, with lots of upfront red cherry fruit and notes of earth and spice. Medium-bodied with bright acidity and a chalky tannic finish.

Forlorn Hope 2013 Barbera, Shake Ridge Ranch, Amador County (barrel sample). Medium color, this showed darker cherry and plum aromas plus an iron/mineral component. Lively mouthfeel with a slightly tart finish and grippy tannins, a different and intriguing sample from the previous one.

Forlorn Hope 2013 Petite Sirah, Tenbrink Vineyard, Suisun Valley (barrel sample). Medium-dark purple, with an initial reductive funk that blew off with some air, revealing lots of spice along with dark berry fruit. Fairly big and structured in the mouth, but with surprisingly fine tannins on the finish.

Forlorn Hope 2012 Valdiguié, Frediani Vineyard, Napa Valley (barrel sample). Medium-light color, with raspberry and wild berry, earth, and baking spice on the nose. Bright and lively mouthfeel, with moderate tannins and a tasty finish, nice.

Forlorn Hope 2012 Merlot, Snowden Vineyard, Napa Valley (barrel sample). Medium purple color, showing dried herbs plus black cherry and plum fruit, with slightly floral undertones. Medium weight with a moderately rich yet lively texture and integrated tannins, nice.

Matthew, Julia

I’d met Matthew in mid-2009 when he was pouring his wines for the annual TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates, Producers, and Amigos Society) tasting in San Francisco. I liked his wines from the start, and I felt they improved each year I returned to taste them at TAPAS. I knew that Matthew made quite a few other interesting wines beside those made from Iberian grape varieties (which are the focus at TAPAS), but had only tried a few of those, so I was looking forward to tasting them on this visit.

The Forlorn Hope name is an apt one. Matthew notes on the winery website that the name is derived from the Dutch “verloren hoop” (lost troop) – the name given to the group of soldiers who led the charge into the heart of the enemy defense. The odds were always heavily against them, but those who were fortunate enough to return from the attack were assured promotions and glory. Matthew works largely with California’s more obscure grape varieties, buying many of them from growers in lesser-known wine regions of the state, including Suisun Valley, the Sierra Foothills, and Lodi. Matthew refers to his Forlorn Hope wines as “Rare Creatures.” As with the verloren hoop, it’s not an easy fight to gain a foothold in the market with such wines, but he’s making it work.

Matthew studied at UC Davis, where he earned a degree in Viticulture and Enology in 1999. Over the years, he’s worked for a number of California wineries, including Dashe, Peter Michael, Chasseur, Miura, and Elizabeth Spencer as well as working on wine projects in New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile. Matthew launched Forlorn Hope in 2005 with a Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Tempranillo, though it was just a few years ago that he left his position as winemaker at Elizabeth Spencer to focus full-time on his own label. Production is currently around 3,000 cases per year.

The combination of his experiences at the various stages of his wine journey have shaped his current practices, which are best described as non-interventionist. Matthew’s effort to reflect his vineyard sites and his growers means that many common additions to the grapes or wine (cultured yeast, water, acid, enzymes, etc.) are not part of his winemaking regimen. But that’s not to say that the grapes are all treated in identical ways. Depending on the variety, vineyard, and vintage, with white grapes he may destem and press right away or ferment on the skins, and with reds he may use varying percentages of whole clusters in the fermentations. None of the Forlorn Hope wines are aged in new oak. While Matthew typically will add sulfur to the wines, he’s produced some sans soufre (no added sulfur) bottlings on occasion too.

A new and exciting development for Matthew and Forlorn Hope in 2013 was the purchase (along with a group including family members) of the historic Stevenot Winery and neighboring vineyard outside of Murphys in Calaveras County. This has given Matthew a chance to work with his own fruit for the first time at Forlorn Hope, and I was able to taste a few barrel samples from his Calaveras vineyard on my visit. Matthew told me that he will probably give the vineyard a name – he’s not able to use the Stevenot name for it – but that he hasn’t yet decided on one. I’ve noted the wines from there as “estate.” Matthew said that the vineyard is just north of town, with mostly schist-based soil along with some slate and some gravelly areas. He mentioned that one portion has schist over a limestone substrate, which is unusual in that region. Matthew is planning to make some changes in the vineyard over the coming years, including grafting some Trousseau and Chenin Blanc to the existing rootstock.

