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Suisun Valley,Wine,Wine Writer,Winemaker,Winery

New Voices are so Refreshing ~ Alex Cook, on Suisun Valley

I’m seasoned in wine, if you don’t know. I wear it as a badge of honor, to have come so far in the past 29 years. I’ve felt everyone of them. So, when I meet a starry-eyed person, right off the boat… Someone who looks around and says, “Dear Lord, don’t ever let me become jaded…” I can relate and the mentor in me kicks in. At the recent Suisun Valley annual members’ dinner, I was introduced to such a young man… Alex Cook.

Excitedly, my friend, colleague found me in the sea of members; for us, lots of new faces. We began  working together in 2003; due to a 10-year grant, from the city of Fairfield and the Solano Irrigation District. It was given to the newly formed Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association – now known as the Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association. Roger was the one who pursued and successfully managed to get the marketing grant. The group was off and running.

[PHOTO: Jo Diaz]

Diaz Communications came in on their second year. My job was to guide and tell their stories, helping them to develop their image. At the time, it was mostly a group of grape growers, so that was their main focus. “Have our grapes be recognized for their quality,” and I got it; however, I also knew it would be their wines produced – either by them or others – that would get the wine world’s attention. At the time, their grapes were being purchased for a fraction of the price, though; e.g., a vineyard on the Napa side of the county line, $3,000 a ton range on one side of the fence. The Suisun Valley grape side… same contiguous vineyard? For $300 a ton. For me, this was just wrong; same vineyard, same terroir, same everything… I put my super woman cape on. The stories just naturally rolled out, and the valley incredibly just got on with it, right up to today.

So, Roger King at the Annual Meeting

Roger King was so excited… for a guy who’s usually down-right, level headed. He searched for me. Something going on here was really palpable. He wanted me to meet a new talent in the valley. His tension was real. Mentors just get that look. I knew it. It was very much worth, “Jo Diaz… Alex Cook. Alex Cook… Jo Diaz”

In emails, Roger said, “He is a very good, hard working guy that wanted to get a little taste of gettin’ dirty during harvest, likely found the wrong guy in me as I put him to it.”

Roger knows how to make me laugh…

With permission, he forwarded a story that Alex had written. (Alex’s background is at the bottom of his story.) After reading it, I asked permission from both Roger King and Alex Cook, to publish it. The reason I want to publish it, is to establish this young man as being published, and well on his way. I told Roger, in a thank-you for the introduction, “Alex’s story was really compelling… And, quite remarkable… I mean the BEST story I’ve seen written on a Suisun Valley grower and winemaker, ever.”

According to Alex, “I was looking to write something interesting for admittance to the Wine Writers’ Symposium at Meadowood (I had a few samples that I could submit, but nothing about wine, specifically), and Roger came to mind immediately. We had spoken before then a couple of time about his wines, and his vineyards, but really got to know him over the course of a couple of lengthy-ish interviews at his place. The piece secured admission to the Symposium, I started to help Roger out at the tasting room, and as they say, the rest is history!”

[ALL FOLLOWING PHOTO: Alex Cook]

The Mad Vigneron on Mankas Corner

Roger King of Suisun Valley’s King Andrews Vineyards, by Alex Cook

It was a pretty Friday afternoon that I went to interview Roger King at his home, and the site of King Andrew’s Vineyards, out in the belly of Suisun Valley.

A “World Capital of Petite Sirah” banner greets me as I turn off the 121, on the way from Napa, with painted signs for strawberries, eggs, and walnuts, and plenty of enthusiastically-scrawled sandwich boards, with “Now Open for Tasting.” There are more places to try olive oil than typical, and more hand-painted arrows showing the way here and there, too.

Suisun certainly feels a little more like Kansas.

Roger is seated outside when I get there. To this point, we’ve talked twice at some length about his wine and all the work he’s doing for other winemakers from all around California. He’s a tall man with a wide frame, trim, with a round, flat face, and a passing resemblance to a stretched out Anthony Hopkins, but I shudder to imagine what he would say if I told him that.

As I set my things down, grab my pen, and my notebook, he asks, “So what do you want to talk about?” I’m not sure I said a thing before the words “True Grit” come out of his mouth, and we start talking about Mathew.

After five years of purchasing the Petite Verdot that Roger was growing, Matt Rorick (Forlorn Hope Wines), Roger began pondering the idea of recreating Chablis in Suisun Valley. But not that Chablis. Think bigger bottles, with little handles.

Jugged white wines were everywhere in the US, labeled ‘Chablis’, and were made with grapes that would become some darlings of today’s hipster somms: Chenin Blanc, Chasselas, Trousseau Gris (or Grey Riesling), Butschera (or Green Hungarian), and Vermentino. Matt and Roger chased down bud samples from all over California, and after a handful of dead ends and bum deals, Matt brought a plastic bag full of these “buttons” to be grafted onto Roger’s old Merlot and Zin. A couple of years later, Forlorn Hope released a white blend, simply called, “King Andrews,” and the esoteric throwback did plenty well.

In 2017, Rorick had no choice but to stop his arrangement with Roger after getting into some hot water, and with a bizarre vineyard full of grapes that had no market besides this one wine, Roger was frustrated, to say the least.

