For my 40th birthday I took a much-needed get away to Napa. We visited my friend Jeff Miller and his wife Beryl. Jeff lives in Napa and grows and makes wines in the Suisun Valley AVA under several labels: Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, and Red Côte .

The Suisun Valley AVA is adjacent to the Napa AVA, so close that you can throw a stone from Jeff’s Suisun Valley vineyard and have it land well into a Napa Valley vineyard. The  Suisun Valley is warmer than Napa. It has a more open, rural, bucolic, feel – free of castles and temples. Suisun Valley has forged its identity and reputation with Petite Sirah as well as Bordeaux varieties. 

We stopped by the custom crush facility where Jeff makes his wine to get a tank sample of his 2009 Montepulciano- his first commercial run. In many ways, this is the Italian answer to Pinot Noir. I’ve had previous non-commercial bottlings of wine from the same vines and they had been great: bright, with pretty, nice red fruit and hints of spice and leather on a lighter body with great acid and tannin structure for food pairing. This is typical of Jeff’s style. In fact, it was Jeff’s wines and his skill with Montepulciano that sealed my friendship with him. Others have written about Jeff’s wines, so I have to defer to them for more impartial assessments than I can give in this situation. Nevertheless, the 2009 Montepulciano promises to be a very good wine as well and I am curious what the press will say about it once it’s released.

Winterhawk Winery was preparing for a club member event at the crush facility. I tasted their ’08 Verdelho and ’07 Tempranillo – both grown in Suisun Valley. The Verdelho was floral, quite light and crisp with good minerality. The Tempranillo was lighter-framed than many California bottlings of this variety with nice, clear fruit aromas backed by hints of chocolate and supple, smooth tannins.

We next stopped at the Suisun Valley Coop tasting room on Suisun Valley Road. Doug Sparks (owner winemaker at Sunset Cellars) operates the tasting room and was pouring that day. We tasted several producers’ wines, trying a broad range of wines as I wanted to get a cross section of the wines grown in the appellation.

Two wines from King Andrews Vineyards were being poured at the coop. Both were made with Suisun Valley fruit. The 2009 Albariño did not show the typical stone fruit and there was a bitter, flat edge to this wine that, by my experience, is common in Albariños which have been opened too long and are oxidized. So, unfortunately, I was unable to give this wine a fair assessment.

Made aware of my concerns, Sparks did not offer to open a fresh bottle, assuring me oxygenation was not the problem, as he was using gas preservation on all the wines he was pouring. Gas preservation is my method of choice, but it might not be the best choice for tasting rooms. Please see sidebar.

Suisun Valley is more than Petite Sirah. There is diversity of wine in the AVA in more than name only. Most of the wines we tasted were clean and not flawed. Many were very enjoyable and a good number were well made, demonstrating great varietal fidelity.

Spring in Suisun Valley

Just as it has focused on Petite Sirah, rather than the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay of its Napa neighbors, , Suisun Valley may do well to emphasize other, less common, varieties better suited to its warmer climates. Some growers are already doing that with Rousanne, Mourvedre, Grenache, and Sangiovese.

It is a fact of life that the mainstream consumer wants a Chardonnay or Merlot before they want a Monterey Chardonnay or a Suisun Valley Merlot. The appeal of catering to that demand is obvious, but it carries the challenges of being a producer of yet another Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot or Syrah.

Gas Preservation in Tasting Rooms

There are various preservation methods for opened bottles of wine: Re-corking, refrigeration, vacuum pumps, inert gasses, or any combination of the above. I am partial to inert gas because it reduces oxidation – deterioration in a wine’s freshness that comes about as a result of oxygen.

This is why barrels are (supposed to be) continuously topped off with wine or inert gasses – most commonly argon, CO2 and nitrogen in some combination. These gasses not only do not react with the wine but, being heavier than air, they create a protective layer on top of the wine which keeps out the oxygen. This presumes that the wine sits undisturbed – otherwise, the inert gases and oxygen mix and the protective effect is diminished or even eliminated.

Inert gas is an excellent way to preserve a bottle on the counter top, a bottle that will stand upright until the next night when two or three glasses are poured for dinner. As long as the bottle is undisturbed, the gas forms a continuous layer on top of the wine, protecting it from oxygen.

And that is why gas preservation is really a futile effort at wine preservation in any situation where the bottle is repeatedly tipped for pours over an extended period of time.

The surface area of wine in an upright, undisturbed, half-full bottle is about 7 square inches. A small amount of inert gas can protect the wine in this scenario by coating its surface and keeping oxygen away.

This protection is lost with the first pour. When a bottle is tipped, those inert gasses (which are heavier than air) flow out of the bottle with the wine leaving the surface of the wine unprotected.

With subsequent tipping and pouring, that exposed surface of the wine is increased in two important ways:

The surface area of the wine in a half-full bottle tipped for a pour is about 27 square inches. This makes for an area now almost four times as large to absorb oxygen. Additionally, that surface area of the wine inside is further increased with each pour as bubbles of air make their way through the wine.

With numerous pours, more and more oxygen is absorbed by the. A little bit of oxygenation may help some wines open up. But the cumulative impact can also be quite deleterious, regardless of gassing and refrigeration. This is particularly true when it takes a day or more to empty a bottle.

