This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter in my column, "Toast" on August 28, 20122. Thanks to Richard Bammer, my trusty copy editor for catching my misspelling of terroir- duh!
Taking the "back way" to Napa, through Wooden Valley is a beautiful drive. The road winds along with views of vineyards and, in the highlands, mossy trees that shade your eyes. The border between Solano and Napa counties is invisible, except that the pavement changes slightly as one county's roadway meets the other. What is also invisible on that beautiful drive, but all too apparent in the black and red of a balance sheet, is that the grapes on the Napa side command triple the price of Solano grapes.
Can Napa grapes be that different from Solano's? Is it marketing or is it "terroir"? Terroir is a concept borrowed from the French that refers to everything in the environment of a vineyard that stamps a wine with a unique sense of place. The chemistry of the soil, the slope of the ridge, the climate and weather, all contribute to the terroir of a vineyard.
Just a mile or so down the road from the Napa County line, Wooden Valley Winery co-owner Ron Lanza laughed when asked about the huge price difference between Napa grapes and his family's Suisun Valley grapes.
"Yes, it's a little frustrating," Lanza admitted. "But, hey, more power to them!"
In fact, the proximity of their vineyards to Napa is one of the selling points for the family's wine and grape operations, a business shared by four brothers and their families that was begun by their grandfather, Mario Lanza. Only about 10 percent of Lanza grapes end up in their Wooden Valley Winery wine. Of the remaining 90 percent, about half to go to other California wineries and the other half are shipped east to small wineries and amateur winemakers.
The route east was a savior to many California wineries during Prohibition, when they switched from making wine to shipping grapes to home winemakers.
Even when drinking alcohol was outlawed from 1920-1933, American households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine a year. Do the math -- that's enough for two people to share more than half a gallon a day! The home wine- making tradition continues, but with an emphasis on fine wine rather than the jugs of the past.
"They want to make wine like their grandpa did, only better," said Lanza.
Unlike grapes destined for California winery consumption, which are dropped at harvest time in ordinary containers and transferred to large industrial-sized trucks, the boxes destined for the trip east are artfully arranged in 36-pound boxes with the Lanza Vineyards logo. The careful presentation and branding has paid off.
When Ron went back east to meet some of the amateur winemakers who use his grapes, he was greeted warmly -- and with lots of wine.
"I arrived first thing in the morning, and they are all pouring me wine made from our grapes," Lanza said.
Ron's father, "Chick," grew the business by delivering wine in barrels and jugs to homes like a milkman, along a route throughout the Bay Area.
The route has extended, and now it's not just wine but grapes that are delivered, but the Lanza tradition of wine for families continues.