Entries in Suisun Valley (7)


This column first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on 12/31/13.


Roger King has the gift of gab. I caught up with him at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative this week where he riffed, part professor and part bartender, on everything from histamines in grape skins to the water engineering of Solano pioneers.


His ability to talk, with interest and certainty, about almost anything served him well in as a marketing executive for Kirkwood Ski Resort and now as the president of the Suisun Valley Vintners and Grapegrowers Association. Even as a young man an air of certainty was evident. When his law school dean told him his test scores were good and leaving would mean starting again from the beginning, King replied, "You don't get it! I don't want to be one of you bungholes." Except he didn't say "bunghole." King tells it like it is.


If you like to know where your wine comes from, Roger is your man. His dead-on vineyard descriptions and their familiar landmarks are part of the joy of drinking his wines. His King Andrews Albarino comes from a vineyard in one of the cooler locations of Suisun Valley, across the street from Larry's Produce. Seventeen miles to the north, his Sangiovese is grown off of Shale Peak Lane, halfway up Mt. Vaca on the final ridgeline separating Vacaville from the Sacramento Valley.


The two vineyards are a study in contrasts. According to King, part of the albarino vineyard is sitting on an old creek that was diverted by some early farmers and is consequently so full of moisture it needs no irrigation.


King Andrews Zin block with view of Mt. Vaca from Yelp"I've been dry farming this for years but I call it my most irrigated vineyard," King said.


At the other extreme is the Shale Peak Vineyard, an arid location that clocked 117-degree temperatures earlier this year, with irrigation dependent on a well that goes dry as early as January. According to King, the heat is perfect for his Sangiovese, a field blend that includes cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.


"The heat is great for burning the acid down. The trick is to find the balance between getting the acids down and the alcohol not too high. It is a testament to the fact that grape vines will adapt."


King's barkeep lectures are almost entirely focused on location, soils and weather. Clearly, this is a man who believes in terroir, the environmental factors expressed in a wine that give it a sense of place. He is a minimalist winemaker, preferring vineyard management to experiments in the cellar. He ferments about half his wines with indigenous yeasts, a practice that requires fortitude and patience since they are less reliable than yeasts that are developed commercially.


He's bullish on Solano wine, citing the I-80 corridor as key to its success. However, he's cautious not to jump in so completely he becomes a "captive to selling wine."


King has a Facebook page but no retail or website, you'll find his wines only at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative, which is not a hardship considering tastings are free. When you visit try the Albarino, with bright acidity and a fragrant whiff of spiced pears and a hint of lime zest on the finish. I tried the 2012 and 2013, which will be bottled this spring, just in time for warmer weather.


The King Andrews Sangiovese is a bold ruby, with medium structure and a play of cherries and raspberries that amplify in a spicy blend through the finish. See if you agree with the King of the Hill, that Vaca heat is the key to great wine.


Ann Miller is a Napa resident and wine enthusiast.



Toast: No Joking, Paulsen's Wines Are Seriously Good (From the Vacaville Reporter)

Monty Paulsen Monty Paulsen is the son of a famous man, but that is the least interesting thing about him.

The collection of lava lamps at the door, the mysterious name, and a bathroom outfitted with jungle noises, Don Ho music and a Tiki head dispensing tissues are your first clues that EBGB Underground Wine Bar is a refreshingly different approach to wine tasting.

If that were not enough, enter Monty’s partner, Gigi Benson.

The first thing Benson might tell you is that she is an actress and an “Intuitive Extrovert,” referring to the Meyers Briggs personality profile. The next might be the story of when the cat, upon hearing the bathroom’s jungle bird sounds, jumped into the toilet. No Napa nature girl here, Benson rocks short skirts, high heels and a charismatic transparency that is hard to resist.

Lava lamps and bubble chair signal something differentThe Monty/Gigi dynamic has a Lucy and Desi quality:  she’s outrageous, he’s deceptively reserved. Deceptive because Monty has a droll humor of his own, not surprising for the son of Pat Paulsen, a comedian best known for his appearances on the Smothers Brothers TV show and his tongue-in-cheek bid for the presidency in 1968.

Something of a Renaissance Man, Monty found his way into the wine business after earning degrees in English and enology from U.C. Davis, followed by an MBA from Duke. As head of operations and winemaking at Rosenblum Cellars, Monty nurtured lasting relationships in the wine business. According to Benson, “He has a talent for blending wine and he has these connections, they’re not networking connections. They’re real.”

