FAIRFIELD — Green Valley is its own, small wine world and grape growers there want the wider world to know it.
It is adjacent to the regionally well-known Suisun Valley wine-growing area and just over the hills from the world-famous Napa Valley. But it has had its own American Viticultural Area designation since 1982.
The valley is a few miles long and perhaps a mile wide. Here, enough distinctive conditions exist for growing grapes to warrant a “Solano Green Valley” label for its wines. The valley has about 13 grape growers and two wineries.
Here’s where Tom and Carolyn West moved 22 years ago, planted grapes 12 years ago and started selling their Rock Creek Vineyard wine five years ago.
“The whole reason we went into the wine business is we wanted to make wine like we drank in Italy,” Carolyn West said.
Suisun Valley is Solano County’s most well-known wine-producing area. Carolyn West said the Green Valley and Suisun Valley grape growers are very supportive of each other.
Still, she’d like Green Valley to have its own identity apart from what she calls “our sister valley next door.”
“We want people to think of Green Valley as a great, wonderful AVA where you get wonderful wines,” Carolyn West said.
Green Valley is more than simply a smaller version of Suisun Valley. To get federal recognition as a distinct AVA, grape growing regions must have something distinct about them in terms of weather and geography.
Low clouds and fog from the Bay Area get tangled against the hills of Green Valley in the summer. As a result, fog is prevalent in Green Valley and hardly ever penetrates as far as Suisun Valley, according to the Suisun Valley appellation filing in 1982.
Rock Creek Vineyard is 2.5 acres on a gentle slope in upper Green Valley, nestled against the hills. It gets cool mornings because of the overcast, followed by warm summer days. The soils are volcanic and rocky. This part of the valley is protected from the winds.
All of these factors influence the flavor of the grapes grown there.
Vines have to struggle a little bit, but that’s good, Carolyn West said. She thinks it brings a richness to the Sangiovese, which the winery describes as a deep, red wine with delicious fruit and a hint of caramel.
Growing conditions can vary even within a AVA. That’s true in the case of Green Valley.
GV Cellars is on the Green Valley floor. The soils here are clay and loam and the winds strong enough to make the vines lean slightly to the east.
“We have an extreme maritime wind that comes through almost daily that affects the grapes in a lot of different ways,” said Sal Galvan, the winemaker at GV Cellars. “The grape’s natural tendency is to protect its seed. It’s in its DNA. We basically have a thicker-skinned grape.”
That leads to wines that are fuller with a higher tannin content, he said.
In Napa Valley, the grape harvest is usually in full swing during October. But GV Cellars often doesn’t pick its Cabernet until the end of October or early November.
“It’s just hard to ripen,” Galvan said. “We have to make it through some rains every year. It’s still a fantastic Cabernet.”
Green Valley has a long grape-growing tradition. J.P. Munro Fraser in 1879 wrote of traveling through the valley and seeing hills with “acre upon acre of grape vines, arranged with the regularity and perfection of extreme nicety.”
An Australian named John Volypka planted a vineyard in 1858 and started making wine in 1863, Fraser wrote. Others followed, such as Henry Schultz, who built a wine operation with a capacity of 10,000 gallons.
But S.F. Jones had the biggest operation of all by 1879. He came to the valley in 1860 and planted 90 acres of vines. He built a cellar that could hold 50,000 gallons of wine.
More recently, Ben Volkhardt Jr. in 1952 bought 80 acres on the Green Valley floor. He planted peach and pear trees, but also some grapes. Over time, the vineyard became more prominent.
Ben Volkhardt III joined his father in the business in 1974 and by 1982 they had started the Chateau de Leu winery. That same year, they petitioned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to create the Solano Green Valley and Suisun Valley AVAs.
Chateau de Leu under different ownership became today’s GV Cellars.
Sal and Claudia Galvan can envision GV Cellars being the site of a wine cooperative for Green Valley, similar to the cooperative in Suisun Valley. Then the area’s growers who have no winery would have a place to sell their wines.
Some of these wines are award-winning. For example, In Cahoots, a joint project between GV Cellars and Galvan Family Cellars, won double gold for its 2009 Lovechild from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Rock Creek’s 2007 Estate Sangiovese won one of three medals given for Sangiovese in the Chronicle Wine Competition.
“We’re starting to make world-class wine, wines that can compete,” Sal Galvan said.
Word is starting to get out. Sunset recently ran an article on “Hidden Wine Country.” It’s lead example – Green Valley.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.