Solano County Wine Grapes Thriving

California North Coast appellation brings big sales to small growers

by Jane Firstenfeld
Solano County harvest
The North Coast AVA and two sub-appellations overlap with Solano County, Calif.
Vallejo, Calif.—It’s the least-known segment of the prestigious 3 million-acre North Coast AVA, wedged between Napa County and the San Pablo Bay. Its own sub-appellations (Suisun Valley and Solano County Green Valley) are not famous, but a hefty percentage of Solano County’s $20 million annual wine grape crop finds avid buyers nearby and across the continent.

Currently Solano County has 22 wineries, of which 13 have vineyards and 10 sell grapes, according to WinesVinesDATA. The largest, G V Cellars in Fairfield, Calif., produces 22,000 cases per year; only four others produce 5,000 or more cases.

These statistics will be skewed dramatically in the near future: As reported this week in The North Bay Business Journal, Chuck Wagner, owner of 90,000-case Caymus Vineyards in Rutherford, Calif., will begin constructing a new 5.5 million-gallon winery operation in Cordelia and planting as many as 50 acres of vineyards in fields formerly devoted to legumes and wheat.

Early harvest, available labor
The 2013 crop started coming in two to three weeks early, thanks to a warm spring and hot summer. This is especially welcome news for Solano growers, who principally rely upon hand labor in their vineyards.

Because of the early harvest this year, the growers have had no problem sourcing labor. But, said Jake Stuessey, winemaker at 5,000-case Blue Victorian in Suisun Valley, “You’re always holding your breath: Once Napa starts its harvest, that’s when our labor problems start.” Larger and wealthier producers from the other side of the county line can lure vineyard workers away mid-crush. “It was a major problem last year,” Stuessey recalled.

He expects an average-size crop from his 25 vineyard acres this year, although Sauvignon Blanc is heavier than normal.  “The only grapes I’m selling this year are to another local winery,” Stuessey said. “We buy from other wineries to fit our wine programs.”

He noted that vines are going in throughout the area, with 100-200 new vineyard acres on one Suisun Valley parcel. Blue Victorian is “looking at buying another vineyard” as well, he said.

The Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association posts grapes for sale, Stuessey noted. “The industry is showing a lot of opportunities for undiscovered AVAs.

“The majority of growers in this county only sell grapes as blenders to Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino wineries. They sell to big producers. A few of us are trying to show what our grapes can do.”

Almost done in Dixon
Jess Jones, who produces 1,200 cases per year from 4 acres of grapes at Jess Jones Vineyard in Dixon, reported, “We’re more than half done harvesting. In my 13 years here, I’ve never harvested before mid-September.” Jones expects his early harvest to finish next week, with yields of about 5-6 tons per acre.

“For us, it’s been kind of moderate this summer after one really hot spell. The mild early spring started the life cycle early,” Jones said.

Jones added that he has a reliable harvest team of the same 12 women every year. He sells a major portion of his grapes to home winemakers, a practice he started “when commercial vineyards weren’t buying.” Customers will buy between 500 pounds and 1 ton of grapes, which the winery will pick, crush and destem for them. “Some people will bring food-grade 30-gallon garbage cans” to pick up their home vintage, he said.

Jones sets his prices by referring to the state crush report for District 5. More than 21,200 acres of Solano County are part of the North Coast AVA, but the Jess Jones Vineyard is planted outside the perimeter. “We cannot market as North Coast,” he said. Just south of Davis, Dixon is “on the north edge of the Delta climate. We get consistent evening sea breezes, same as Lodi/Clarksburg,” he said.

Nearly all Jess Jones wines are sold direct to consumer through the winery and at local fruit stands, as well as in the Dixon Safeway.

Best sellers
Wooden Valley Winery in Suisun Valley has reduced its wine production from around 10,000 cases to 5,000 cases annually, according to owner Ron Lanza, with 90% of bottles sold direct to consumers and the rest sold locally.

His grapes get around, however. Since 2007, Wooden Valley has been shipping grapes to distributors in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for sale mostly to amateur winemakers: Lanza expects to ship as many as 25,000 36-pound boxes this year. “They’re looking for coastal fruit,” he commented. “This market ensures you develop your own market: Brand your fruit instead of being at the mercy of commercial clients.”

Lanza covers all the bases, though: “We still sell half our grapes to large wineries as well—some to Constellation and Gallo.”

Mangels Vineyards also has established grape buyers across the Napa border. From its 34 acres of grapes, Mangels produces a scant 700 cases of wine per year in Suisun Valley.

“We sell mainly to large Napa wineries,” said winemaker Gina Richmond. “They are allowed to use as much as 15% of grapes from outside the Napa appellation,” she pointed out.

“I would say we sell about 90% of our tonnage. We usually pick and deliver the grapes, and they do the crushing.” The Suisun Valley grapes sell for $700-$1,200 per ton depending on variety, she said.

Mangels’ 2013 harvest has been going for two or three weeks now, and Richmond predicted it would be completed in no more than six weeks, “depending on the weather,” of course. Yields are average to slightly above average, she said.

One week down, six to go
In Dixon, 2,500-case Purple Pearl Vineyards cultivates 32 acres of vineyards and, according to co-owner Brenda Inman, sells all but 30% of the grapes.

Purple Pearl’s harvest started just last weekend with Chardonnay, and Inman expects it to continue for the next six weeks providing normal yields totaling about 240 tons.

This year for the first time, Purple Pearl will ship Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to a winery in British Columbia: “It’s cheaper to import grapes than wine,” Inman pointed out. Colorado, which lost much of its crop to cold this year, will be getting shipments of Chardonnay. “The rest is going to California,” Inman said.

Purple Pearl puts its grape prices on par with upper Lodi, Inman said. Some varieties go for $800 per ton, but keeping up with consumer trends, at least one buyer is paying $1,100 per ton for Muscat.

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