It’s been my distinct pleasure to work with the Suisun Valley grape growers over the past six years, sponsored by a fortuitous grant from the Solano Irrigation District and the city of Fairfield.
Written by Jack Batson, Fairfield, California:
In 2000 Rick Wood, Manager of the Water Division for the city of Fairfield, entered into negotiations with SID [Solano Irrigation District] and both parties agreed to give the valley farmers another chance. Wood’s idea was as innovative as it was historic. The “Second Amended Agreement” of 2002 extended the term of [a] 1974 agreement from 2006 through 2010, and created the “Suisun Valley Fund” and the “Suisun Valley Fund Advisory Committee,” to run the fund. Both parties would put $100,000 per year into the fund for eight more years and adjust the yearly amount for inflation. The $1,600,000+ would be spent to promote the marketability of valley produce and to create other mechanisms to “preserve and enhance” valley agriculture that would continue past 2010. The Committee would be composed of two members each from the Fairfield City Council and the Solano Irrigation District, and three valley landowner/growers chosen by the two agencies. The five Fairfield council members who held office and voted to approve the funding of Suisun Valley Fund were Jack Batson, Karin MacMillan, Harry Price, Marilyn Farley, and John English.
The infusion of money into this small American Viticultural Area (AVA) allowed for the growers of Suisun Valley to hire a marketing and publications firm, and Diaz Communications was the firm hired. We got a really great client, along with a unique learning curve experience. I hadn’t worked with growers – as only growers – in the past. Many of my clients had their own vineyards; but, we were hired to promote their wines, not their vines. This was an eye-opener for us all on both sides of the fence. I’ve learned to promote their vines; and, they’ve learned that to really sell their juice they needed to showcase it from a bottle’s perspective.
To that end, most of the member of the Board of Directors with whom I work have created their own brands in the process. It’s been like watching my own children be born, struggle to walk, and then to see them off and running.
One particular vineyard story is Tenbrink Vineyards.
Stephen Tenbrink is a soft spoken, quietly self-assured grower. He and his wife Linda were married and moved into Suisun Valley to begin their lives together; Steve the humble farmer, and Linda his promoter in all things related to their businesses. Steve began farming:
- at first with cherries, peaches, apricots and prunes
- followed by a farmers market garden with 100’s of heirloom tomatoes
- segueing to a walnut grove
- and finishing with a vineyard project by 1996
They got themselves over the Suisun/Napa mountain range to sell those tomatoes, headed toward a most opportune relationship.
That moment came with one of their clients, the talented and quirky winemaker Abe Schoener (former professor of Ancient Greek philosophy, so you can only imagine where he’d take winemaking). Abe was buying their tomatoes for a dinner party. They nudged him to come to their vineyards to see the promise that this might also hold for him… And he finally did it, changing the course of all of their lives.
Abe became fascinated. So fascinated, in fact, that Linda happily relates:
In 2002, we managed to convince Abe to visit our vineyard. He was very reluctant. However, once he took sight of the vineyards he said, “I knew that I was going to buy some of those grapes before I even got out of the car”. We were so happy that as a present to Abe we gave him some of our Petite Sirah grapes, which became the foundation of his Scholium Project – Babylon.
Things grow rapidly around us – and so did the Scholium Project. At Abe’s urging we built a winery, as he had outgrown the facility he was using in Napa. Once again, entering the winery business completely naïve – (probably a good thing we didn’t know) headfirst with no experience at winemaking .
The union of Abe and Steve has given the Tenbrinks an advantage of having a winemaker who’s brave, innovative, and daring to inspire his own winemaking style. And, he loves media attention. Together, they’re sharing the world of wine in a very close relationship.
[This image was taken during Passport Weekend, April 2009, for a Wall Street Journal story.]
The intent of making their own wines to showcase the potential for the excellent quality to price ratio that exists from Suisun Valley, and their connection to Abe Schoener, has done a lot to demonstrate that quality from vine to wine…
[Another photo from their Passport event. Steve is in the center in the beige shirt.]
Abe has had three really high profile stories in the last month alone:
SF CHRON: N.Y. takes a new look at California wines, by Talia Baiocchi, November 7, 2010:
“… Abe Schoener, proprietor of Scholium Project, found New York to be more receptive to his uncategorizable efforts, like skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc. ‘I don’t fit into this new category of natural winemaking in California,’ Schoener says, ‘Nor do I fit into this old category of high-alcohol, extracted wines. Being in that no-man’s land has been a lot easier for me in New York than it has been in California.’ Indeed, two-thirds of Schoener’s mailing list is made up of New York residents.”
Esquire Magazine, Abe Schoener: Renegade Vintner, by Robert Willey, December 2010
“Last summer… an aspiring young French vintner on a two-week research tour put an unwashed, streaked glass to his lips. He was silent for a moment, this man schooled in the classic flavors of grapes now standing in a workshop cluttered with hydrometers and refractometers and lined with copies of Darwin, Gibbon, and Borges. And then he burst out laughing. This sauvignon blanc rocketed beyond its usual harmony of melon and citrus into an earthier realm of … mushrooms and cheese?! This petite sirah was — how do you say in English? — violating his mouth?!”
Wall Street Journal also had a story featuring Abe in November. Napa’s Retro Dudes, by Jay McInerney:
“”A former professor of Greek philosophy, Mr. Schoener is the proprietor of Scholium Project, a winery that makes deeply eccentric (mostly white) wines beloved by sommeliers and geeks. He looks a little alien here in his sharp black suit and his tinted Utopia LA glasses, but it’s clear that he’s part of the gang.”
Linda takes great pride in what they’re all achieving. She regularly keeps me in their loop as the valley’s publicist, and recent wrote to me:
“I suggest that you follow Abe Schoener on Facebook, especially the last two weeks. He’s been in LA and was received favorably at Four Seasons; and is now in Chicago where every top end restaurant is throwing a reception for him.”
Most of the publicity for the Tenbrink’s Vineyards is coming through Abe’s efforts, but Linda also tells me when they get an important wine placement in companies like Dean & Deluca. They know they’re coming of age, and it’s the tie-ins from outside of their valley that are solidly placing them “on the map.”
Abe Schoener’s wines demonstrate the prices that a vintner is able to get using Suisun Valley fruit:
- 2007 Tenbrink Vineyards Bricco Babelico ~ Petite Sirah $45 (Suisun Valley, but not on the label as the AVA)
- 2008 Tenbrink Vineyards Babylon ~ Petite Sirah $75 (Suisun Valley, but not on the label as the AVA)
My buddy Hardy Wallace wrote about Suisun Valley and Tenbrink Vineyards: A Day at Tenbrink Vineyards by www.dirtysouthwine.com.
“Last Sun., my buddy Tripp and I headed over to Fairfield, CA / Suisun (so-soon) – for a Sunday afternoon trifecta–Getting to hang and walk the vineyards with Linda and Steve Tenbrink of Tenbrink Vineyards and Winery, to taste barrels with Abe Schoener of Scholium Project and then to tuck into a ridiculous feast of pig-tastic proportions (Linda can cook like a maniac)…”
My bottom line is helping the growers bring attention to their fabulous fruit, and Abe Schoener is one amazing example of someone who dares to step outside of traditional boundaries and use Stephen Tenbrink’s carefully grown fruit…just as many others also use the fruit from Suisun Valley, a North Coast AVA, with remarkable results.