Matthew and Julia were busily tending to the barrels when I arrived, so it ended up being a somewhat abbreviated visit, though Matthew was a gracious host and we zipped through tasting quite a few barrel samples (almost all from 2013) in a short time. I won’t even attempt to list all the grape varieties that Matthew works with – he got in over 30 different ones this year! We started out with two 2013 barrel samples of Alvarelhão from Silvaspoons Vineyard in Lodi’s Alta Mesa AVA, with one barrel of press wine and one of free run – each very distinct from the other. Next up were two sample of what may be Forlorn Hope’s rarest California variety, St. Laurent. A red grape originally from central Europe, Matthew gets the entirety of the small crop from Ricci Vineyard in Carneros, the only place St. Laurent is currently grown in the state. Eucalyptus notes were evident, and Matthew noted that there are some trees near one section of the vineyard.

After tasting the St. Laurent, we headed into the barrel room and started there with some whites. Matthew has worked with skin-fermenting some of his whites over the past few years, though he’s now making only about 20% of his white wines that way, down from around 40% two years ago. He mentioned that his Ribolla Gialla was not skin-fermented this year, a change from previous vintages. We tasted a skin-fermented Viognier sourced from the limestone portion of Matthew’s new Calaveras vineyard, and a skin-fermented Pinot Gris from elsewhere in the vineyard. The color of the Pinot Gris struck me as unusual – it was like a Pinot Noir Rosé color rather than the copper/bronze color I’ve seen in most other skin-fermented Pinot Gris, and Matthew told me that the color surprised him as well. We also tried a Chardonnay from the vineyard, from own-rooted Wente clone vines planted in the 1970s. Matthew said that he stops most white wines from going through malolactic fermentation, though Verdelho (from the Bokisch Vista Luna Vineyard in Lodi) has been an exception to this.

We went on to a couple of Barberas, one from the new estate vineyard and one from Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador County. They were quite different from each other, and Matthew was not yet sure whether he will blend the two or bottle them separately. We finished up our tasting with two 2012 reds, beginning with a Valdiguié sourced from head-trained, dry-farmed vines planted in 1963 at Frediani Vineyard near Calistoga. The last wine was a Merlot – hold on, a Merlot of all things, from Forlorn Hope? Not exactly a “Rare Creature”! Matthew told me that he likes the idea of going back to more familiar varieties (as with the Chardonnay we’d tasted) but using different approaches than the more usual ones taken in California. For instance, all of the Forlorn Hope reds that I tasted from barrel during my visit had been fermented with 100% whole clusters (foot-trod, so no carbonic maceration) – unusual enough even with Rhône varieties but just about unheard-of with Barbera, Petite Sirah, or Merlot. The Merlot fruit came from Snowden Vineyards in Napa – Matthew’s wife Susanne’s family owns Snowden so he had the opportunity to get some fruit from their vineyard.

After Matthew and I had wrapped up our tasting and I was getting ready to leave, he told me that he was heading to Mokelumne Glen Vineyard in Lodi the next day to pick some German and Austrian whites (Weissburgunder, Kerner, Rieslaner, and Bacchus) for a new late harvest wine. The vineyard was planted in 1992 to a wide variety of German and Austrian grape varieties.

Matthew is making some of the most interesting wines in California, featuring grape varieties that are seen almost nowhere else in the state. But he’s mentioned in the past that just being different isn’t what he’s after – the wines need to be good. He’s been able to search out obscure varieties from lesser-known wine regions and find some real winners, and although his growers deserve due credit, the quality of the wines is also a result of Matthew’s skillful and adventuresome winemaking. Even now, when his wines have become something of a hot commodity (he was named a 2013 “Winemaker to Watch” by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013, and his many small-production bottlings sell out quickly), his prices remain remarkably reasonable. And to top it off, he’s always fun to talk with, displaying a quirky sense of humor that can be as oddball as his grape varieties. It should be fascinating to see how Matthew works with his new vineyard in Murphys in the coming years, and Forlorn Hope will continue to be a label to watch in the future.

