Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Ledgewood is Growing & Expects to Produce a Company Record 10,000 Cases of Wine This Year

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


A torrent at Ledgewood Creek
By Matthew Bunk

-- Alternating between four glasses of chardonnay and a lab sink, winemaker Larry Lagbehn sips and spits until he's sure one has just the right texture. Then he wants someone else's opinion.

"Now tell me what you think," Lagbehn said.

As head of wine making at three-year-old Ledgewood Creek Winery, Lagbehn genuinely wants feedback. But because he can taste slight variations that other wine drinkers only pretend to notice, he often finds himself in sparse company during the final rounds of product testing.

But as harvest approaches and Ledgewood plans for its busiest production season so far, Lagbehn's work to adjust the viscosity of the mainline chardonnay stands out as the least of the winery's challenges.

As an extension of Ledgewood's 16-year-old grape growing operation, the winery on Abernathy Road is still a relatively new venture for owner Dean Frisbie. Its formative years have been marked by a sour state economy, a saturated market and sobering interstate distribution laws.

Plus, Ledgewood hails from the relatively unknown Suisun Valley, which makes it harder to sell wine. The valley's growers have been trying desperately to brand the area as premium wine country like its northern neighbor Napa, a task that by comparison makes Lagbehn's job seem easy.

Even as he tastes wine in his workspace - which looks very much like a small chemist's lab - Lagbehn admits that selling the wine is the toughest aspect of production.

"We've already got good viticulture and good winemaking," he said. "The challenge right now isn't in the winemaking - it's in the marketing."

Ledgewood, though, is growing in spite of the odds. It expects to produce a company record 10,000 cases of wine this year, mostly because it will use distributors for the first time since it shipped its initial batch of 2,200 cases directly to customers in 2001.

The production forecast for this year represents a 42-percent jump from last year's total of 7,000 cases. Those running operations say its the beginning of what they hope will be a much bigger push that could include developing their wine list.

Ledgewood now sells mostly merlot and chardonney, but it also draws from experimental vineyards to make 11 other varietals in limited quantity. Demand will determine which ones could be developed into full-production wines, Ledgewood General Manager Rick Wehman said.

Wehman isn't squeamish about aggressive growth. He'd like to sell something like 30,000 cases a year, the limit of the winery's current output and storage capabilities.

"That's a significant point for us, because this building will allow us to get there," he said. "Then we'll have a much different problem."

Reaching capacity is a problem that doesn't even show up on the radar for the few wineries in Suisun Valley. Other than Ledgewood, there's Wooden Valley Winery owned by Rick Lanza and a few family-operated wineries that produce in limited volume.

Only two miles from Napa County, Wooden Valley makes more wine than anyone in the valley. It's bigger than Ledgewood, the second largest, both in terms of volume and number of varietals.

Both wineries are adding to their product lines, they both growth their own grapes and, let's face it, they compete. But they share a common goal in making a name for Suisun Valley wines, and there will be enough success for everybody if it works. In fact, part of the plan is to help develop more wineries.

"The idea for the valley to survive is to get enough wineries to do things like wine trains and other tourist activities," Wehman said. "They could spend a day here, come in and taste our wines and then go out and tell people they went to the Suisun Valley."

Wehman says Suisun Valley grapes, and its wines by extension, are just as good as those used to make more expensive Napa wines. Gold medals hanging from bottles of Ledgewood merlot add a level of credibility to Wehman's assertion.

Until wine buyers discover what the judges know, however, Ledgewood might have to continue selling 90 percent of its grapes to Napa wineries that profit from underrated Suisun Valley fruit, Wehman said.

"Napa and Sonoma consider the Suisun Valley a bastard child that produces fruit for them," Wehman said. "You'd be surprised how many people have no idea wine is produced here."

Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 267 or mbunk@dailyrepublic.net.

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