My private example comes from my own life’s history. I was born and raised in Maine, a direct descendant of the Reverend William Blackstone, the first Anglo to settle in Boston… My roots run really deep on the East Coast.
So this guy on top of a hill, called it his “Common.” He integrated well in Shawmut with the existing Shawmut Natives. Blackstone was historically a peaceful man, Natives found him interesting, not obtuse. Next year, Boston is going to celebrate 400 years. See, how small steps count? Look at Boston today.
I left the East Coast in my 40s, and it wasn’t easy. Before I left, I had made my mark in Portland, Maine, as a publicist for a rock station. I integrated into Rotary, and within it created a scholarship for immigrants and refugees. I had to learn Portland Maine Rotary’s culture, long before they gave me what I wanted. But, I succeeded, because I had the best interests of Portland Maine at heart. I photographed rock and rollers back stage (all I have to tell you is Tina Turner and Robert Plant, for instance). Top of my PR game. How did I get there? Not gushing over these creative artists, just taking their images and submitting to trade magazine. Everyone’s portfolios were built, as I just worked it.
So, moving into wine in California was a whole new learning curve. Crossing to a new place, a new culture, I did myself (and others) a favor, by studying it first. This is how I see the success of Suisun Valley, after spending nine years writing their history. Writing it meant that I had to dig deep into their culture, in order to understand my client and their unique region, and then I had to help them shape that past in a reasonable way. This was so they could have a new decade of respecting their potential and finding their present selves. And then, they were off and running for another decade of time, as I stepped away.
A very important writer, within the wine community, just told me that living in the Bay Area means going into Suisun Valley, on a regular basis, and going to Larry’s produce. Some vintners still have fruit trees, what they were so famous for ages ago. It’s charming, it’s down to earth, its focus is on its people, first and foremost. (It took time for some of them to trust me, even.) I learned the most important aspect of Suisun Valley are its peoples’ histories, and now it’s new generations coming in; and they, too, must adapt with patience.
My husband Jose Diaz was given a quote by jazz musician Wayne Shorter that I really love, “It’s not he who comes on strongest, it’s he who last longest.” This is the best advice I can turn around for Suisun Valley. People who are coming in with legacy. Legacy defined: “.. the long-lasting impact of particular events, actions, etc. that took place in the past, or of a person’s life.” Legacy is now just being created, and it will take time.
Do you have any idea what it was like, trying to get wine country in the 90s to understand the value of radio, even? Let’s talk about podcasts today., just sayin’.
Being a publicist, since 1983, I get stories, I get wine brands, I get their passions, and it’s the thinking of these people that makes them so special… People first, their passions next, and then their stories. The most sustainable part of a wine company are its people, then the earth, then the wine practices, next their products…in that order makes the best stories. So here… Here is how Suisun Valley has had its growing pains, its accomplishments, and now coming into its future being written. I find that the “down to earth” is still playing out well, because patience is still a virtue, with a bit of eager thrown in for good measure.
This history needs to be understood, to write a decent descendant story…
Suisun Valley AVA Recently Celebrated 40 Years
However, Historical Viticulture Began 165 Years Ago
In 1858, Austrian native John Votypke started to grow grapes in adjacent Green Valley. His vineyard property was located at the foot of the valley’s peaks, known as Twin Sisters. By 1863, he also began to make wine. Meanwhile, The Louis Mangels family’s arrival into New York City in 1866, from Germany, immigrating with his parents. Louis was only 14 years old at the time, and they settled in Suisun Valley. This important generational family still lives and works in Suisun Valley today.
Into the 1900s, when Italian immigrants Mario Lanza and Lena Carlevaro Lanza met in Oakland, California in 1934. They married three years later. Mario and his friend Salvador Brea, along with his brother Manuel, founded a small winery in Suisun Valley, at the end of prohibition in 1933 – Wooden Valley Winery. By 1955, Mario became the sole owner. The family history continues. By 1982, Richard “Chick” Lanza realized they needed proper regional recognition for their wines. Chick lobbied the government, thereby establishing Suisun Valley as California’s fourteenth official American Viticultural Area (AVA), right behind Napa Valley.
Viticulture and Messaging Challenges
The challenges that existed in their history continued to be real, having to do with contract consolidation of vineyards. This eventually led to being controlled only by the Sebastiani Company. Next there was a reduction of contract values, which became totally unacceptable from the grape growers’ perspective. In one vineyard, grapes sold for $3,000 a ton on the Napa side, separated by only a Napa/Suisun fence, the contiguous vineyard only garnered $300 a ton for the same grapes. Frustration led to action…
Meanwhile in 2000: Rick Wood, city of Fairfield’s Water Division, entered negotiations with the Solano Irrigation District’s council members. Both parties agreed to give the valley farmers and grape growers a chance at creating a Suisun Valley Fund. This funding was the impetus for Suisun Valley’s success being what it is today. They worked closely with the Suisun Valley Growers Association, which then morphed into the Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association. Once they got rolling, each grower asked himself, “What if I made my own wine?”
