Rustic Bay Area wine region features free tastings


CONTRACOSTATIMES.COM: November 25, 2011

It’s become a bit of a tradition. Whenever there’s a birthday, my gaggle of girlfriends heads to the wine country.

“Big deal — what woman doesn’t like wine,” you say? Well, this is where the story gets interesting.

We’ve found a little wine region where tastings are free, the farms are still rustic and country roads lace the gently rolling hills of a rich, fertile valley.

Did I mention it’s just 45 minutes from Oakland? It’s the Suisun Valley Wine Country — looking more like the Ponderosa than the glitzy wine regions we’re accustomed to seeing. And it’s dotted with produce stands, nut farms and family-owned vineyards, where you can chat with the growers and winemakers.

The drive takes a little discipline. You have to head west when you get off the freeway in Fairfield, instead of right to the outlet mall. This alone is no easy task. But once you get used to it, you’ll find the rural charm of this place intoxicating.

Signs on a post mark the crossroads, and hawks soar overhead catching air streams.

A rusted-out tractor sits in the yard of a farm, and the hot spot in town is a country cafe with the best egg scramble around.

The Vintage Caffe serves up pasta and seafood and a kitchen full of comfort dishes, paired with wines from the Suisun Valley. It’s a good place to start and end your tour.

Just down the trail are nine wineries, cellars and vineyards with tasting rooms — including the Suisun ValleyWine Co-op staffed by wine producers themselves. It’s a rare chance to talk tannins, fruit production and acetic acid with guys like Roger King, who owns King Andrews Vineyards.

“There are people in Solano County who don’t know we exist,” he says, as he pours us a supple pinot noir with a seductive nose of sandalwood and choke cherries.

It’s from Winterhawk Winery, where they’ve been quietly making world-class wines for a quarter-century.

Just down the road are more tasting rooms, at Ledgewood Creek, Tenbrink Vineyards and Wooden Valley Winery — where the Lanza family has been crafting fine wine since 1933.

The whole Suisun Valley, I’m told, is just eight miles wide. You can ride your bike to these wineries and not even get winded. The neighboring Green Valley has wineries as well.

The tasting rooms, coupled with family farms where you can buy things like dried fruit, almonds and olive oil, make for a fruitful visit to this little-known region. And it’s a whole lot easier on your pocketbook than hitting the outlet malls.

Suisun Valley’s Anniversary Celebration is Dec. 26 and 27 and features winetasting and gourmet foods at each participating location.

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