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AVA,Marketing,Suisun Valley,Viticulture,Wine,Wine Business,Wine Education,Wine Making,Wine Writer,Winery

Defining terroir, it’s a science not a myth

As I read writers stating that the climate of Suisun Valley is warmer than Napa’s, I’m reminded of the many hours I sat in on a study being conducted by Dr. Paul Skinner of Terra Spase and Vineyard Investigations, of Napa Valley. I was also there to read the final report, interpret it, write a lengthy press release (which was approved by Dr. Skinner), and get the information out to the wine writing community.

Paul Skinner is brilliant man. Many are happy to attest to that. I only write this about him, because I recently found myself defending his brilliance to someone who just didn’t want to believe what I had come to know… about the AVA’s climate, and who Paul Skinner is in this business. It’s important to note, if you don’t know Paul, once a climate is defined by his crew and him, there’s no further argument that should exist about an AVA’s climate. Terra Space has the skill-set, ability, and knowledge to define a climate by scientifically measuring data from weather stations. Mother Nature says it, Terra Spase collects and graphs it. There’s no PR spin… It’s just the facts, ma’am, as Sergeant Friday used to say.

It’s that simple… sorta…

A few times I’ve seen writers quote what grape buyers (mostly outside of Suisun) like to say about the climate of Suisun… That it’s hotter than Napa; ergo, the fruit can’t be on the same par, no matter what vineyard practices have been conducted.

When I first arrived as Suisun’s story teller in 2003, I visited a vineyard that’s on the county line between Napa and Solano (where Suisun falls within its borders). As I looked at the vineyard, I was told that on the Napa side of the fence, the fruit was selling for $3,000 a ton; while on the Suisun side, it was selling for $300 a ton. It was the same farmer, so imagine the angst.

This image was taken standing in Solano County, looking over the fence at Napa County.

If you’re a grape buyer, and you want to buy the best fruit for your money at the least possible price, it’s in your interest to keep saying that Suisun is “hot,” when – in fact – it’s not. For Suisun farmers, that argument is no longer valid, nor can it be an objection.

The chart below has weather station findings, each one’s location is very similar to a Napa location below it for very similar weather gathering data.

This was why the study had to be done, all things being fair. Notice the graphs above, and how Napa and Suisun’s climates are closely aligned.

Why spend money on this kinds of study?

In order to begin to get more money for their fruit – based on all the excellent, and costly, vineyard practices that these grape growers were doing – Suisun’s climate had to be defined as one that is superior, because being “hotter” than Napa is not going to define their region as being superior. One must remember, Suisun Valley is in the North Coast AVA for a reason. It could only get there by having a quality climate for grape growing.

Needing to go on public record on the Internet

The following information was delivered by Dr. Skinner’s study, and I then wrote the following:

In May of 2008, Suisun Valley Vintners & Grape Growers Association hired Terra Spase of Napa, California, to begin the process of scientifically defining their terroir. Proprietor Paul Skinner and his staff immediately initiated Phase I, which was to inventory and assess the conditions of the available climatic and topographic data for the Suisun Valley AVA.

On July 8, 2008, Terra Spase delivered Phase 2 to SVGGA, which included the data compilation phase consisting of the various datasets for analysis, including the following:

  • Narrowing target climatic parameters
  • Processing supplemental PRISM (Parameter-elevation Regression on Independent Slopes Model) weather dataset for analysis and mapping
  • Extracting target parameters from PRISM and local climate datasets
  • Target parameters summarizing for key time periods
  • Processing of elevation data in preparation for mapping the GIS analysis
  • Promising trends in data

On February 3, 2009, Paul W. Skinner, PhD delivered his “Climate, Topography and Wine Grapes in the Suisun Valley AVA” report to the Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association Board of Directors’ meeting, commissioned by SVGGA. In his introduction, Skinner indicates that because high intensity climate monitoring has been implemented in Suisun Valley with the installation of several automated weather stations, documentation of mesoclimates within the established AVA has provided a valuable, historical record from which to draw upon, in order to deliver the report.

Skinner writes, “The establishment of their own weather station network to collect weather data on a 24 hr basis by the Suisun Valley grape growers shows forward thinking on their part. It was also an important step forward for the Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association to recognize the value of developing this report for the use of the wine community and their constituents.” It is Skinner’s hope that Terra Spase’s analysis of the climate data that was collected [to date] will become the basis for an improved understanding of how weather and climate attributes define Suisun Valley AVA’s potential for producing world class grapes from different wine grape varieties.

Terra Spase recognizes Suisun Valley’s AVA with the following:

  • Located in the North Coast AVA, Suisun is one of the oldest, continually producing wine grape zones in the West.
  • It is increasingly recognized as a significant player in California’s luxury and ultra-premium wine grape market segments.
  • Wine grapes support in-valley wineries, as well as wine companies in Napa and Sonoma.
  • SV grape growers produce popular wine grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay; as well as specialty cultivars, such as Syrah, Petite Sirah, Barbara, Grenache, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel.

Noteworthy climate findings include what was once empirically understood by the farmers and discussed as anecdotal evidence, and are now validated by this academic study; namely, situated in close proximity to the San Francisco Bay complex, portions of this area exert influence on the regions’ climate.

The report delivers the AVA’s geography in great detail; which to date had yet to be so thoroughly recorded. Considering all aspects of elevation, slope, and distribution aspects, the report recommends that if the wine grape growers take all aspects of the detailed topographical effect into account in the designing and production phases of their vineyards, development will significantly increase their likelihood of producing ultra-premium grapes and wines from their vineyards.