Nine Years of Intense Renaissance for Suisun Valley, Twists and Turns
- 2002, My own assimilating and studying.
- By 2003, wine grape growers in Suisun Valley formed the Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association. The organization established a nine-member board of elected officers and directors, and filed paperwork to establish a non-profit association, with an adopted set of by laws. The group also sought funding through the Suisun Valley Fund. Board of directors and founding members included the following: President: Roger King, Vice President: Ken Lanza, Secretary: Maurry Koch, Treasurer: Chris Meade, Directors: Dan Capp, Dean Frisbie, Howard Babcock, Frank Lindemann, and Gary Mangels.
- 2004 had to do with the shaping of the group. Consultants were hired to shape their messages. Turrentine Wine Brokerage the message of Ultra-Premium grapes, in direct sales methods to their contacts. This service was available to all SVGGA Members, who wanted assistance in their direct sales promotion. Growers negotiated individual contracts from developed leads, under their own terms.
- 2005: Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association was extremely pleased with the overall response to their buyer-seller forum; both from their members and from visitors to their site. Having a background both in government and working for corporate ski resorts, Roger King stated, “This has become the most important function of our Web site. Our super-premium grapes offer tremendous value to grape buyers. This is where we can begin to foster relationships with producers who need what we have to offer, super-premium grapes at affordable pricing.” Although King agreed that SVGGA was in a crawling, image-building stage, he knew that Suisun Valley Grape Growers were crawling faster every day.
- 2006: What happened in Suisun Valley was a modern-day, evolutionary case study in innovation. It set those who dared in Suisun Valley, to become the leading pioneers into eventual, broad recognized prominence. Grower Steven Tenbrink decided to become symbiotic with his buyers, Steve stayed in constant contact with winemakers who bought his grapes. They told Steve what vineyard practices they wanted, and Steve delivered. Tenbrink was also in touch with what the wineries were doing once his fruit arrived. The outcome became that he’s regularly invited to the wineries, as bonds of friendship were forged.
- A BIG YEAR: 2007: Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association created a strong Strategic Plan, a Co-op Tasting Room signaled a significant growth spurt, and signs of growth were spreading through the Valley…
- Also, grape growers were focusing on growing niche fruit to complement a specific variety focusing on growing artisan wine grapes in small quantities of outstanding quality fruit to serve super premium to luxury wine categories, to provide the best quality to value ratio. They were dropping fruit, cutting leaves, hand-holding each vine in his possession.
- They were now also finding buyers from outside of California, e.g., Ohio, upstate New York, etc., and they identified and sold to home winemakers. While Ron Lanza stated it best (vice president at the time and now president of SVVGA), not being as caution as some other members. “I have plans of growth for our family’s winery, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen for the future generations of my family.”
- SVGGA began to gather scientific data through four newly installed weather stations, to define climatic zones in Suisun Valley. This would mean a better understanding and definition of Suisun Valley’s unique terroir.
- The Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative was created, which was the beginning of other wineries beginning to find a home in Suisun Valley.
- This began a segue from thinking only in terms of grape growing to hosting wine events showcasing Suisun Valley wine as a solid product.
- Finally, in 2007 Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association threw a party and wondered who would come. It was their Twenty-Fifth Anniversary celebration, and it seemed the entire valley came to the celebration. It was so successful, in fact, that attendees barely fit into the Vintage Caffè location. They knew they had arrived.
- 2008: Grape Growers in Suisun Valley hired Paul Skinner, of Terra Spase, Inc.,
to scientifically document the region’s terroir. By analyzing existing data and leveraging new data sources, Terra Spase’s work enable local growers to make the best possible use of land and cultivars available to them. This effort helped to further establish to those outside of their region, that Suisun Valley was a recognizable ultra-premium wine grape production district.
- 2009: The association continued to expand their strategic marketing plan. As a result, wine companies were beginning to proliferate in the valley. The SVGGA formed a vintners committee for their first event, which was a day trip into Suisun Valley for consumers, who were invited to taste excellent wines, now being produced in Suisun Valley. Noteworthy climate findings included what was once empirically understood by the farmers and discussed as anecdotal evidence. They were now validated by this academic study; namely,
situated near 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 has yet to be so thoroughly recorded.
- 2010: It was all about marketing, as they had arrived. Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association (SVGGA) experiences a metamorphosis in name, becoming Suisun Valley Vintners & Growers Association (SVVGA). To that end, they focused on hosting events, because they were so successful:
- Suisun Valley Vintners & Grape Growers’ Suisun Valley Passport Sunday, April 18, 2010
- SVGGA’s Vintners Committee ~ Harvest Celebration, throughout Suisun Valley
- Suisun Valley AVA Holiday Wine Celebrations, 26th Anniversary
As they began to settle into their valley, new developments began from inside and outside interests, of mega proportions. From this point forward, their “news,” was about newcomers, who’ve also respected their history and culture.
