Suisun Valley Wine Country: a Hidden Gem
Photos of Suisun Valley Wine Country by Luke George
With the end of summer and the arrival of fall comes the annual wine country traditions of harvest and crush. Being so close to Napa, many of us are familiar with the wine country there and the tourism that goes with it. But there is another, lesser-known wine country closer to Benicia – a hidden gem known as Suisun Valley.
There are a surprising number of wineries along the 6-mile stretch of valley.
Its location is favorable to small-time and experimental winemakers whose operations may otherwise struggle or be pushed to conform in high-stakes Napa Valley. We spoke with winemakers in the area who each mentioned a sense of freedom and lack of “rules” in Suisun Valley which fosters innovation and collaboration.
This sense of collaboration can be experienced first-hand by visiting Suisun Valley Wine Co-op, one of the first tasting rooms in the region. We spoke with Fah Sathirapongsasuti, co-owner of Sunset Cellars, a founding member of the Co-op. He explained that each member of the Co-op is technically a “micro-winery,” meaning that they produce only 1000 or fewer cases of wine each year. Prospective members of the Co-op undergo a rigorous application process to assess whether their wine is appreciated by current members and if the winemakers are open to collaboration. Resources like equipment are shared and the members promote one another in the tasting room.
The tasting room, itself, is unpretentious and fun.
It feels more like a favorite bar, with eclectic décor and tastings for only $15. When Fah and his partner Mio acquired Sunset Cellars from founders Doug and Katsuku Sparks, they began putting their own spin on the tasting offerings, including a butterfly pea flower tea, from Fah’s native Thailand, as a palate cleanser, and a Japanese foot spa on their back porch. Other current Co-op wineries are Blacksmith Cellars and King Andrews Vineyards. Some larger-scale wineries in the area are Co-op alumni, such as Mangels Vineyards, just next door. In such cases, the Co-op has acted as an incubator for winemakers as they develop their craft and business in the region.
Suisun Valley received its designation as an AVA (American Viticulture Area) just one year after Napa did, yet it has only recently begun to see an increase in tourism. The valley maintains a relatively rustic feel and does so by design. You see, Suisun Valley is not only a wine country, but is, of course, also fertile ground for other agriculture, such as stone fruits and other farm-fresh produce. There is a concerted effort to preserve the agriculture in this area, protecting livelihoods and crop biodiversity. There also seems to be a consensus that it shouldn’t simply become a dwarf carbon copy of Napa Valley.
But Napa has begun noticing the appeal of Suisun Valley.
The Wagner Family of Wine recently opened a Caymus tasting room there, though it has been using grapes from the region for years, and it will soon open a production facility on the same property. While the Wagner family has production facilities elsewhere in California, Caymus-Suisun is the only one outside of Napa boasting the esteemed Caymus name – a testament to the quality of grapes from the region.
We spoke with Charlie and Jenny Wagner, whose father, Chuck, was the founder of Caymus, along with his parents, Charlie and Lorna. The family’s roots in Napa go back to the 1850s as farmers. Charlie and Jenny report that Suisun Valley reminds Chuck of what Napa used to be, before the explosion of wine tourism. They informed us that while Napa Valley is great for cabernet grapes, the unofficial grape of Suisun Valley is petite sirah. The unique position of the valley creates several microclimates which lend themselves to different varietals as well. Caymus’ first Suisun Valley vintage was released in 2015 and Jenny’s latest from the region, The Walking Fool, named for the affectionate moniker of a long-ago relative, was just recently released. “There is a lightheartedness here,” said Charlie about the valley. “It feels off the beaten path, yet is more accessible,” speaking of its convenient location as well as its more relaxed pace.
The Caymus-Suisun property sits along Mankas Corner Road and was once a fruit production and drying facility. The landscaping was meticulously designed and executed by the Wagner family. Rows of palm trees in the dry heat against clean, minimalist architecture make the visitor feel as though they have just stepped into Palm Springs. Paying homage to the location’s roots, fruit and vegetable gardens fill much of the grounds. Visitors are offered a basket after their tasting to walk with and pick whatever produce they want to take home with them. The architecture harnesses the ever-present valley breeze to naturally cool the interior spaces. The tasting room is divided into three sections, one that can be reserved for private events, one for tastings, and one for wine-by-the-glass – a unique offering, as Napa places restrictions on wineries pouring by the glass. After visitors finish their tasting and collect their bounty, they can begin their exit from the property through another building that contains a shop and a serene coffee bar.
Both Fah and the Wagners emphasized the feeling of community in Suisun Valley, both among fellow winemakers and their other neighbors.
There is a sort of shared sense that they are all in on a great secret. There is an excitement about what lies in store for Suisun Valley, about its potential. Yet, a common awe at its uniqueness; a sense of urgency in preserving it. How does a micro-winery like Sunset Cellars feel about big Napa wineries like Caymus moving in? “Caymus has brought more clientele and inspired us to create even better wine,” said Fah, “We derive inspiration from each other.”
If you go, be sure to stop by both the Suisun Valley Wine Co-op, open Wednesday-Sunday, and Caymus-Suisun, open every day. During this season, the winemakers are onsite most days, and you might get an opportunity to chat with them. Be sure to also stop by Mankas Grill, recently under new ownership, for your lunch or dinner. Vezér Family Vineyard is right next door, and the Suisun Valley Filling Station is across the way for those who like beer and live music. Village 360 has much to offer as well, including cocktails, dining, wine tasting, coffee, wedding planning, and more. See a full list of wineries, farm stands, and everything else Suisun Valley has to offer at suisunvalley.com.