Ledgewood Creek Winery

I still had some time before my appointment with Jake Stuessy, so I drove north on Abernathy Road toward the heart of Suisun Valley wine country. I pulled in at Ledgewood Creek, whose spacious tasting room adjoins their winery. Jenny was behind the bar, and greeted me as I came in. The owners, Dean and Bunny Frisbie, purchased the property – which was then a pear orchard – between Abernathy Road and Ledgwood Creek in 1985. They replanted the site in the late 1980s with Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhône grape varieties. The Frisbies sold their fruit to a number of Napa and Sonoma wineries throughout the next decade, as the vineyards grew to over 350 acres.

Tasting Notes: Current Releases

Ledgewood Creek 2011 Viognier, Estate, Suisun Valley.
Light straw color, showing a matchstick/sulfur note at first, followed by tropical fruit with a touch of honey. Medium-light bodied with a slightly sweet finish.

Ledgewood Creek 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Estate, Suisun Valley. Light straw color, with fresh grass and grapefruit on the nose. Medium-light weight with a bright, clean finish – a bit on the simple side but true to the variety and pleasant.

Ledgewood Creek 2011 Chardonnay, “Winemaker’s Signature Series,” Estate, Suisun Valley. Made in older oak. Very light yellow, aromas of pear and stone fruit with undertones of vanilla/oak. Medium-light weight and somewhat thin on the palate and finish.

Ledgewood Creek 2012 Pinot Noir, Estate, Suisun Valley. Light ruby color, with earth and strawberry scents and hints of spice and oak. Medium-light bodied with a slightly tart finish and milder tannins.

Ledgewood Creek 2010 “Testimony,” Suisun Valley. 39% Grenache, 32% Mourvèdre, 29% Syrah. Medium-light purple, this featured bright and upfront red fruits, along with a big vanilla/oak component. Medium weight on the palate with a lively mouthfeel and moderate tannins.

Ledgewood Creek 2010 Syrah, Estate, Suisun Valley. About 2-3% Viognier, and also fermented on Viognier skins. Medium color, this had meaty and slightly herbal aromas along with plum and darker berry fruit and baking spice. Medium-bodied with firm tannins, nice.

Ledgewood Creek 2010 Merlot, Estate, Suisun Valley. Medium purple color, displaying ripe black cherry, dusty earth, dried herbs, and undertones of vanilla/oak. Fairly rich mouthfeel with moderately grippy tannins.

Ledgewood Creek 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Medium-dark color, this had a darker fruit profile along with vanilla, tobacco, and a touch of black pepper. Full-bodied but lively with a surprisingly smooth finish.

The Ledgewood Creek label was launched with wines from the 2001 vintage, and the winery and tasting room were built in 2002. Although the Suisun Valley AVA had been established in 1982, Ledgewood Creek was just the second bonded winery to open within the appellation.

The Frisbie family continues to sell about 90% of their vineyard’s fruit, while annual production of their own label has now climbed to over 20,000 cases. Except for one wine – a Napa Valley Cab – all of the Ledgewood Creek wines have been made entirely from estate-grown fruit since 2004. The winery remains family-owned, with Frisbie sons James and Tom getting into the business operations.

As we tasted through the wines, we were joined by Larry Langbehn, Ledgewood Creek’s winemaker since 2002. A UC Davis alumnus, he’s worked for many wineries over the years, including 11 years at Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley. Ledgewood Creek currently produces Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, a Grenache-based Rosé, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Rhône-style red blends. Larry said that the 2012 Pinot Noir I tasted there was just the second vintage they’ve made from their estate fruit.

I enjoyed my visit to Ledgewood Creek. Jenny was friendly and knowledgeable, and it was an added treat to meet and talk with Larry as well. The Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah were my favorites of the wines I tasted, all of which were well-made though I wouldn’t consider any of them to be true standouts. But they’re all very reasonably-priced, and it’s worth a stop to check them out if you’re in the area.

