Farmer’s daughter returns to Suisun Valley

The Tolenas label (est. 2015) may be new to Suisun Valley, but the winemaker is not.

Lisa Howard, co-owner and winemaker of Tolenas Vineyards and Winery along with her husband Cliff, grew up in the valley. After being away for more than a decade, she has returned to raise her kids like she was raised, “around small family-owned businesses where everybody is friendly and the land is beautiful.”

Lisa is the daughter of Steve and Linda Tenbrink, who have been growing fruits and vegetables in Suisun Valley since the 1980s. Lisa went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo with financial help from a Suisun Valley Farm Center scholarship. Wooden Valley Winery’s Ron Lanza, who Lisa claims as a second dad, told her, “We’re counting on you to come back and do something big.”

“I never forgot that,” says Lisa, who studied agricultural engineering, and after graduation worked as a water resource specialist in Arizona, where she met Cliff, a police officer. She and Cliff came back to Suisun each harvest season to help make Tenbrink wines. Steve had been growing grapes and selling to wineries in Napa for years, and about 10 years ago he decided to make his own wine under the Tenbrink label as a side business. However, his focus continues to be the vineyards, walnuts, and growing fruit and vegetables for high-end chefs in San Francisco and Napa.

Steve Tenbrink, Lisa and Cliff Howard, Ron Lanza, and Chuck Wagner

Coming Home

Lisa always knew she wanted to come back to Suisun Valley and do something impactful, and when the opportunity to buy property came up, she and Cliff took the leap.

Lisa and Cliff started making their own wine three years ago. They learned from Steve and Lisa’s younger brother, Daryl. “We are self-taught winemakers with a lot of awesome mentors. Suisun Valley is very collaborative. Everyone around us is extremely supportive,” says Lisa.

“When we present our wine, we present a family of wines. We also showcase Suisun Valley, which has long deserved the attention it is finally getting,” she says.

The label Tolenas came when Lisa found an old deed to her property listed as Lot #38 of Rancho Tolenas, the Mexican land grant that spanned Solano and Napa Counties. “This area has pioneer spirit. My parents had that experience, and so have many other families out here. What better tribute to that pioneer spirit than to put it on our wine label?”

Pairing Wine, Memories, and Land

“The food of my Italian heritage has influenced our winemaking,” she says. “You can’t make good wine without knowing good food. Our wines are meant to be enjoyed with food and family, and to me that means more than immediate family. Food, memories, talking, and joy. That’s what I picture when someone opens a bottle of Tolenas.”

Tolenas Vineyards and Winery will be donating wine to Solano Land Trust’s Sunday Supper on October 7, 2018, at Joyful Ranch in Vacaville. As for her own Sunday supper memories, the business of farming was part of the conversation on Sundays, and every day of the week.

“Our discussions included business, finances, and struggles of running a farm stand,” says Lisa. “When my parents began leasing land from Ben Bennedsen in Gordon Valley, they wanted to buy the property but it was out of reach. Ben worked with Solano Land Trust in 1998 to put a conservation easement on the land, which made it affordable. That’s how I understood the impact Solano Land Trust can have on family farms from when I was really little.”

You help support local farming families by buying local and being a member of Solano Land Trust. Join us at the Sunday Supper to celebrate family farmers and locally-sourced food and wine. (By Aleta George, June 2018. Photos courtesy of Lisa Howard.)