He asked Matt, whom he still calls a great friend, to tap his network of natural California winemakers, and Martha Stoumen’s name came up. Now this little heritage block of odd grapes with many names now finds its way into bottles under her label with the “Out to the Meadow,” name – her first label from this vineyard was also her first allocated sell-out. As of the end of April, Roger hasn’t seen a dryer season for the vineyard, and has already flood-irrigated twice, by necessity.

Speaking of Roger – His manner of speaking is focused, but sprawling, and to allow him to talk for any amount of time about his vines is to receive a brief masterclass, and a list of about fifteen names of people and places that you should’ve known, but will have to look up later. I’m not sure if I’ve heard him talk about any of his projects (or anybody else’s) without hearing an associated (Brix) number that the grapes were picked at, a pH level, sometimes a TA level too – and this is going back more than fifteen years now.

On the ten acres he farms in Suisun Valley, in addition to the heritage block, he also grows Assyrtiko, Albarino, Grenache Blanc, Tokaji, Palomino, Mencia, Mission, Pedro Ximenez, and old plantings of Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Pointing out to the vines, he tells me, “there’s an old picture of me and a good friend setting up a driving range here, and there was nothin’! A Seventh-Day Adventist lived here before and wanted me to promise not to grow grapes here after buying the place, and I said, ‘Hell No.’”

Halfway into our conversation, small gunshots start to echo from somewhere close by – neither of us mention it. Sitting next to Roger, he strikes me as a kind of homesteader.

And he’s been farming these same plots out his backyard for thirty years. When I asked him where he learned how to do the thing, he said he took a few extension classes at U.C. Davis, under the old Winkler Vine, that he had some help from some local growers, but that he learned, “at least 50 percent” from the guys out in the field. When I asked him about budding in his vineyard, on account of all of his weird white vines, he said he still leaves it to his budders. Although, after a robust discourse, he did say that you know a bud won’t take unless it “‘squeaks,’ like the sound of wood on wood.”

If Roger was French, and Suisun Valley was another place no one had heard of (with perhaps a few more accents on the words), his story would, perhaps, seem more romantic. He packed up and left a high-profile market strategist position in resorts thirty years ago, picked the spot we sat having our interview, imagining he would flip it after a handful of years, and found himself declaring it “Paradise,” not too long after he left that job. “There were a lot fewer cars driving by then, and the only building was an old beat-up deli on Mankas Corner.”

“What was here, in terms of wine, when you started out?” I asked.

“When I first got here, it didn’t exist,” he says. “It was a lot of tomatoes and pears, and that was it,” he said looking out at his vineyard.

But, there was quite the enterprise out here then too that “no one even knew about!” he tells me. Grapes had been grown in Suisun for a bit, with Wooden Valley and the Gomberg Frederickson organization both doing some work to establish the area.

Mario Lanza was a principal grower in the region, and consistently sold fruit from the valley to Ausust Sebastiani, who sourced the fruit for many of their top-of-the-line wines under his name. Chick Lanza, Mario’s son, was the man who petitioned to establish an AVA in Suisun in the early 80s, without too much expectation about what that meant for the region – the system was just being established back then. In ‘83, with papers sprawled out over a kitchen table, Suisun Valley became an American Viticultural Area, the twelfth in California, and an early entry across the country.

But the name, “Suisun Valley,” never made it on the label of Sebastiani’s wines. After Constellation bought out the Lodi-based Turner Road winery where Sebastiani produced a lot of these popular wines, the contracts with Lanza and other Suisun Valley growers dried up. And because no one ever knew this fruit came from Suisun, not many came looking for Suisun Valley wines – not winemakers, and certainly not wine drinkers.

And that was the problem.

The fruit had always been great, and it could be used when it needed to be. But, in the years when winemakers were able to get their fruit from elsewhere, this valley fell by the wayside. It wasn’t until several prominent reviews touted Suisun Valley Syrah and Petite Sirah publicly that anything really started to happen, and guys like Matt Rorick started to show up.

“We don’t make enough wine here to aim for the national market,” Roger tells me. “We’re aiming for the concentric markets of San Francisco and Sacramento, and nobody there even knew we were here until too long ago. People lived in Fairfield half their lives and had no idea there was wine here…but that’s changed.”

Everything seems more or less in proportion – except for the quality of the wine. You’re not going to see Suisun Valley printed on wine lists in New York City now, and you might not any time soon, but the wines are damned sure good enough to be there. It’s one of the few places I’ve heard of where, “the vineyard very well might save the winemaker.”

In Suisun, with a smaller market, and without the economic pressures of growing associated with a place like Napa, you could grow a vineyard full of Green Hungarian, and make your money. “There’s a freedom to it,” Roger says.

In 2010, King was looking at four acres of Syrah he had that weren’t going to amount to what he had hoped (there were four-hundred acres of Syrah down in the state of California when he planted it, and more than 14,000 when he had his first harvest). So, he decided to graft half of it to Grenache Blanc, which he had worked with in Napa years before, and the other half to Albarino.