Old and New Wine Companies with a Major Impact Discover Suisun
Starting with the historic Lanza Vineyards, (today it is Wooden Valley Winery) recent renovations have occurred of epic proportions. They now offer a full renovation of the tasting room, along with the transformation of grounds and building exteriors, with venue space for outdoor events, giving them a much higher impact in the valley. Consumer attendance has surged, as a result. It was completed about mid-2022. Being a neighbor of Caymus Suisun, that corner of Suisun is very impactful and modern. What had that down home feel of Lanza Vineyards has been maintained, yet brought it up to date. Ron Lanza, representing Lanza Vineyards, continues to have that leadership that many people remember, and new-to-the-winery people are also attracted to it.
Another historic player has been existing in the neighborhood for quite some “quiet” time ~ Balle Keal. The Balle Keal estate is a luxury experience on the south end of the valley, while Caymus in on the north end, where the history Lanza Family has existed, since they moved into the valley, and helped, with other companion leaders, to shape every part of this story.
Big changes began in 2013, with some recognizable names considering Suisun Valley’s major viticultural improvements and the promise of Solano County being on a closed-loop system with Lake Berryessa.
First, E. & J. Gallo Winery came into the valley, to purchase Ledgewood Creek Winery in Suisun Valley. The approximate date for news began in 2013.
But news was also brewing about Caymus entering the valley, about the same time. It was an undercurrent, not privy to outsiders. But insiders were picking up details and sharing. It took Chuck Wagner years to do it right, spending a lot of his time planning. Wagner had a vision, and obviously fulfilled long-held dreams for expansion. And he did it in Suisun Style, honoring history, the families of today, its terroir, and fitting into his space, creating continued legacy of his properties, for generations to come.
Being sensitive to the valley’s terroir, Chuck Wagner’s son Charlie Wagner is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle (May 10, 2022), written by Esther Mobley,
“We want it to feel like you’re outside even when you’re inside,” said Charlie Wagner, whose father, Chuck Wagner, started Caymus in 1972. “And we wanted to show off the wind.” The glass walls, he said, are meant to elide the barrier between indoor and outdoor, and to emphasize the strong Suisun Valley breeze, one of the characteristics that define winegrowing conditions here.
And READERS DIGEST ~ 2/24/2023 ~ 50 Most Romantic Hotels in Every State TITLE California: Suisun Valley Inn at Monroe Ranch, Location: Fairfield, California
“Situated north of the Suisun Bay, the Suisun Valley Inn offers couples a romantic retreat at the 27-acre Monroe Ranch. With just eight themed rooms, it’s an intimate hideaway for a weekend of bliss. Wine lovers will especially delight in staying so close to many wonderful vineyards—it’s only about 45 minutes from some of the best wineries in Napa. Fairfield is a culinary hot spot in California’s Wine County, making it an even more irresistible place to go for a romantic getaway.”
The icing on the cake, really bringing it all home…
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC gives you a feature story, positioned as a place to visit, by Barbara Noe Kennedy, January 20, 2023. From her story:
Is this California wine region the new Napa? Its vintners hope not.
Suisun Valley has become a weekend destination for its top-notch wines and down-to-earth wineries—a reminder of how Napa used to be.
“There’s a California wine region, about a 45-minute drive from San Francisco, where grape vines run off to golden, oak-covered hills and wild turkeys shuffle across the road. Family vineyards and down-home tasting rooms provide friendly wine sampling, and the bottles are often reasonably priced.
“But this isn’t Napa or Sonoma, it’s the bucolic Suisun Valley. The 8-mile-by-3-mile swath of vineyards and small farms feels like the Napa Valley of 50 years ago, with similarly top-notch wines.
“Compared with the state’s bigger wine-growing regions, “we provide a more relaxed experience,” says Ron Lanza, whose family runs Wooden Valley Winery, the oldest operation in Suisun (sue-soon).
About Suisun Valley: The Suisun Valley appellation is about 19,000 acres. The 8-mile area, from south to north, south being where the wetlands of the Suisun Marsh are located. North is where Suisun and Napa valleys are neighbors.
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And my 2022 stories! 🙂
Great! I look forward to reading your stories, Elizabeth!
Wow. Thank you for everything you do to boost us! Incredible article with such detail and insight that only someone who loves us would know. We love you back. Appreciate you.
Yes, Linda, I do love you guys! Only someone with nine years of writing about you would have my files and hours of devotion. Cheers to all of you, for your hard work and great moral fiber! It’s been great to be connected for so long.
What a great summary of the land, the people and all it took to get Suisun Valley where it is today as a wine region! Thank you, Jo, for always finding those “nuggets” of information that make the story come alive! It certainly reminds me of where we’ve been and where we hope to be as a (wine) region worthy of visiting and enjoying. Looking forward to learning even more and hopefully, visiting Suisun Valley soon!
Susanne, just what you’ve said, “summary of the land, the people and all it took to get Suisun Valley where it is today as a wine region.”
I’d love to know when you’re visiting. Seeing you again, after all of these years, keeping our link alive… Nothing would be finer, than to be in Carolina, with my first born and her family. I’m sure you’d understand that one. We can make sure that doesn’t happen.