Agriculture Coverage: Solano County winemakers seek higher grape pricing

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Solano County winemakers make pitch for new pricing


For just over three years wine grape growers and vintners in a portion of Solano County have been petitioning the California Department of Food and Agriculture with a request: Move a boundary line on a map and, in doing so, fix a problem that was costing them profit from the sale of wine grapes.

They continue to wait, with what Roger King, a director of the Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association and its former president, describes as “proactive patience.” Now the state is suggesting they may get their answer next summer.

King, who filed the petition on behalf of the association of 40 wineries east of the Napa Valley, said that this is the first time ever a group other than the legislature has initiated an amendment to the state’s Grape Price District boundaries. These districts divide the state into wine growing areas and play a key role in how much wine grape growers are paid.

The request to move the boundary line between Districts 5 and 17 involves “basic equity,” said King.

Solano County’s Pricing District 5 is the only county in the state where a single grape pricing district is divided between two very different growing regions: The northwest corner of Solano County and, at the far eastern edge, Ryer Island.

Their argument to the state is that Ryer Island, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has more in common in its grape growing conditions with the adjoining District 17, which is comprised of portions of Yolo and Sacramento Counties west of I-5 and south of I-80. Northwestern county conditions are more like those found in Napa.

“We are trying to correct the only serious anomaly” in the state’s grape pricing districts. King said the petition seeks to remedy the single case “of California coastal wine grape pricing being averaged with interior wine grape pricing within the same grape pricing district.”

King said the cause of the problem is that prices paid for commodity

COVER STORY See WINEMAKERS page 5 4 North Bay Business Journal MONDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2022
grown in one area priced the same as those grown in the Central Valley


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grapes grown on Ryer Island and other delta vineyards are considerably lower than those realized for the premium grapes grown in northwestern Solano County. The association’s petition filed in 2019 cited a previous best estimate that 35% of District 5 grape tonnage comes from the Ryer Island area. More recent tabulations based on the 2020 crush report show the island’s annual grape harvest actually accounts for 42% of the District 5 total tonnage, which substantially reduces the published average price for District 5 grapes. The higher 42% Ryer Island share tallied in 2020 strengthens the association's case for a boundary adjustment.

Under the Clare Berryhill Act of 1976, grape volumes and prices are reported to and tallied by the USDA – National Agricultural Statistical Service each year and then averaged across each district. The district-wide average for each varietal is published annually in the California Grape Crush Report and sets the grape price threshold for purchase contract negotiations between growers and grape buyers the following year.

King said District 5 is the only crush district in California where North Coast grape pricing is averaged with interior Central Valley pricing, even though the grapes grown in northwestern Solano County are of higher quality and would fetch a higher price for Suisun and Green Valley growers.


King and others make the case that the difference in growing conditions between the two Solano County wine growing regions is stark.

Ryer Island vineyards are planted in poorly drained, clay loam soils deposited by the Sacramento River and its tributaries. The island’s namesake, Dr. Washington Ryer, and other island landowners built levees around the island in the late 19th century to impede flooding, and the island has been farmed productively since then.

The state-authorized Reclamation Districts, with funding help from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, continued adding to and strengthening the levees and dredging canals up and down the delta as part of the Central Valley Project beginning in the 1930s. The reclamation program created a chain of fertile islands suitable for agriculture, from peat marshlands that had historically

been subject to seasonal inundations from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt. Ryer Island is managed by Solano County Reclamation District #501, which has continued to shore up and enhance the levees and drainage canals since their construction.

Fertile soils, a hot, sunny growing season, and ample water combine to produce large harvests of commodity grapes. Grapes grown there are mostly sold in bulk to one or more of the large buyers in the Central Valley, including E&J Gallo, the Wine Group and Constellation Brands. These buyers dictate the annual or multi-year contract prices to the Ryer Island growers, largely determined by the buyers’ primary markets, which are supermarkets across the country.


The temperate, marine microclimate of the Suisun and Green Valley vineyards in northwestern Solano County is influenced by the cool onshore winds and fog flowing through the Carquinez Strait from San Pablo Bay. These climate patterns of sunny days and cool nights are similar to those in the Napa and

Sonoma Valleys.

Unlike Ryer Island, which is currently included in the same district as the Suisun/Green Valley areas, this northwestern Solano microclimate and the deep, well-drained, alluvial soils of the valley floor and foothills between the Mt. George Range to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the east enhance the production of premium quality grapes, said King and others, which are vinified and bottled on-site or sold in small lots to wineries in Napa and Sonoma.

He added a typical winery in Suisun or Green Valley negotiates a price based on a harvest of up to several hundred tons. By comparison, an average Ryer Island grape sale ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 tons.


In one sense, at least to the federal government which establishes boundaries of American Viticultural Areas, the Green Valley and most of Suisun Valley are already included with the high- quality North Coast wine growing area. Northwestern Solano County is part of the North Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA), the premium wine appellation that includes Napa,

Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties. In 1982, both Suisun Valley and Solano County Green Valley were granted their own AVA designations as subregions of the North Coast AVA. Until this year, Ryer Island was not included in any AVA, but it was added in April to the Clarksburg AVA, the balance of which lies mostly in District 17.

The AVA designation shows a wine is produced in a defined region with shared geography, climate and soils and declares the wine’s quality and character traits for the consumer. The fact the state’s District 5 boundary, so key to the amount paid for grapes, still lumps North Coast AVA vineyards together with Clarksburg AVA/Central Valley vineyards hurts not only in the price paid for grapes. It also factors into the insurable values set by crop insurers, the backers of the change say.

Although a premium lot of Suisun Valley Petite Sirah may be worth $1,700 per ton, it may only be insurable for $1,300 per ton based on the District 5 average price for the varietal, which includes the large volume of Ryer Island petite sirah grapes with an average

MONDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2022 North Bay Business Journal 5
A map shows the requested crush district boundary change. See

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