Matt Rorick had Roger on an acid kick from working together on the Heritage Block, and they both made their first wine with the Albarino from a vineyard in Suisun in 2008. They pressed about a half ton of it, fermented it in barrel, and it “wasn’t very good.”

The next year they split the fruit, and Matt still has his in a barrel becoming a kind of Madeira right now.

But the Albarino prevailed! In 2012, Roger got it right, this time with the fruit from his own vineyard – “I was jumping up and down…it was screaming lemon-lime…it was maybe a bit too brisk for some people, so I don’t go that aggressive anymore…but I loved it” That vineyard, over by Suisun Valley Road, is completely dry-farmed, and has been for fifteen years, he tells me. But, it also sits on the old Suisun Creek channel, and is on rupestris rootstock, which digs down deep for water and gets it. Dry-farming is all about bringing the water up from below, though, he tells me, and the way you do that is cultivation – there is wild grass everywhere.

By contrast, the Heritage block within view of where we were sitting is in a state of near-perpetual-hydration. Roger has to keep that part of the vineyard completely wet year-round because of the boron deeper in the ground. “I have to keep those vines lazy, and getting their water from the surface” he says, “otherwise the boron will burn them from the inside.”

It’s one of a few times that we hit on some of the hotter button winemaking issues of the day – the others being sulfur and sugar. And there’s a consistency to his philosophy – do what you have to.

Even though he’s rubbed elbows with some of the natural scene’s cognoscenti, you’re not going to find the words “organic,” “dry-farmed,” “biodynamic,” or even, “natural” on any of his labels. He openly disavows some of the notions behind these buzzwords of today’s flourishing natural wine community. What is dry-farming in a place where it rains enough to hydrate the vines? In a cellar where every wall is caked in Saccharomyces, what does native fermentation amount to? Biodynamics, you mean witchcraft? Why is more sugar or less sugar in a wine a “natural” quality, I decide how much sugar is in the wine!

Roger filters his wines now, and fines the whites too, but he doesn’t anything add funny to them; just 40 ppm sulfur at crush and a bit more at bottle, and that’s it. He proudly deems his sparkling Albarino, “natural,” but he is markedly specific about when he uses the word. He does want to make a Pet-Nat out of just about everything though – the Chenin he’s farming for someone, make it a Pet Nat, his white Zin, “Now that I think about it, I should have made it a Pet Nat.” Leaning towards bubbles is just fine by me.

One of his most exciting wines now is a wild red blend called “Six Pac” that screams classic California sunshine – the fruit is bright and lush and plentiful, with present tannin, and lots of lift to match. A blend of Merlot, Trousseau Noir, Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Grenache, and Vermentino, it’s got a Bordeaux thing going on on the nose, with lots of dark fruit and a touch of herb-y green, but then on the palate the acid comes in strong and refreshes mightily.

His white Zinfandel is a light rusty-pink, and is dry as can be – some of his colleagues say the wine doesn’t have fruit, but it’s all early strawberries and herbs, and it’s delicious. And, of course, his Albarino, and his Pet Nat of Albarino are dueling for trademark wine. If you’re in Napa, take a trip out to the cellar door country of Suisun and try some, you’ll leave with more than you bargained for.

Now, he’s waiting for his first harvest of some Mencia he grafted to complement the Albarino that’s been growing in popularity over the years, and has planted a little Palomino, Pedro Ximenez, and Mission in another corner of his ten acres – it’s for a guy that found some of his grandfather’s old Sherry recipes.

Earlier, when I had asked him what he thought was going to happen in the state as the climate changes more, he said he didn’t know. The coast is gonna get colder, and the inland areas are going to get a hell of a lot warmer, the thing is, we don’t know where that line of demarcation is going to be. There aren’t many folks growing grapes in the way that Roger does, mostly because they can’t or they’re not willing to, “We’re all hung up on seven grapes!”

And one does wonder where this is going if we don’t start to try some new things – Bordeaux has got a few more wine grapes in its repertoire now, and so does Suisun Valley. Let’s hope some of Roger’s neighbors take his lead before too long. Talking in the just-dark at the end of April, he tells me, “We’re four months from harvest,” after all.

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Alex Cook is currently employed as the sourcing coordinator at Dry Farm Wines, in Napa Valley, where he expedites the details required to import wines, from world-wide, wine regions. He is also responsible for COLAs, FDA registrations, samples, deliveries, etc.); and, writing copy for the company’s magazine called A Matter of Taste. He calls it, “mostly technical pieces about wine, with some lifestyle elements included.” Alex is a recent transplant to the Bay Area, having left a job in New York, as a wine manager at Freemans Restaurant, in the Lower East Side of New York City. While in New York, he was the beverage purchaser and restaurant managed for ABC Kitchen | Jean-Georges Restaurants.

According to Alex Cook, “I have a burgeoning passion about wine that’s led me to where I am at Dry Farm Wines, to helping Roger King, at King Andrews Vineyard, in Suisun Valley, during harvest and some cellar work, and will see him heading overseas to source wine in the not-so-distant future

When Covid began, Alex moved back to his childhood home, in Northern Virginia, then moved to Napa, securing his job at Dry Farm Wines.

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