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Suisun Valley – The AVA & The Wine

Suisun Valley Part One – A seven-minute read.

This is part one of a four-part series.

If you are like most folks, you have probably never heard of Suisun Valley. But, just for fun, let’s assume you did not see the title of this blog post.

Ok, quickly, name every wine region, AVA, or nested AVA you can think of in California. On your mark. Get set. GO! The first name out of most folks’ mouths would probably be Napa Valley and then Sonoma. After that, it starts to get dicey depending on your wine enthusiasm for details.  Depending on what you drink, you might say Russian River Valley, Rutherford, Lodi, Carneros, Dry Creek, Paso Robles, Central Coast,  etc. If you come up with even more – good on you – you are probably a fan of some lesser-known AVAs, or you study wine.  But I’d assume most will never think of Suisun Valley {SUH-soon}. Suisun Valley

Yet, I would guess that if you drink red wine from California, you have had wine made with at least some grapes from Suisun Valley.  Additionally, if you visited wineries in any other state not as well known for their wine like North Carolina, Massachusetts, Michigan, etc., you have probably had Suisun Valley wine. If your favorite wine variety is Petite Sirah (aka Petite Syrah), you also drink from Suisun Valley. (Its claim to fame is being the Petite Sirah Capital of the World) You just did not know it. Why? Because the grapes harvested from the three thousand acres of grapevines within the AVA are sold to winemakers all over the country.

Suisun Valley
The shaded area in red is Suisun Valley AVA. The shaded area in green is the nested AVAs within the greater Napa Valley AVA.

So, where is Suisun Valley, and why do you need to know?

Suisun Valley AVA is in Solano County. Its northernmost border runs along the Napa County and Solano County border.  Suisun Valley became an AVA (American Viticulture Area) in 1982, one year after Napa Valley.  And yet, we know little about it.

Remember that farming is at the root of all wine regions. Some farmers, their children, or grandchildren at some point “get the bug” to start making wine instead of only selling their bounty to other wineries. That bug has not really taken hold in Suisun Valley as there are only twelve wineries with tasting rooms in the entire AVA. So what does this mean for the wine adventurer?

Spend a day in Suisun before you head out in Sonoma, Napa, and find some delicious wines at great prices and experience a wine region like its 1985. Small, family-operated tasting rooms or perhaps a picnic table next to the vineyard where the winemaker is pouring.

It doesn’t get any better than that.  Oh… Yes, it does. The people are the most sincere and down-to-earth that you will meet anywhere. They are thrilled to share their wines with you. And tasting flights average $20.00 at most wineries.

Thirty-Six Hours with Winemakers of Suisun Valley

On our last press trip to California wine country, we spent a day and a half with several Suisun Valley winemakers. We heard their origin stories and sampled some of their wines.


Suisun Valley – Day One

On day one, we all met at the Tolenas/Tenbrink Vineyards winery. There, one at a time, a representative from one of eight wineries told their story and shared some of their wines with the writers as we sat before them. This seemed like the best way to accomplish the monumental task of sampling thirty wines over the course of the day. The eight wineries included Tolenas Winery, Tenbrink Vineyard and Winery, Suisun Valley Filling Station & Visitor’s Center, Suisun Creek Winery, Sunset Cellars, Blacksmith Cellars (both presented by Suisun Valley Co-op), King Andrews Vineyards, and Mangels Vineyards (Wineries in the burgundy text are in today’s post; the blue text will be in part two. Day Two – Veezer Family Vineyard and Wooden Valley Winery is part three. And Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company will be in part four.

After a brief history of the AVA, we began with Tolenas Winery.

Tolenas Winery

Farming and winemaking are in Lisa Howard’s blood. She grew up on a farm that started growing wine grapes in 1996 and watched her parents create and operate Tenbrink Vineyards and Winery. After university and moving to Arizona (where she met her husband Cliff), the desire to come home grew stronger. So when the opportunity arose to buy a 55-acre property, they jumped, and in 2015 Tolenas Winery was born. Their first vintage was in 2017.

Suisun Valley AVA

If this label looks familiar, that is because I previously blogged about the 2019 and 2020 vintages of the Tolenas “Eclipse” White Pinot Noir. So I was super excited to learn their history and taste more of their wines.

Tolenas Winery makes their wines at Tenbrink Vineyards and Winery, which Lisa’s parents own and operate. Interestingly, Tolenas produces the lion’s share of the wine for both wineries – 1300 cases Tolenas and 200 Cases Tenbrink.

The Tolenas Portfolio

We sampled six of the seven wines in their portfolio (one not pictured).  The lineup included the 2020 Sauvignon Blanc, 2020 “Eclipse” White Pinot Noir, 2018 Zinfandel, 2017 Red Blend, 2020 Rosé, and (not pictured) the 2020 Tolenas Dessert Wine.

My favorite wine from this tasting is the 2018 Zinfandel. At $40.00 a bottle, this wine ticked all of my boxes. It is well-balanced with the perfect level of fruit, acid, tannin, and body. The ABV is 16% which is high. But the balance of all the other characteristics keeps it in check, which is the sign of a well-made wine.

As a huge fan of white pinot noir, “Eclipse” is also right up at the top. The color is golden with bronze and amber hues. The weight is medium+. The nose is tart apple and summer sheets drying on an outdoor clothesline with a soft breeze. Orchard fruit predominates the palate with a mouthwatering finish. I am so glad that I got an additional bottle to bring home. Yum!

