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Discover a Hidden Treasure: Northern California’s Suisun Valley

By Published On: July 31st, 2023

Featuring Caymus-Suisun Winery, Vezér Family Vineyard, Mangels Vineyards and more.

Just a 30-minute drive east of Napa Valley in Solano County lies the Suisun Valley American Viticultural Area – one of California’s oldest. (Officially recognized on December 27, 1982) According to Ron Lanza at Wooden Valley Winery, Suisun Valley is an easy to access wine region, as the Interstate 80 thoroughfare sees around 250,000 cars daily.

Despite the nearby traffic, Suisun Valley has managed to remain an under-the-radar winegrowing region with enduring charm and rusticity – a vibrant community of wineries where farming comes first.

“We are how wine country used to be – approachable and affordable, with high-quality wines and great hospitality. You will wonder how it is still a secret,” said winemaker-owner Lisa Howard of Tolenas Vineyard and Winery.

“People who knew Napa Valley in the 1970s often describe Suisun Valley as feeling like that. Although development is coming, our size guarantees that we remain small and friendly,” added Sunset Cellars’ winemaker Fah Sathirapongsasuti, PhD. 

Wineries to Visit

Caymus-Suisun

Opening in 2022, the Wagner Family’s second home in Suisun Valley is quite the showplace, a marriage of what the winery describes as “modern design with old-world charm that blends seamlessly with the surrounding natural environment.”

Glass walls provide optimal views of the property, while sliding doors allow the Suisun Valley’s characteristic westerly winds to circulate throughout the space. Experiences include guided indoor or outdoor tastings of 4-5 wines or purchasing wine by the glass to accompany the winery’s incredible views on a stroll through Palm Alley, its “walking vineyard” and vegetable and fruit tree gardens.

Caymus-Suisun Winery at Sunrise.
Caymus-Suisun Winery at Sunrise. Photo Courtesy: Henrique Du Tiel.

Caymus-Suisun has the Wagner Family portfolio at its disposal, including Caymus and Emmolo wines from Napa Valley, Emmolo No. 6 Sparkling Wine, Mer Soleil Chardonnays and Pinot Noir, Conundrum Red and White Blends, and two must-try Suisun Valley wines, Grand Durif (Petite Sirah) and The Walking Fool red blend.

“Caymus-Suisun Winery offers a respite from day-to-day life that celebrates Suisun Valley and all the beauty and character of this agricultural gem and its pioneering spirit of farming and winemaking,” shared the Caymus-Suisun team. 

Mangels Vineyards 

Continuing the tradition of winemaking in the Suisun Valley started by great-grandfather Louis Mangels in the late 1800s, Gary Mangels, a livestock rancher, purchased land in 1988, then planted vines in 1991. In 2009, his vineyards would become Mangels Vineyards, in partnership with winemaker Gina Oberti Richmond, a fourth-generation, farming-family native of Suisun Valley.

Wines at Mangels Vineyards
Wines at Mangels Vineyards. Photo Courtesy: Elizabeth Smith

Today Mangels Vineyards is a small family-owned winery whose focus is to make every guest feel like they are at home, with its casual, comfortable, and tranquil atmosphere.

As a winemaker, Richmond’s goal is to make fruit-driven wines that are easy to drink – “wines that speak for themselves,” she said. Mangels’ five core wines are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Syrah and Petite Sirah, but Richmond enjoys the freedom to try new varieties, like Chenin Blanc, Verdelho, Tempranillo, and Malbec.

“We have a great climate and terroir for growing grapes and making good wines. But it is special because we can still experiment with unknown varieties and innovative winemaking techniques. Our grape growing and winemaking story is not yet finished,” Richmond added. 

Suisun Valley Wine Co-Op

Suisun Valley Wine Co-Op features wines from three micro-wineries – Sunset Cellars, King Andrews, and Blacksmith Cellars – and each producer takes turns pouring so visitors can get to know the faces behind the wines.

Guests can taste a variety of wines that highlight each producer’s specialties and styles. Founded in 2007 by Doug and Katsuko Sparks of Sunset Cellars, the Co-Op is now led by Sunset Cellars’ winemaker Fah Sathirapongsasuti, PhD – the first Thai-born winemaker in California and leader in the BIPOC and LGBTQAI+ wine communities.

Winery Team and Sunset Cellars’ second generation: (L-R) Mio Sakata, Fah Sathirapongsasuti, Takako Ohshima, and Kyosuke Inoue.
Winery Team and Sunset Cellars’ second generation: (L-R) Mio Sakata, Fah Sathirapongsasuti, Takako Ohshima, and Kyosuke Inoue.
Photo Courtesy: Sunset Cellars.

Sathirapongsasuti has created innovative guest experiences, including a “Zen Zin Onsen” foot spa, a fire pit during chilly days, a special wine-club-only deck, and pop-up events with local food vendors.