Vezér Family Vineyard / Wasted Grape / Stuessy Cellars

It was time for the appointment Sal Galvan had made for me with Jake Stuessy, and I met Jake at the Blue Victorian facility of Vezér Family Vineyard along Suisun Valley Road. Jake makes the Vezér wines and consults for other vintners in the area as well. He also has his own Stuessy Cellars label and partners with Don Van Wie on the Wasted Grape label. Frank and Liz Vezér purchased a 30-acre property that was already planted to 17 acres of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, and they added more vineyard land over the years. They sold all their fruit to other wineries until they founded their own wine label in 2001, with their first wine – a Zinfandel – from the 2003 vintage. They also release wines under the Blue Victorian label. Jake, who’s married to Frank and Liz’s daughter Gabi, has recently taken over the winemaking duties from well-known vintner Gary Galleron, who remains a consultant to the winery.

Tasting Notes: Tank & Barrel Samples, and Current Releases

Vezér 2011 Pinot Grigio, Suisun Valley.
Made entirely in stainless steel. Very light color, with somewhat shy stone fruit and herb aromas. Lighter-bodied, with a bright mouthfeel and crisp finish.

Vezér 2013 Verdelho, Estate, Suisun Valley (tank sample). Light straw color, this displayed grapefruit and tropical fruit notes. Moderately rich texture with a pleasant finish.

Wasted Grape 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Suisun Valley (barrel sample). 100% Musqué clone, tasted from a stainless steel drum. Light color, with ripe stone fruit plus hints of lees and flowers. Medium weight on the palate with lively acidity and finish.

Vezér 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Suisun Valley (barrel sample). About 20% new oak. Dark color, showing upfront vanilla/oak and spice aromas along with plum and darker fruits. Medium-bodied with moderate tannins and smooth finish, a nice middleweight Cab.

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Suisun Valley (barrel sample). Non-commercial wine. Dark color, this featured currant and raspberry, herbs, and touches of smoke and spicy oak. A bit fuller-bodied than the previous sample with good structure and firm tannins, this should turn out nicely.

Vezér 2012 Petite Sirah, Suisun Valley (tank sample). About 10% new oak. Very dark color, with black fruits, pepper, and undertones of vanilla/oak. Moderately rich mouthfeel along with bright acidity and grippy tannins, a nice young Petite Sirah.

2012 Red Wine, North Coast (barrel sample). Non-commercial wine, 75% Napa Valley Petite Sirah, 25% Suisun Valley old-vine Zinfandel, 50% new American oak. Dark color, displaying lots of upfront dark fruits, plus spice, pepper and oak notes. Rich on the palate with a big, chewy tannic finish.

Wasted Grape 2012 Petite Sirah, Napa Valley. Not yet released, about 50% new French oak. Very dark color, this was tight when opened and will need some air, but showed dark fruits, earth, and chocolate aromas. Big and rich, with very grippy tannins that could use a few years to settle down.

Stuessy Cellars 2010 “Principium Cuvée,” Suisun Valley. 43% Syrah, 40% Merlot, 17% Petite Sirah, aged 18 months in barrel and another year in bottle. Medium color, with plum and darker berry fruit, baking spice, and vanilla/oak on the nose. Lively mouthfeel with moderate tannins on the finish.

Vezér 2007 Zinfandel, Estate, Suisun Valley. Barrel-aged for 24 months. Medium garnet color, with ripe and jammy berry fruit, spice, and vanilla/oak. Medium-bodied and fairly smooth, finishing with resolved tannins.

Vezér 2010 “Cassie,” Estate, Suisun Valley. 100% Petite Sirah. Dark color, featuring ripe plummy fruit, earth, and oak notes. Medium-full bodied with moderate tannins.

Vezér NV “Jake’s Cellar Master Select,” Suisun Valley. 50% Petite Sirah, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Zinfandel. Dark color, this showed a more earthy character, along with ripe fruit, black pepper, and a resiny oak note. Fairly rich on the palate, with grippier tannins on the finish.

Blue Victorian 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, “Sophie,” Suisun Valley. White Port-style wine, featuring ripe stone fruit, hazelnut, caramel and vanilla, and lots of spice. Rich and moderately sweet, with a long finish.

