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Wagner Making Rapid Progress At Its New Solano County Property

August 18, 2014

Last year, Wagner Family of Wine acquired 260 acres of land in Solano County, a 40-minute drive east of its flagship Caymus winery in Napa Valley. Thus far, owner and winemaker Chuck Wagner is enthusiastic about progress on the Solano County project. “The area has even more potential than we expected,” Wagner tells SND. “We’re currently buying grapes from several growers, as well as planting vines.”

The Wagner property is located in the Suisun (pronounced soo-soon) Valley AVA, Solano County’s epicenter of wine production. “When looking at a map outline of the Napa Valley appellation, Suisun Valley is located right under the nose of the Napa Valley—one can literally kick dirt from one valley to the next,” says Wagner. “We’re growing in both the coolest and warmest reaches of the 23-square-mile valley. The temperature difference is significant—12 degrees is typical, but there can be up to 20-degree differences within a five-mile zone.”

Inspired by the work of Vezér Family Vineyard in Suisun Valley, Wagner’s target varietal for the area is Petite Sirah. “I’m not alone in feeling that Petite Sirah is important to the area,” Wagner says. “I’m not sure whether a region can ever become known for Petite Sirah, but Suisun Valley has a good chance. The goal is to produce a fine Petite Sirah wine or fine dark wine, also perhaps a Petite Sirah/Zinfandel blend.”

Wagner currently has 73 acres on rootstock, planted in February, and a final decision on varietal selection will be made at year-end. “We’ll feel our way and try to eliminate mistakes,” says Wagner. “As climate is the most important criteria, weather stations are already in place. We’ll try to apply everything we’ve learned in Napa.”

The first small grape crop will be ready in three years, and annual production of around 8,000 cases is expected within five years. The appellation will be Suisun Valley, Solano County, and the winemaking facility will be called Cordelia Winery. “We hope to have our first building up for barrel-aging and also move our bottling line by this winter,” Wagner says. “All our wines will be bottled at Cordelia. They’ll also be stored there and shipped from there, and about half our employees will move from Caymus over to Cordelia. That will help reduce traffic in Napa Valley.”

The winemaking facility will have a footprint of 100,000-square-feet initially, including the winery, barrel cellar, warehouse and bottling line. While the permit allows for capacity of up to 5 million gallons of wine, Wagner says there are no plans to reach that level. The Suisun permit also allows for distilled spirits, and Wagner sees an opportunity for a retail and hospitality center. “Suisun is easily accessed and a wonderful place to spend some time,” he adds. “Meanwhile, we’re going to try our best to make good wine in Suisun Valley.”

Wagner’s expansion into Solano County was sparked by a settlement reached with Napa County officials in July 2013. The dispute centered around Wagner’s bottling of its Central Coast wines at the Caymus winery: county officials define bottling as production, and therefore ruled that Wagner had exceeded licensed production limits. Wagner disagreed with the county’s definition of production but opted to settle the dispute, paying a $1 million fine and agreeing to reduce his Napa footprint over a five-year period.

Other major California winemakers also have shown interest in the Suisun Valley AVA—most notably E.&J. Gallo, which in April acquired Ledgewood Creek winery, a 400-acre property in the center of the valley with about 230 acres of vineyards. While the area has always grown grapes, its vintners are mainly grape sellers. “The few players who do make wine are generally small, direct-to-consumer operations,” says Wagner. “To my knowledge, no winery there has focused its sales into the three-tier system in a meaningful way. That’s what we’d like to do.”

A key attraction of Solano County is its land values. While viticultural land in Napa Valley is priced between $175,000-$500,000 an acre, the price range in Solano County is around $15,000-$30,000.

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