Editor’s note – This is the first of a four-part series looking at Suisun Valley in winter, spring, summer and fall.
SUISUN VALLEY — Suisun Valley’s wineries, businesses and its very landscape in January seem in a state of waiting.
“The winter here is slow for us,” said Lim Phuon, who has operated La Barista Espresso at Rockville Corner for seven years.
Solano County has targeted the 10,000-acre valley to become a bustling, regional tourist area, a sort of down-home, mini-version of the Napa Valley. Realization of those plans seems furthest away in late December and early January, when the weather – even the sunny days seldom crack 60 degrees – ratchets down the energy level.
Yet, though visitors to Suisun Valley must search harder for signs of life in the dead of winter, they can still find them. They can also find a different type of beauty than at other times of the year.
Phuon’s business remains open, as do other valley restaurants. People can still go to La Barista to buy coffee, lattes, chicken panini grills, ham-and-cheese croissants and other menu items. The difference is they might decide to use the drive-thru or eat inside, rather than sit on the porch and enjoy the view of an oak-covered hill.
“There’s a chill out there,” Phuon said on a recent morning.
So Phuon waits for the day when people head back to the valley to go to produce stands or pass through on the way to Lake Berryessa. She gets winter customers, especially when school is in session, just not in the same numbers as during spring.
Down Suisun Valley Road several miles, Wooden Valley Winery has 400 acres of vineyards. Those vines may be alive, but they look dead, all leafless twigs, not a grape in sight.
“Pretty much the winter months are only pruning,” said Ron Lanza of Wooden Valley Winery. “That’s it.”
About 200 workers go to the fields to prune the vines. The resulting brush gets ground up and put into the soil.
Winter is also the time to repair and maintain farm equipment, Lanza said. That’s true for all the farmers, he said.
“You never want to have to do that during the season,” Lanza said.
Meanwhile, work goes on at the winery bottling the white wines that are best consumed fresh. The winery’s tasting room is already selling bottles of its 2012 Sauvignon Blanc and 2012 Riesling, which Lanza said is Wooden Valley’s most popular wine.
People can still take the narrow bridge from Suisun Valley Road over a creek to reach the Wooden Valley Winery tasting room. Even in the winter, the tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.
But the tasting room and the nearby picnic area with views of the vineyards were empty on a recent, chilly weekday morning. Wine tasting usually goes with good weather, Lanza said. He sees driving around and enjoying the valley on a beautiful day as part of the visitor experience.
Cold, sometimes rainy January weather puts Wooden Valley Winery into a bit of a winter’s lull. Come February, the days get warmer and yellow mustard adds a splash of color to the vineyards, creating a more inviting atmosphere for visitors.
“By the time February hits, it’s really nice,” Lanza said.
At Il Fiorello Olive Oil Co., the state-of-the-art olive mill shipped in 2011 from Italy grinds to a halt as winter wears on. It milled 225 tons of olives in late fall and early winter from Suisun Valley, Napa County, Sonoma County, Contra Costa County and from groves as far as 100 miles away in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The end of milling simply heralds a different type of less glamorous winter work: Cleanup.
“We’ve got to go through and break down the equipment and figuratively scrub it with a toothbrush,” Il Fiorello owner Mark Sievers said.
Meanwhile, Il Fiorello decants its olive oil to get rid of sediments. It sends samples to a laboratory and to taste panels to qualify for the extra virgin olive oil seal.
Winter action is mostly indoors. There’s nothing much to do in the olive groves themselves. Farm equipment sinks into the muddy ground.
“Unfortunately, the weeds are having a heyday,” Sievers said.
Like many Suisun Valley undertakings, Il Fiorello is a family owned venture. Mark and Ann Sievers started growing olives in nearby Green Valley and started the Suisun Valley enterprise a few years ago, in addition to having full-time jobs.
Suisun Valley visitors during the winter find most of the produce stands closed. The Vegetable Patch, which used to be open year-round on Rockville Road, is gone. Larry’s Produce on Suisun Valley Road has a red-and-white wooden sign across the gravel parking lot that reads “Closed for the Season.”
If they keep searching, visitors might drive down narrow Clayton Road, which is off the beaten track even for Suisun Valley. There, about a mile from Mankas Corner, Cal-Yee farms has a small shop that sells dried fruits and nuts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, the same as during any season of the year.
Bicycle riders still can be seen on valley roads during the winter. A worker at the Rockville Cemetery on a recent day mowed the lawn near the tombstones, albeit while wearing a jacket. The Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative is open Thursday through Sunday, providing a tasting room for five valley winemakers.
The vines look lifeless in their dormant states, but in the dirt beneath them, green vegetation grows after being watered by winter rains.
It’s a harbinger of sorts, a promise of the life and activity that will return to Suisun Valley in the weeks to come.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.