The 2020 Suisun Valley Rosé is made from Petite Sirah. The color is similar to the Italian Rosato-style, which is more of a transparent fire engine red. This wine presented as an off-dry* rosé which is typically not “my jam.” Yet I liked it. In fact, this wine could be a summer porch pounder that will keep me chilling on the back porch all day long.

* An off-dry wine presents slightly sweet from the residual sugar remaining in the wine.

Let the Fun Begin – 2020 Lot 38 Suisun Valley Dessert Wine

The last wine I want to share with you is the 2020 Suisun Valley Dessert Wine ($35.00). (The one not in the “group photo.”)  I really, really, really enjoyed this wine. Why? Obviously, because it is delicious, but also because it is so unique, unlike any dessert wine I have tried. So different that I had trouble putting my words together to describe it.

Thus I am using their words that describe it perfectly.

The best way to think of this early release port is a “Nouveau” of Port. This dessert wine is anything but traditional. It was not aged in oak or stored for an extended period of time, and it is bursting with freshness. It was fermented slow and cool to bring out all our Estate’s lovely red fruit characters, Hillside, Dry Farmed, Zinfandel Vines.

These vines are young, and this was their first harvest; young vines naturally have lots of fruit character, and this dessert wine showcases it. In addition, the heat spell at the end of 2020 spiked the sugar levels on our fruit, but the acidity was still intact. This combination of high sugar and intact acidity allowed us to make a very special and fresh-tasting dessert wine. Unique to this vintage, it expresses the dessert qualities of blackberry or raspberry pie filling {my words – without being cloying}. This dessert wine is a perfect ending to a heavy holiday meal. It is sure to surprise and delight and is truly something special from a crazy 2020 year!

“The Finish” aka Closing Comment

Overall, I really enjoyed the Tolenas portfolio. For a winery that has only made 4 vintages, they are off to a great start, and I look forward to following them for years to come.   A true sign of “doing something right” is that of their seven wines, they have sold out of four of them—definitely, someone to watch.

Suisun Valley

Tolenas Winery offers wine tasting by reservation only. Their wines are for sale at the winery and online.

Tenbrink Vineyards and Winery

In some ways, the winery at Tenbrink seems like an afterthought. After all, they only make four wines of 50 cases each; two whites wines – Chardonnay and Assyrtiko, and two reds Tempranillo and Petite Sirah. Their showstopper is the Assyrtiko, perhaps because there is such an uncommon variety outside of Greece.

This wine does not resemble any Greek Assyrtiko that I have tasted, but it is a well-made, off-dry wine.  The color is light straw. The mouthfeel is creamy.  Look for floral notes on the nose and honey on the palate. There is a considerable sweetness on the finish that is moderated with the paired cheese. (Dang, I wish I wrote down which cheese it was!)

The Tempranillo and the Petite Sirah we tasted were barrel samples as he had sold out of the current vintage. One could taste the potential of these wines that more time in barrel and then the bottle will bring.

Tenbrink Vineyards and Winery wines are available at the winery and online.


Suisun Valley Filling Station and Visitor’s Center

The Suisun Valley Filling Station and Visitor’s Center is the brainchild of Wendy De Coito, a fifth-generation native to the Fairfield/Suisun area. In 2018, Wendy converted an old-time vacant filling station in the heart of Fairfield into a local wine and beer tasting room, bar/hangout, souvenir shop, farm stand, music venue, and visitor’s center. On a Friday, they get so busy they have to block off the street partially. At the Station, they showcase the smaller, artisan winemakers and grape growers that live in the area, most of which do not have a tasting room. Then there are all of the local, family-owned craft beers, a rare treat in wine country.

It’s early on Friday. Later the street will be jam-packed.

But Wendy also offers four wines under the Filling Station moniker. We tasted three of her four wines. Unfortunately, the Sauvignon Blanc had already sold out.

Suisun Valley

Based on our tasting, these wines are easy-to-drink wines that offer an honest representation of their variety(s).  “Love” is her 2018 Zinfandel ($42) from Solano County Green Valley AVA made by the Rock Creek Vineyards family of artisan, small-batch winemaking. “Friendship” is the Left Bank Bordeaux style 2019 Cabernet Blend ($58), including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Both of these wines could find a place in my rotation. These are great cocktail reds but also easily pair with food.

And now for something unusual…

“Gratitude, ” the 2019 SV Red Blend ($32.00) was a real treat and quite unusual. It is made from 50% Rondinella and 50% Corvina grapes. These are the grapes used to make Amarone Della Valpolicella, a wine made from partially dried grapes that concentrate the flavor and viscosity of the wine. However, the grapes for Gratitude are not dried, so this wine is a much lighter wine than an Amarone. But look to find a similar yet lighter and drier flavor profile. This was fun, and I am thrilled to have been given a bottle to bring home. I will be drinking this bottle as the temperature drops this winter.

Suisun Valley Filling Station and Visitor’s Center does not currently have a functional website: Please access via Facebook

That is all for now.

We will be writing two more posts about the wineries we visited in Suisun Valley, as well as our trip to an Olive orchard and mill that makes amazing Olive Oils and other products.


Rick & Gary




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