A tasting room or a restaurant selling wine by the glass should understand that gas preservation has its limitations and not count on a shot of the gas (adequate for protecting seven square inches of wine in an undisturbed bottle) to protect wine being poured out in small amounts over longer periods.

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This represents a shift in mindset from that of farming “mainstream” cultivars to be used in large productions outside of the region to that of developing the unique character of the AVA through focusing on the varieties optimally suited for the region.

A more secure (though more hard-earned) future lies not in growing whatever everyone else is growing but choosing grapes which are best suited for one’s location. Given Suisun’s warm climate, late ripening varieties that retain good acidity and structure may be a good bet. It is the wines resulting from those kinds of choices that shine and earn solid reputations and a place in the larger wine landscape. This, of course, does need time for experimentation and trial and error.

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Tasting notes:

The 2008 King Andrews Muscat Blanc was… well… muscat. Not problematic but not really attention grabbing. I would say, though, that lovers of sweeter Muscat should understand that it is made in a dry style.

Next a 2007 Shale Peak Barbera—this is King Andrews’s second label in Solano County. Rather pale, it was packed with caramel and pepper but its vague fruit and soft structure made it seem a bit syrupy and possibly heat damaged. The green notes made it very awkward.

We closed out the tasting with two Petite Sirahs. The first was from Mangels Vineyards [http://www.mangelsvineyards.com]. It was very pruny and porty and a bit thin in the mouth. This sometimes happens with big, ripe high alcohol Petite Sirahs after they have been open for about a day but explode with plush, baked blue and black fruit on opening.

The second Petite Sirah was the best red in the line up. The 2006 Sparks Sunset Cellars Petite Sirah was rich with dark blue and black fruit and a floral hint. Smooth, suede-like tannins were paired with a slight sweetness, a hint of astringency and appropriate acidity.


Arthur Z. Przebinda focuses on California wine stories, particularly those from the Central Coast, for PALATE PRESS: The Online Wine Magazine. Arthur founded redwinebuzz.com in 2006 to focus on California’s Central Coast wines and to offer general wine education.

  • http://www.grottocellars.com/ Mart S – Grotto Wine Racks

    I got confuse with the Suisin Valley and Gas Preservation posts. Anyways, nice post! Very insightful. I wish I could visit Suisin. Cheers!

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  • http://www.wine-blog.org Jo Diaz

    Greetings, Arthur.

    Great story with lots of insights.

    Just one point, because it’s not completely understand by many, even including many of the farmers in Suisun Valley…

    In a recent study by Dr. Paul Skinner of Terra Spase, the climate of Suisun Valley isn’t really warmer than Napa – although it might feel like it, when you’re at the north end, only.

    Skinner is most famous for his defining Napa Valley’s climate. The Suisun Valley Vintners and Grape Growers Association felt that if they were going to be able to demand better prices for their grapes, they needed to prove what they always intuitive knew… They climate is very closely aligned to Napa’s. Being a neighbor, simple common sense would suggest that. But being intuitive within the scientific community isn’t enough, so Paul Skinner was called in to do a year long study.

    The results?

    While they may be a degree or two warmer, on some days, the entire valley (eight miles long) parallels Napa Valley. The southern portion of Napa (Carneros) is on parallel to the Abernathy Road in Suisun, where you’ll find Legdewood Creek. They’re known for their Merlot and Rhone varieties. Mid section is equivalent to the Rutherford district, and the north is equivalent to Calistoga’s heat. On any given day, you will find a 10 to 15 degree difference between the south of Suisun and the north… Just as we all can in Napa Valley’s long stretch. It’s just compressed in Suisun (difference between 8 and 38 miles).

    This is why Suisun is placed in the North Coast AVA, versus Central Valley. Just over the Vaca Mountain, Suisun is Napa’s neighbor, and also has the ability to create really beautiful wines.

  • http://svvga.com Roger King

    It is interesting to read about perceptions of our growing season weather in Suisun Valley vs actual science. Some claimed Suisun Valley was too cold when the North Coast AVA petition was being developed in 1982-83, experiencing only that lower portion impacted by air movement through Jamieson Canyon from San Pablo Bay. Others have called it hot when isolated to the very upper reaches against the Napa County line.

    What science found was it has a very significant set of climates that span about 14 degrees from southern to northern parts of the valley on most days. What this allows is for a diverse set of varietals to flourish in such a short distance of each other in an 8 mile long valley.

    In that range Petite Sirah has found very positive growing areas where it can excel and does. For many it is considered the flagship grape.

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  • http://www.woodenvalley.com Kerri Cooper

    Arthur,
    Thanks for sharing your Suisun Valley experience. It’s always nice to see our beautiful gem through the eyes of others. The climate in Suisun Valley does allow for a diverse set of varietals to grow and over time, with some trial and error, growers in Suisun Valley have really nailed it down. I’m hoping the next time you visit you’ll take the time to stop in at Wooden Valley Winery and let Ron give you a private tour and tasting.

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  • http://www.djcovey.com Donna Covey

    I love the Suisun Valley experience so much that I created a series of paintings (see website)depicting the familiar landmarks of the Valley,including Ledgewood Creek Winery, Wooden Valley Winery, Vezer Winery, the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative and Blue Victorian. I’m so glad to see that Suisun Valley and its wonderful wine are getting some well deserved recognition/

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