Jake welcomed me into the barrel room of the winery. The 12,000 square-foot facility was built in 2007 to the rear of the 19th-century home that Frank and Liz purchased and restored as the “Blue Victorian,” and which now serves as one of two Vezér tasting rooms. A second tasting room is located not far away in the tiny settlement of Mankas Corner, in a building that had once been a Pony Express office. Jake poured me some of the winery’s current release of Pinot Grigio before showing me around the winery and telling me about the Vezér family’s estate vineyards in Suisun Valley. The estate properties include plantings of Verdelho, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Black Muscat. Additional fruit is sourced from about five other vineyards in the area.

Jake told me that the Pinot Grigio I was tasting was only about 11% alcohol, and was made entirely in stainless steel and left on the lees, which was stirred every two weeks. We went on to try a number of 2012 and 2013 barrel and tank samples, starting with Vezér 2013 Verdelho, which was kept on the skins for about 12 hours before pressing (the 2012 Verdelho just won a Best of Class award at the 2014 San Francisco Wine Competition, one of the largest and most widely-respected wine competitions in the country). Next up was a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Wasted Grape, entirely from the fragrant Musqué clone and made in stainless steel drums and older barrels. This spent close to 48 hours on the skins and underwent a native fermentation.

We moved on to reds, beginning with a couple of 2012 Cabernet Sauvignons, one from Vezér and one a non-commercial wine that Jake is making. An inky-dark Vezér Petite Sirah was next – weighing in at only 13.5% alcohol, it will need time but should be very nice. We also tasted a non-commercial 2012 red blend of Napa Valley Petite Sirah and Suisun Valley Zin – Jake said the 2013 version will be entirely from Napa fruit. Before heading to the tasting room to try some current releases, Jake opened a bottle of 2012 Wasted Grape Petite Sirah that has not yet been released.

Jake had work he needed to take care of, so he led me to the tasting room in the Blue Victorian house and turned me over to Jesus, who poured me a selection of Vezér and Blue Victorian wines, and we started out with one from Stuessy Cellars as well. The Stuessy “Principium Cuvée” was made with Syrah, Merlot, and Petite Sirah sourced from three growers, all processed separately and blended later in the barrel-aging process. Vezér is best-known for their Zin and Petite Sirah, and I tasted these two wines next. Their flagship “La Salette” wine (which I didn’t taste on this occasion) is a blend of the two varieties. Two wines in the line-up are named after Frank and Liz Vezér’s daughters, “Cassie” and “Sophie.” The Blue Victorian “Sophie” – a white Port-style wine made from Sauvignon Blanc – was intriguing in that I might not have realized it was made from white grapes if I’d tasted it truly “blind.”

I had a good time visiting with Jake and tasting the Vezér wines as well as his other projects. All of the wines were solid, and the Petite Sirah-based wines in particular showed a lot of promise. Sampling wines at the Blue Victorian tasting room was a pleasant experience. I felt the wines were a cut above those from some of the other local producers working mainly with Suisun Valley grapes, though the bottlings tended to be pricier too. In any case, a stop here is well worth it if you have an interest in tasting Suisun Valley wines.

Wooden Valley Winery

I had time for one more winery visit before heading home, which was convenient since their was just one more winery open in the area that day! Driving south along Suisun Valley Road, I quickly came upon Wooden Valley Winery. I walked into the large tasting room – judging from the size of the room and the long wooden bar, I imagine they get plenty of visitors on summer weekends, but on this cool November Monday I was the only one there. Matt was working behind the counter and told me about the winery as he poured me samples of their current releases.

Tasting Notes: Current Releases

Wooden Valley 2012 Dry Riesling, Suisun Valley
. Light straw color, with shy aromas of tropical fruit. Medium-light weight on the palate with a slight touch of sweetness on the finish.

Wooden Valley 2010 Pinot Noir, Suisun Valley. Medium-light ruby color, this featured earth, spice and vanilla/oak along with ripe cherry fruit. Lighter mouthfeel, with a tea leaf note that came on the finish.

Wooden Valley 2009 Zinfandel, Suisun Valley. 82% Primitivo, 18% old-vine Zinfandel. Medium purple, showing slightly herbal scents plus plummy fruit and black pepper. Medium-bodied with a lively texture and moderate tannins, nice.

Wooden Valley 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Suisun Valley. Sourced from valley floor fruit. Medium-dark color, with dried herbs, currant and plum fruit, earth, and vanilla/oak on the nose. Medium-full bodied with a grippy tannic finish.

