Sunday, October 30, 2005

Solano County seeking its foothold on the wine industry

Solano County seeking its foothold on the wine industry

Workers are busy picking merlot grates at the Ledgewood Creek Winery's property along Abernathy Road in Suisun Valley. (Photo by Judith Sagami)
By Christine Cubé
- When it comes to wine, most people - Californians included - think of Napa Valley.

From wine connoisseurs to the trained sommelier, Napa is known as the wine capital of the world.

Most folks don't think of Solano County.

But the business of wine is growing here. The county has more than a half dozen wineries, stretching from Suisun Valley to Dixon, and many are wrapping up their grape harvest this weekend. Several already are crushing grapes.

Brenda Inman, who co-owns with Rory Horton the Purple Pearl Vineyards in Dixon, said the facility is nearly finished its crush, which began in September. Only a couple of bins are left, representing a single row of grapes.

A young operation, Purple Pearl Vineyards is a year-and-a-half old. The 40-acre vineyard is located at 9177 Currey Road in Dixon.

The owners now are setting up the business to accommodate visitors on a regular basis - three days a week a tasting room will be open, starting in November. To this point, it has been open only by appointment.

Purple Pearl produces Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Muscat and a French grape called Valdiguié.

“We're mainly just farming, getting the name out there,” Inman said. “We haven't had enough time or space to have people over yet.”

By production standards, Purple Pearl Vineyards is a relatively small fish. The facility produces about 7,500 gallons of wine a year, or roughly 2,500 cases of Purple Pearl label wine.

By comparison, a larger winery in Solano County - Ledgewood Creek Winery & Vineyards in Suisun Valley - produces 10,000 cases of wine annually.

Because of cooler temperatures throughout the county, many local wineries pushed the harvest back about four weeks. Facilities usually have their grapes plucked by Oct. 1; this year it's closer to Nov. 1.

Bountiful harvest

State agriculture officials recently upgraded their estimate for the state's annual wine harvest.

The California Agricultural Statistical Service put this year's crop of wine grapes at 3.2 million tons, up from a previous forecast of 2.95 million tons.

Last year, 2.78 million tons of wine grapes were crushed, according to the service.

The larger-than-expected crop could cause some short-term surpluses. Also, the long, cool growing season that led to the larger harvest should result in tastier grapes, experts say.

Rick Wehman, manager of Ledgewood Creek Winery & Vineyards, said Solano County is at an advantage being so close to Napa Valley.

The winery, located at 4589 Abernathy Road in Suisun Valley, covers about 400 acres, 330 acres of which are planted.

Suisun Valley contains about 15,000 acres; roughly a fifth of the area is under vine.

“The typical Napa Cabernet is $30 to $60,” Wehman said. “Here, it's $15 to $20.”

The vineyards at Ledgewood Creek Winery & Vineyards have been around since 1987. The winery itself is just three years old.

Grape picking was to conclude by this weekend. The facility grows a number of grapes, including Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Mourvedre.

Wehman said the wine market is a tough business to break into.

“Napa tends to be a destination for people to visit (and) Solano County wineries are not at this point,” he said. “We probably have to do a little harder work on advertising than most of the Napa wineries. That's your competition really - is getting people to come out to taste the wines. Our wines are more affordable.”

Travelers find the wineries here. Most of the time, they're locals.

But the Purple Pearl Vineyard's Inman recalled once a New Jersey couple drove up, wandering around in their rental car.

A growing business

As Solano County continues to secure its foothold on the wine industry, local vineyards are working to become a unique attraction.

“It's a lot of work and it's a lot of learning,” Inman said. “If you're going to sell anything, wine is probably the easiest thing to sell as far as the product . . . There's thousands of labels of wine. Everybody gets their own following.”

A new player - more accurately the sale of a winery, new management and a name change - is GV Cellars in Green Valley.

The name is not yet official and Green Valley Vintners LLC, the investor group that bought the Volkhardt Estate Winery, is waiting for confirmation from the U.S. Department of Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to proceed full steam ahead.

Until then, the facility and its 40 acres of grapes are still technically Volkhardt Estate Winery.

Lark Welton, an investor in GV Cellars, said the facility is preparing for the future, actively crushing grapes and setting up the business.

Officials say by spring, they'll be open for tasting.

Under the former owners Ben and Phyllis Volkhardt, the winery produced 5,000 to 6,000 cases of wine each year. The new owners expect to take the facility to the next level, producing more cases of wine, including Merlot Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Dolcetto.

The winery likely also will perform custom crush for clients, a practice many wineries do for others in the business. Other facilities ship their grapes to larger wineries in Napa.

Ledgewood Creek Winery & Vineyards uses only about 10 percent of its grapes for its own winery. The remainder of the fruit goes to neighboring Napa or Sonoma counties to service wineries like Beringer Vineyards and Ravenswood Winery.

“Most wineries buy outside fruit,” Wehman said. “You get to a point where you can't grow all the fruit.”

Reach Christine Cubé at 427-6934 or


Solano County's wine grapes, 2004

Dark 6,691 tons

White 8,426 tons

Total 15,117 tons

Value: $10.2 million

Acres: 4,153

Source: Annual Crop and Livestock Report, 2004

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