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The Art of Wine & Cigars

Distinguished and In Demand, Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon is the Product of One Family's dogged Determination
Jeff Morgan
Posted: April 1, 1998

(continued from page 1)

In Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is king. This hardy grape, originally transplanted from Bordeaux's gravelly soils, has taken well to its adopted home in California. The hot, dry growing season and rocky, red dirt in Napa yield ultraripe grapes. It's safe, if controversial, to say that the best of the crop produce wines offering power and richness not regularly achieved by their counterparts from France. "We continue to look at Bordeaux [for inspiration]," Wagner says. "But we don't try to emulate what they do there. We try to make wine in our own style."

The Caymus style is one that has evolved with time. The lush, 73-acre vineyard that produces complex and dynamic Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon is planted on land once dedicated mostly to walnuts, and plums for prune-making.

Chuck Walker's Alsatian grandfather, Charles, arrived in California in 1885. He settled in San Francisco, working in a brewery until it was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1906. The family patriarch then took his life savings--$9,000 in gold coins--and moved to what he hoped would be more solid ground in Napa Valley. There, he bought land to grow potatoes, tomatoes, squash and hay. He grew grapes as well, and in 1915 he opened Wagner Winery. However, Prohibition soon closed the winery's doors, officially at any rate. "My grandfather continued to farm prunes, walnuts and some grapes," Chuck says. "He sold a little beer and wine illegally, too."

It wasn't until 1943 that Chuck's father, Charlie, now 85, bought the acreage known today as Caymus Vineyards. Charlie got a good price on farmland that he had been renting for several years. The spry octogenarian still knocks about the property in a big straw hat, blue jeans and suspenders.

The soil was rockier on the new land than at the old farm (which was sold in 1963). Rocky soils offer the kind of porosity that grapevines crave, and yet Charlie Wagner planted additional fruit and nut trees. Though Wagner had a taste for his own homemade wine (fermented from Pinot Noir picked at his neighbor's vineyard), grapes were not yet part of his grand design.

By 1965, the market for prunes and walnuts was weak. Grapes looked more promising, and Charlie pulled all his fruit trees up to plant a mix of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Ultimately, it became apparent that Cabernet would yield the most exciting, full-bodied wine.

Before his new vines could produce a commercial crop, however, Charlie had a near-fatal experience that affected both his and his son's future. In 1966, a disgruntled, mentally unstable former employee showed up on the property with a .22 caliber rifle and pumped six bullets at point-blank range into Charlie's body. He then shot himself in the head. Miraculously, both men lived, although it took Charlie a year to fully recover.

Chuck, 14 at the time, was working only part-time for his father, and his two older sisters were not involved in the day-to-day operation of the vineyard. "We didn't have enough money to hire help," Chuck recalls, "and I realized I would have to help out a lot more." It was the beginning of Chuck Wagner's practical education as a grape grower.

By 1970, the Wagners were making a reasonable profit selling grapes to local wineries. But they had some financial reversals from natural causes like flooding. "We thought about selling out," Charlie recalls. He found a potential buyer who was ready to pay $3,000 an acre--not a bad price at the time, even though Napa vineyard land today is worth $40,000 to $60,000 an acre. The deal fell through.

Meanwhile, Chuck had entered junior college, but lacked direction. He wasn't sure he wanted to remain a farmer, and his studies were leading nowhere. "I was not a good student," he admits.

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