Wines to try are Sunset Cellars sparkling Sauvignon Blanc (a chance to try sabrage with a Japanese Katana sword if you purchase a bottle) and Barbera, King Andrews Albariño, and a few of Blacksmith Cellars hearty reds.

Sunset Cellars also makes a line of canned sparkling piquettes (low-alcohol beverages made from “upcycled” grape pomace) called Daylight Saving, perfect for taking anywhere. “Come to the Suisun Valley Wine Co-Op to experience authentic, unpretentious, and seriously delicious wines,” shared Fah. “We are united by our love for this craft and our joy in creating unforgettable experiences.”

Tolenas Vineyard and Winery

Tolenas Vineyards and Winery is a wonderful introduction to the breadth and depth of the Suisun Valley wines. Second-generation winemaker Lisa Tenbrink Howard and her husband Cliff launched Tolenas in 2015, naming it after the original Rancho Tolenas.

The home vineyard – Lisa Howard’s renovated childhood house – which Lisa lovingly calls “the speakeasy of Suisun Valley” – is in southern Suisun Valley closer to the marine influence of the nearby Suisun and San Pablo Bays, which allows the Howards to grow Pinot Noir.

Tasting Area at Tolenas Vineyard and Winery.
Lisa’s Childhood Home Tasting Area. Photo Courtesy: Tolenas Vineyard and Winery.

One of the winery’s signature wines is Eclipse – a Pinot Noir whose grapes are pressed and produced like a white wine – leaving just a hint of color. Howard also makes a traditional Pinot Noir named Totality (total eclipse).

Also try the Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and the Lot 38 Dessert Wine made from late-harvest Zinfandel. “Tolenas will surprise you with charm and enchantment. White picket fences, a lush lawn, elevated porches, all surrounded by vineyard views and charming red umbrellas. You will feel like you have stepped back into the time of quiet afternoons in your favorite backyard,” shared Lisa. 

Vezér Family Vineyard

In 2001, Frank and Liz Vezér founded Vezér Family Vineyard with an inaugural release of a 2003 Zinfandel.

Today Vezér has grown into a multi-property winery with three locations to experience – the Blue Victorian, Mankas Gardens, and the Estate Ranch Vineyards. Vezér is most known for its Petite Sirah, long considered Suisun Valley’s signature grape variety.

The winery pays playful homage to the region and the variety in a sign in front of their Blue Victorian property. Modeled after the famous Napa Valley sign, it declares Suisun Valley “the Petite Sirah capital of the world,” while also poking fun at being “Napa’s backside.”

Vezér Family Vineyard's Blue Victorian.
Vezér Family Vineyard’s Blue Victorian. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Smith.

In addition to Petite Sirah, Vezér makes a wide variety of wines – many named after family members – like their Franci Verdelho, Arlene Chardonnay, Jude Merlot, Lizzy and Gabrielle Cabernet Sauvignons, and John John Zinfandel – as well as their Blue Victorian Sauvignon Blanc, Charbono, and Gary & Jake’s Red Blend.

If you have time, enjoy a relaxed, unguided tasting, or stroll at the Blue Victorian, then head over to Mankas Gardens for a more traditional, hosted tasting.

Wooden Valley Winery

For three generations, The Lanza family has been growing grapes and making wine in Suisun Valley. Mario Lanza and Lena Carlevaro Lanza moved from Silvano D’Orba, Italy, to Oakland, California in 1934.

Ten years later, they relocated to Suisun Valley, where they partnered with the Brea brothers – Salvador and Manuel – and became co-owners of Wooden Valley Winery, founded in 1933. In 1955, the Lanzas became the sole proprietors.

Wooden Valley Winery tasting room.
Tasting room. Photo: Wooden Valley Winery

The third generation of brothers – brothers Rick (winemaker), Ron (marketing and sales), Larry and Ken (both vineyard managers) oversee their 400 acres of vineyards, winery, and tasting room. The Lanzas are primarily winegrowers – selling their grapes locally and nationally – but they hold back some to make their own family of wines.

A few of the must-tastes are the Rosetta Dry Rosé, off-dry Rosetta Rosé of Valdiguié, Lanza Sangiovese, Lanza Barbera, Exit Forty One (Petite Sirah), and Marlena Port, named in honor of Mario and Lena. “We are approachable and friendly with a passion for family and farming – and you can taste that in every wine we make,” said Ron Lanza. 

Get a Taste of Suisun Valley

What makes Suisun Valley even more special is what Fah Sathirapongsasuti describes as inclusive terroir – climate, grape quality, winemaking, and the region’s tight-knit community. “We are also collaborative – we purchase fruit from each other, lend equipment, and give candid advice and feedback to each other about our wines,” said Fah. 

Lisa Tenbrink Howard shared the same sentiment, “What makes us stand out is our people. We are a team in this valley pushing to grow the best grapes and make the best wine. We know that if we all work together, with the land and the weather, we can make world-renowned wines.”

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