When Rosenblum Cellars was sold to beverage giant Diageo, Monty had the time and money to re-invigorate his father’s label, Pat Paulsen Vineyards, and as a wine consultant, leverage his contacts with over 100 different growers. If he helps to make a wine that turns out especially good, he suggests a partnership. “I say, ‘Hey, I made this, can I claim it? They say sure, take a couple barrels,’” said Paulsen.

Tiki bathroom complete with jungle soundtrackThis talent for blending, of people as well as wines, is one of the reasons Pat Paulsen Vineyards garnered nine medals at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A partner with a local angle, Stefanie Jackson is a winemaker who met Monty when she was a “cellar rat” at Rosenblum Cellars. Jackson created a Cabernet for Pat Paulsen Vineyards from grapes grow at Wirth Ranch, in Suisun Valley’s Green Valley appellation. “I’m a single mother and I didn’t have the money to get my wine into bottles. Monty had the wherewithal and it made for a good partnership. The difference with Monty is that he preserves the story. He gave me an opportunity.”  Jackson is bullish on Suisun Valley grape growing. “I love it as a winemaker because it is stellar fruit, wonderful terroir that is a well-kept secret. The prices are still low enough for a winemaker like me and that plays out for the consumer.”

Jackson’s 2008 Wirth Ranch Cabernet is ripe with cherries and blackberries, with velvety tannins and a juicy finish. You can find it at the Pat Paulsen Vineyards website at along with other wines at a range of price points, from the edgy EBGB series at $14 to the winemaker collection at $18 and reserves at $34. Better yet, visit Monty and Gigi in person at the EBGB Underground Wine Bar. Their next event is an Academy Awards Party on Sunday, February 24, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The dress code according to Benson is “Black tie or shorts.”  And check out the Tiki bathroom, don’t let the jungle birds scare you.  


Toast: The Patrón of Winterhawk

This was first published in the June 19, 2012 edition of the Vacaville Reporter, in my column "Toast."

They call him Patrón. "That’s Spanish for Boss Man," explains Martha Gustafsson, the winemaker at Winterhawk Winery. If Patrón conjures up a mustachioed Mexican, think again, this Boss Man is a blue- eyed Swede from Michigan.

The Patrón of Winterhawk Winery is Don Johnson, who found his way to growing grapes in Suisun Valley by way of the army and a career in accounting. He grew up on a dairy farm where he milked cows by
hand, three times a day. Every day. No vacations. “I swore I’d never get into farming again. But it’s night and day between a small family dairy farm in Michigan and growing grapes in California.”

Johnson still works every day but on weekends he’s joined by a community he has built around the Winterhawk Winery trifecta: wine, pizza and live music, all for $7.

The deal is this. For seven bucks you can taste all the Winterhawk wines on the menu, there are eleven of them, then you are poured a glass. Once you decide on your favorite you are poured a glass. Only a wine geek could find time to taste them all because the music is irresistible. It makes a turn on the dance floor, in the shade of the winery shed, almost mandatory. When you catch your breath you can
fortify yourself with a piece of pizza.

The pizza comes from an oven Johnson ordered when he was touring Italy. When it arrived he was shocked by how big it was. "I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I don’t have that many friends," he joked. Well, now he does.

Winterhawk Winery hosts hundreds of people each weekend, many of whom are regulars, without any marketing outside a Facebook page and an email list of 3000. Last year he expanded his regular Saturday get-togethers to include Community Service Sundays, when 20% of the proceeds go to a different non-profit each week. Johnson is happy to wave off questions about wine to Gustafsson, but when talk turns to music, his eyes light up. It’s obvious that entertaining in the middle of his vineyard is what sends him.

The music may be what makes his blue eyes shine, but Johnson is no slouch about his wine. He’s proud of Gustafsson’s U.C. Davis credentials. On the day I visited she was working with cellar master Steve Eaton to ensure that their Pinot Gris was stable under cold conditions. The frosty tank was about the last thing I expected to see on a 95 degree day. Chilling the wine to 27 degrees forces tiny crystals out of the wine before it is filtered and bottled. Gustafsson’s explanations are littered with chemical jargon but it’s the flavors that brought her to winemaking, "What it comes down to is flavor. I think you have to really like the wine you’re making." She enjoys the challenge of eleven different wines. "Each vintage is a story. The weather that year, the rainfall, new farming techniques. Don gives us a lot of autonomy."

