They came before the Civil War, riding a wagon train west from Bible Grove, Mo., over plains, through mountains and into the fertile valleys of Northern California. The year was 1857, and Chuck Wagner’s forefathers were in search of a better life.
His maternal side originally bought farmland in Napa Valley in 1858, then in Solano County two years later. In 1906, Wagner’s grandfather settled in the small town of Rutherford. He built a winery to produce bulk wines. As World War I raged on, the Wagner family business boomed. Their winery produced upward of 30,000 gallons a year.
That was until Prohibition shut everything down. It was a devastating blow, but not fatal. Decades later, the Wagners were back at it, planting grapes on their home ranch. In 1972, Chuck, then 19 years old, joined his parents to found Caymus Vineyards, which would become renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
“We began to farm grapes and bought extra property,” Wagner recalls. “We still had aspirations to do more in California. We started producing in Santa Barbara, Monterey and Sonoma.”
Wagner drives the whole operation now. He recites the cycles of history like he’s studying for a viticulture exam. His biggest test came in 2008 when Napa County audited Caymus for surpassing by two million gallons the county’s production limit. Wagner doesn’t agree that bottling counts as production, but in 2013, he settled the suit for $1 million.
From that experience, Wagner decided he needed to explore new terrain, find a place with fewer regulations. “It’s a new domain,” he says. “I’m 63, and I feel plenty young to undertake this.”
And so he decided to go east.
The “Undiscovered” Country
The phrase “wine country” harkens to Napa, Sonoma, Calistoga. But Solano? Not so much. In fact, the Suisun Valley appellation was formed in 1982, less than a year after Napa’s. The local environment boasts much of the same benefits. Cool, moist air blows in from the ocean. Diverse soils blanket the valley floor and undeveloped hillsides. (Once upon a time, Solano had one of the largest wineries in the country, Mangels Winery. But that was in the late 1800s, and the winery was decommissioned long ago.)
Now, after decades in the shadow of its world-famous neighbor, Solano County appears ready for a status update. And the timing couldn’t be better. After the recession, the cost of land in Napa County shot up as demand outpaced supply. Napa Valley prices run about $300,000 an acre. Compare that to $50,000 or less for an acre in Suisun Valley, and the recent surge of grape growers in Solano starts to make sense.
“Vineyard land in Napa has been consumed,” says Roger King, president of the Suisun Valley Vintners & Growers Association. “As that pressure continues to build, neighboring land at a much lower price point becomes a very attractive alternative for people who understand what to do with it.”
People like Wagner. In 2013, he purchased a 260-acre parcel west of Fairfield to build a new production facility. Along Cordelia Road, the site will be the largest winery in Suisun Valley, and, ultimately, Wagner plans to bottle, store and ship all his wines from this location.
“I believe wholeheartedly that good wines can be produced from Suisun Valley,” he says. “I think there’s a number of reasons why it has not become well-known, but I think it’s a jewel. I cannot believe it’s untapped.”
But Caymus isn’t the only big gun staking claim in Solano. Last year, wine giant E&J Gallo purchased not one, but two wineries and vineyards: the 400-acre ranch of Ledgewood Creek Winery and the neighboring Winterhawk Winery, which was acquired at auction.
These are two big-time, family-owned operations. And their interests have shined the spotlight on Solano County, boosting Suisun Valley’s viticultural brand.
The newfound attraction goes beyond the land, too.
“Because of the California drought, Solano County has gotten new attention,” says Sandy Person, president of Solano Economic Development Corp. “The wine world is taking note of our strategic water resources.”
Storing 1.6 million acre-feet of water, Lake Berryessa is the largest lake in Napa County. But this reservoir, formed by the Monticello Dam, is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and is managed under a cooperative agreement between the Solano County Water Agency and Solano Irrigation District. Napa opted out of the project decades ago. That means Solano County gets the yield, giving farmers uncontested access to a reliable water source.
“The reality is, there’s ag water here,” King says. “The lake is not tied into the grid. It is not part of the California State Water Project or the Federal Central Valley Project. That is the big deal about Solano County.”
In addition to water, the county’s proximity to highways and rail lines plays a big part in what King describes as the maturation of Solano County’s wine economy. This wine economy includes not only wineries and vineyards but also various industry supply and packaging companies: glass makers, cork distributors, screw-cap manufacturers.
