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Profiles,Viticulture

Suisun Valley Grape Growers ~ Signs that they’re emerging with a solid plan

It’s an amazing thing to watch an AVA get its wings: quietly being one of America’s oldest viticultural areas, and not having a marketer among them the entire time; until recently, that it.

The farmers of Suisun Valley have, since the beginning, kept their noses to the grindstone, growing their grapes because that’s all they really wanted to do. For some, like the Lanza family of Wooden Valley, that’s been since 1955. For others, like Dean and Bunny Frisbie of Ledgewood Creek Winery & Vineyards, it’s been since 1985, when they first bought a pear farm in Suisun Valley and then converted over to vineyards. And, there are others who have recently and very quietly just arrived in this pastoral valley, escaping a hectic world in order to just enjoy a less stressful life, like Maurry Koch, Steve Tenbrink, and Jeffrey Miller, for instance. It’s all simply been a quiet endeavor, one focused more on growing the fruit than one bent on telling the world what they were doing.

That seemed to be going along just fine for years… but not really. With very few people knowing that they existed, it meant that their ability to market their grapes was greatly diminished… And that’s not really “just fine,” because it kept them in an “under market pricing” mode. With no government subsidies for farming each year (for which there are billions of dollars spent on other commodity items like corn, wheat, soy beans, etc.), this chosen vocation remains very labor intensive and demanding.

Imagine if ithese farmers were recognized for subsidy! That might even mean that we’d not have to pay as much for wine. Hum… Does this seem to go back to a Puritanical government hell-bent on Prohibitionist attitudes, still? One can only wonder….

It’s a curious thing, isn’t it, that there’s nothing available in those national subsidy funds for grape farmers. They’re virtually alone in the chain of what has to happen to market from vine to a glass of wine. The process is enormous (if I’ve forgotten something, I’m happy to edit this list):

  • Plant it
  • Grow it
  • Tend it (trellising, irrigating, leaf pulling, pruning)
  • Harvest it
  • Deliver it to a winery (their own or someone else’s)
  • Crush it (reds and whites have a different method, so getting the right equipment is vital and expensive)
  • Ferment it
  • Store it in oak or stainless steel for a year or two (rent for the storage area)
  • Rack it (from time to time)
  • Bottle it
  • Cork it
  • Age it
  • Create the look
  • Get BTT approval for the label
  • Label it
  • Box it
  • Sell it (direct sales in tasting rooms, or out the door to restaurants or wine shops, and then there’s the intricate three-tier wholesale system that one must know the ins-and-outs of, lest you fall through the cracks)

Things were going along pretty quietly, until Roger King, a Tahoe executive gone “reinvent” came to town.

King’s a fascinating guy. At first, you wonder, “Is he for real?” That’s only because he’s so for real. He’s not only brilliant, but he’s also so outspoken that it takes time to process him. You ask yourself, “Can anyone be that brilliant, while being so candid?” In time, and I don’t mean a long time at all, one comes to realize that there’s a lot to be learned from this man. It won’t be equivocal language, though; Roger’s not one for making things pretty for you to process. He shoots from the hip, and has no patience for people not snapping to immediately. Don’t interpret these as harsh judgments of his personality. They aren’t faults. They’re personality traits that come from someone so hard on himself that he also expects others to live to their full potential too, without daydreaming in the process. Roger understands the enormity of the problems that exist for an AVA that’s not had a marketing plan to date. Farmers grow it, someone else has to tell the story, and Roger knew they needed a storyteller, yesterday.

So, what kind of grapes does Roger King grow, because that was his “reinvent,” after all? The cultivar doesn’t matter here (he can give you those details himself). What does matter is the quality of what he’s growing, with his mantra being “Only the best will do.” Roger’s also wanted (just shy of demanding) that others in Suisun Valley growers also challenge themselves more.


Last evening, most of the members of the Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association attended their annual meeting (of which Jose and I are members).


L to R: Roger King, SVGGA member seated, and SVGGA’s Secretary Maurice Koch standing

As its president, Roger King conducted the meeting. He handed the meeting over to Vice President Ron Lanza, and none of knew what Ron was going to say. Before he addressed anything else, Ron took a moment to acknowledge Roger for what he’s brought to the valley. His thanked Roger publicly for being the driving force that’s pushed so hard for Suisun Valley to become more prominently positioned on a label as an AVA of distinction.


L to R: Ron Lanza, and Maurice Koch

Just a few short years ago, if you asked someone in Napa Valley (or anywhere else, for that matter), “Where’s Suisun Valley?” that would have elicited a blank stare. (Suisun Valley has been an AVA since December 1982, by-the-way.) In the fifth year of their formation as an advocacy group, their neighbors to the west are now not only beginning to know where Suisun Valley is, but they’re also beginning to respect the fact that they exist.


And last night, as Ron’s voice slightly cracked with emotion as he acknowledged Roger, we all knew that Roger’s rigorous demands on himself have segued to all the others as something being clearly understood as necessary. Their growing pains aren’t complete; however, their wings are clearly beginning to emerge.

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  1. “I am the Administrator of the Suisun Valley Fund Advisory Committee. I was unable to attend the SVGGA Annual Meeting