All the wines are under $20, three to try:

Refreshing as a sea breeze on a hot day, the 2011 Albarino was bright and crisp with a touch of minerality.

The 2010 Winterhawk Red packed such an aromatic wallop that I could smell it a couple feet away as the glass sat on a table beside me. The raspberry flavors gave way to hints of cocoa, pepper and black cherry on the finish. This would taste great with some Brie and French bread or a grilled cheese sandwich.

Eaton made the late harvest Sauvingon Blanc from grapes picked about a month after the regular harvest. I usually associate “late harvest” with desert but you could drink this with a meal. The apple and lime notes are delicious, if a wine can taste like a margarita, this is it.

Fitting, I suppose, for wine that comes from a man they call Patrón.



Petite Sirah: Survivor Grape

There is nothing dainty about Petite Sirah. Inky and peppery, this wine packs a wallop of tannins, that astringent quality that is not so much a flavor as it is a sensation.  Like a scrappy wrestler who is more sinew than flesh, Petite Sirah will muscle down a steak, a stew or an earthy sandwich of Portobello mushrooms.

If you think wrestling is an odd metaphor for wine, you should see the Youtube video in which Petite Sirah is likened to a muscle car. Wrestling, muscle cars, wine, you get the picture.

Petite Sirah is not Syrah, it’s a hybrid of Syrah and a variety unto itself. It is distinctly Californian. Called Durif in its native France, it isn’t grown there much, it likes our drier climate.  Petite Sirah was one of the first grapes imported to California to replace the so-so tasting Mission variety, a grape planted by the padres for sacramental and (I hope) recreational purposes.

In the early days people were less snooty about wine and more casual about the pedigree of their grapes. Growers confused this grape as a small-berried version of Syrah, thus its name. The small grape size is important for another reason. The skin of a grape gives wine its color and tannins, therefore the high ratio of skin to juice in Petite Sirah give it a punch of black-tinged color and lip-smacking tannins.

During prohibition this mighty little grape was prized for its portability.  Many California wine growers, such as the Lanza family in Suisun Valley, survived prohibition by shipping grapes to home winemakers in the east. There was a loophole in the law that allowed home winemakers to make up to 200 gallons a year.  Do the math: 200 gallons, 365 days a year, would a daily half-gallon ration of wine be enough to keep you happy?

Later Petite Sirah was used in blends to give oomph to the color and structure of other wines. Many single varietal wines are in fact blends, a wine needs to be only 75% of the variety on the label to carry that name. For example, your favorite Cabernet may in fact have small amounts of Merlot, Malbac or Petite Sirah and still be correctly called a Cabernet.

The advocacy group for Petite Sirah (yes, even grapes have advocacy groups) is called P.S. I Love You. Yes, Suisun Valley Petite Sirah, I do love you, let me count the ways. You bring the warmth of the valley to my table. You make my hamburger sing. You fill my glass with rich color, my mouth with big flavor. Most of all you remind me of a little girl who grew up near Suisun Valley, my daughter Sarah. Need I go on?


Biodynamic and Organic Farmers: I'll Have What They're Having

There’s a famous scene in When Harry Met Sally when Meg Ryan, in a crowded deli, proves that women do fake orgasms, often and convincingly, with a 90 second gasket-blowing, table-thumping, orgasm imitation, oh-oh-oh-OHhhhhhhh-YES,YES, YES!  

The punch line comes when a middle-aged woman glances at her and then the waiter and says “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Well I’ll have what they’re having, THEY being organic and biodynamic farmers.  I attended a biodynamic study group last year for no reason  other than I was interested. At the time I wondered, are these people beautiful just because they are young or are they beautiful because they are connected to the earth, eating good food and doing what they love? Whatever the reasons for their beauty, their peace, their earnest but practical care for the land,  I’ll have what they’re having. 

I recently attended a workshop on organic farming, again because I was interested. Kudos to Solano County’s Agriculture Commissioner and the county’s U.C. Davis Cooperative Extension for doing this two hour panel discussion to help farmers and landowners learn about paperwork, subsidies, soil samples, inspectors and so much more to do with getting started farming organically.  

Matt McCue and Lily Schneider, Suisun Valley's Shooting Star FarmThe panelists were not the kind of folks who save the earth by sitting in trees and stirring up publicity. They are young men and women, working within the system, through conservation programs and community supported agriculture groups, to improve our health and our world.

Once again, I don’t know why,  but they were beautiful, and not a mascara wand among them.

I’ll have what they’re having.