Last year, the county added more than 1.5 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, Person says. The bulk of that space was acquired for wine production, storage and distribution facilities. One of the companies to take root was Guala Closures Group.
Based in Alessandria, Italy, Guala Closures is the world’s largest screw cap manufacturer. The company produces 14 billion closures a year from 26 plants around the globe, but there was no plant on U.S. soil until last year.
“I believe wholeheartedly that good wines can be produced from Suisun Valley. I think there’s a number of reasons why it has not become well-known, but I think it’s a jewel. I cannot believe it’s untapped.” Chuck Wagner, co-founder, Caymus Vineyards
“We wanted to be close to wine country in California,” says North America general manager Alessandro Bocchio. “We were looking at Napa County, looking at Nevada. Our group decided to invest not too far from Silicon Valley.”
In September, Guala Closures held the grand opening for its first U.S. production site, a 12,000-square-foot facility in Fairfield. From that building, the company began to test a new method of production, using a $2-million, high-tech, inkjet printer to draw detailed, custom designs on closures. Bocchio says the machine is the first of its kind in the wine industry. Right now the plant handles small runs (1,000 to 60,000 caps), mostly for special promotions and events, like weddings and anniversaries.
Guala Closures chose Fairfield as the test site because it was cheaper than Napa, close to California’s tech region and also because Caymus, a Guala Closures customer, recently moved there. But it was the support from Person and the Solano Economic Development Corp. that helped seal the deal.
“Especially being a foreign company, when you decide to start a production unit, you really need guidance,” Bocchio says. “Solano County provided the interest and support. For what we needed to do, we weren’t going to make a big plant. It was more to find a place where we felt most comfortable.”
Bocchio declines to share exact figures for competitive reasons, but he says they’ve been busy since they started. So busy, in fact, that Bocchio will be leaving Fairfield soon to return home.
“I will be relocating to Italy,” he says. “The project went so well, [top management] asked me to go back to clone the project in Italy and other locations around the world.”
For local vintners in Suisun Valley, there’s a world of opportunity right in their backyard. The Vezér Family has been producing wines here for more than a decade. Still, Vezér General Manager Laura Cooke says the area is “untapped territory.”
“Look at this scenery,” she beams on a bright Saturday in April, peering out over the hillsides surrounding the Vezér Family’s Estate Ranch. “That range there?” she says, pointing west. “Just on the other side is Napa Valley.”
Cooke relocated from Napa to Suisun last fall and can quickly spout the differences between the valleys: The fog blanket that covers Napa in the mornings doesn’t crawl over the hill, so Suisun fruit gets warmer earlier; folks in Solano are more at ease, which gives Suisun a more hometown feel.
“There’s always going to be competition, but because we’re a small valley, it’s important to strategize and come up with ideas of how we can build as a brand,” Cooke says. “There’s a lot of growth that can happen. It’s not always about wine. It’s about friends and family.”
Vezér Family Vineyards is serious about its community. Eighty percent of the club members are locals, Cooke says. Throughout the year, Vezér holds weddings and tasting events and other activities that may not be allowed in Napa Valley under the limitations of its Winery Definition Ordinance. Napa adopted the ordinance in 1990 to protect its vineyards from traffic, but some like Wagner believe the strict rules (e.g. wine production limits, visitation limits, no weddings) go too far.
“It begins to feel like a national park,” Wagner says. “What’s happening in Napa is a general anti-business, anti-winery attitude, which actually makes me sick because we worked hard to establish Napa, myself included.”
The issue is hard to talk about. He doesn’t want to speak ill of the Napa Valley. It’s where the Wagner family business began, where he was raised, where he started Caymus Vineyards with his parents over 40 years ago. It’s still his home, and he has no plans to move away. But the regulations have forced him to expand his business into new tetrritory, into Suisun Valley, an idyllic place he says reminds him of his childhood in Rutherford.
If you head northwest through Suisun Valley, about a mile up Clayton Road, you’ll come to a patch of farmland where green leaves sprout from rows of Dairyland milk cartons. Here, Wagner has started growing petite sirah, which some claim to be the valley’s signature grape.
“It’s like a little Eden,” he says of the land. “Our forefathers came from Europe with no money, but there was opportunity here for new land and the ability to function more freely.”