CLIMATE DATA AND MONITORING EFFORTS: The Terra Space report delivers extensive maps, which present a visual account for all of Terra Spase’s findings (examples):

  • Suisun Valley AVA and Vicinity
  • Separate maps for Elevation, Slope, and Aspect
  • Automated Weather Stations in the Suisun Valley AVA
  • Separate Precipitation, Humidity, and Temperature maps

Extensive charts deliver extensive supporting material for all of their findings (examples):

  • Seasonal Precipitation (in) 1995-2008; (CIMIS 123)
  • Monthly Precipitation (in) 1999 (CIMIS 123)
  • Mean Weather Precipitation (in) 1995-2007 – CIMIS 123
  • 2007 Monthly Rainfall (in) Williams2 and Abernathy 1 stations.

With data from the following sources, much was demonstrated from the average monthly temperatures from Terra Spase’s initial findings. [Used with permission of Terra Spase.]

  • CIMIS 123 ~ California Irrigation Management Information System: lowest, southwest
  • AB1 ~ Abernathy 1: southeast quadrant
  • AB3 ~ Abernathy 3: south, mid-valley
  • SSV ~ Suisun Valley: west, mid-valley
  • GV ~ Gordon Valley; central, upper-valley
  • WL2 ~ Williams 2: northwest quadrant
  • PRISM ~ Program at Oregon State University developed by Dr. Christopher Daly, the PRISM group director.

Suisun Valley’s unique, distinguishing features:

  • Precipitation ~ Springtime rains can occur after mid March bud burst, but are relatively unusual. This relative absence of late spring rain in Suisun Valley is a climatological advantage the region enjoys over many other winegrape growing regions.
  • The absence of precipitation during the summer months allows for the early ripening of relatively disease free winegrapes.
  • Growing degree day data indicate conditions range from Winkler’s Region III to Region V, within Suisun Valley AVA in different years, defining the quality of their winegrapes.
  • As a characteristic of many California coastal valleys opening onto the San Francisco Bay complex, the northern parts of the Suisun Valley region tend to see higher maximum and lower minimum temperatures than are observed in the southern parts of the region.
  • The lower portion of the Suisun Valley is subject to steady southwesterly, bay influenced breezes beginning in the late springtime. Annually occurring springtime northwesterly flow along the Northern California coast pushes marine air into the San Francisco bay and up through the San Pablo bay into the Suisun Valley region.
  • Suisun Valley’s eight-mile length of Springtime (March-April) Growing Degree Days are very closely aligned to Napa Valley’s 30 mile stretch, just in a condensed version.

The graph above is one of the snapshots within the study of Suisun Valley’s weather. Seeing how closely aligned Suisun Valley’s weather is to Napa’s, what would you have to say about Suisun Valley’s weather, based on this scientific study, if you were to write home about it?

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8 Responses to “Defining terroir, it’s a science not a myth”

  1. Roger King says:

    Thanks Jo for bringing this back around, we spent a lot of energy with Dr. Skinner to get this done a few years back. It really did set the facts on the table, we will see what the curious do in exploration of the opportunities. His analysis, using powderey mildew index of lower mid and upper valley against the same next door is very compelling on the climate side. We know the soils are different.

  2. Randy Caparoso says:

    Interesting, Jo. Thanks for sharing. Your comments remind me of a conversation with a grower in Arroyo Seco AVA last year, explaining the “difference” between his fruit on one side of a line of trees, and on the other side falling within the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA: about $2,000.

    The frustration of Suisun Valley growers also reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with the winemaker of a highly respected Napa Valley specializing in Zinfandel. When I told him I was working with people in Lodi, he said, “Oh, Lodi Zinfandel — how is it working with hot climate Zinfandel?” It’s hard to respond to that, knowing that he was working with Napa Valley vineyards averaging even hotter heat summations. It’s simply amazing what comes out of people’s mouths based on little or no information.

    But as also pointed out, things like degree days is one of many factors contributing to any region’s winegrape quality and characteristics. For instance, you can grow in a fairly warm spot in Paso Robles and still retain consistantly higher natural acidity than a “cold climate” spot in Sonoma because of soil and topography.

    As for Napa Valley: probably the biggest factor is, in fact, money. It helps to be able to sell both grapes and wines for higher prices. This means more money for planting material, research, vineyard equipment and management. Followed by even more money for winery equipment, barrels, and especially people — more people, bigger salaries, better experience or talent. All part of the famous Napa Valley “terroir”!

  3. Roger King says:

    Randy hit the nail on the head, money drives perceptions when it gets down to it. For cab here $1,600/tn, one mile away across a political boundary line $5,400/tn. On the flip side with commodity – do whatever you can, say whatever you can to drive the damn price down. Hot region is simply code to drive he price down.

    It is when the boutiques and mavericks on the winery side show a different result with the same regions fruit things start to change, or at least get questioned – like ‘hot climate zinfandel’. If you watched local evening weather reports you would have to scratch head on that in re: Calistoga v Lodi.

  4. […] selling for $3,000 a ton; while on the Suisun side, it was selling for $300 a ton.” Jo Diaz shares some fascinating climate […]

  5. […] Defining terroir, it’s a science not a myth […]

  6. 37 years in this business says:

    Thank you for sticking to the facts while so much spin occupies the space of other articles.

  7. […] Defining terroir, it’s a science not a myth […]

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