Lanza Family 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Suisun Valley. Sourced from hillside fruit. Medium-dark purple, this showed some stony mineral notes plus a darker fruit profile than the previous wine, along with more spice and a resiny oak component. Richer mouthfeel, finishing with bigger and chewier tannins.

Wooden Valley NV “Miscela,” Suisun Valley. 58% Merlot, 34% Malbec, 8% Petite Sirah, 4.9% residual sugar. Medium-dark color, displaying ripe plummy fruit, spice, and vanilla. Medium-full bodied with a mildly sweet finish that helped offset the grippy tannins.

Wooden Valley is the oldest commercial winery in Suisun Valley, originally founded by brothers Salvador and Manuel Brea just after Prohibition ended in late 1933. Their friend Mario Lanza joined the winery team shortly afterwards, and he ultimately became the sole owner in 1955. Mario and his wife and Lena ran the winery before turning over the business to their son Richard (Chick) and his wife Adrienne. Chick was instrumental in the establishment of the Suisun Valley AVA. Today Chick and Adrienne’s four sons run the winery – Rick is the winemaker, Ron assists him while also working on sales and marketing, and Larry and Ken manage the vineyards, which have grown to over 300 acres. Ron was a co-founder of the Suisun Valley Vintners & Grape Growers Association.

The Lanzas’ vineyard properties extend through various parts of Suisun Valley, from the cooler, windier area in the south closest to the Bay to the warmer, rockier sites farther north. This allows them to grow a broad variety of grapes, including Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Primativo, Syrah, Malbec, and Napa Gamay (Valdiguié). The current vines range from about 10 to over 30 years old. The Lanza family sells about 80% of their fruit to other producers, and they also ship some boxed winegrapes for home winemakers on the East Coast.

All of the Wooden Valley wines are made from estate-grown fruit. Bottlings include “Vino Bianco,” Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, White Gamay, Riesling, “Vino Rosso,” Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, “Miscela” (a sweet red), and Zinfandel Port. In addition to the Wooden Valley wines, the family has more recently launched the Lanza Family label for their reserve bottlings – these include a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit for the Lanza Family wines is typically sourced from the more hilly and rocky vineyard sites. Total production is around 10,000 cases per year.

The Wooden Valley wines were generally pleasant but I didn’t find any particular standouts among them. The Pinot Noir was surprisingly good – not on a level of the better Pinots from California by any means but more than I’d expected from one from Suisun Valley. Matt told me that they usually finish the tasting with their Zin Port, but as it was sold out, he poured the “Miscela” instead. The Zinfandel was my favorite of the wines I tasted – again not an exceptional wine but tasty and a good value.

The Solano County wine region is still a minor player in terms of wine tourism. Other than the tasting rooms I visited on this trip, only the Suisun Valley Wine Coop – currently hosting about a half-dozen small vintners and open from Thursday through Sunday – is generally open to visitors without an appointment. A handful of others are open by appointment or during special open house events. But not unlike Lodi 10-15 years ago, the impact of winegrapes from this area on California wine is greater than you might imagine by driving through it.

The wines I tasted in my visit to Solano County Green Valley and Suisun Valley were hit-and-miss. My visit with Matthew Rorick at Forlorn Hope was the highlight of my trip. He’s making some intriguing and often extremely fine wines – and at very reasonable prices – and will continue to be worth watching. Egan Cellars’ Elyse Egan Perry, Galvan Family Cellars’ Sal Galvan, and Vezér’s Jake Stuessy, while not yet in that league, are doing good work and show the potential to take their wines to another level in the coming years. And as vintners such as these raise the bar for wines from the region, it’s likely that others will follow their lead.

Change is clearly on the way in Solano County Green Valley and Suisun Valley, and these appellations may look far different in ten years than they do today. With land prices in Napa Valley already sky-high, it seems only a matter of time before more producers follow the lead of Caymus and expand into the two valleys just to the east. Whether this will be a good or bad thing for Solano County Green Valley and Suisun Valley depends on your point of view, but I think there is little doubt that we’ll see a boom in grape and wine production there before long. As always, thanks to everyone that I visited for being so generous with their time and their wine!

[Additional Reviews & Journals from Ken Zinns]


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