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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

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It was Charlie who first saw the importance of making wine at Caymus. With its higher profit margins, wine could take farming to a more lucrative level than grape growing and also bring his son back into the fold. Chuck went for the bait. He quit school and joined his father at the new Caymus winery, named after an Indian village once located near the vineyard. "Chuck didn't really know wine then," Charlie says. "I don't think he even cared much for it." But that would change, as the younger Wagner improved his tasting and wine-making skills. "You see the result today," says his father proudly.

Nevertheless, the early years at the Caymus winery were difficult. "It was hideous," Chuck recalls. Conditions were primitive at the fledgling operation, where the father and son team started out with a hand-operated grape crusher and three redwood tank fermenters. They bought used barrels from Beaulieu Vineyard and Inglenook. "We were like clowns. We wouldn't even run into town to buy a good screwdriver," Chuck remembers with a smile. He and his father preferred to forage around the property for old parts and tools. After all, it's a time-honored tradition for farmers. "I was ashamed to tell my friends about what we were doing. How could we compete with [big names at the time, like] Charles Krug and Spring Mountain?"

The Wagners made some good wine on their own, particularly in 1973 and 1974. In 1975, they hired Randy Dunn to help in the cellar for their fourth vintage. "In those days, [winemaking at Caymus] was by guess and by golly," Dunn reminisces. "Charlie was basically a farmer." The family's home-winemaking tradition had not fully prepared them for a commercial endeavor.

Dunn, who remained at Caymus for 10 more years and now makes his own highly regarded Dunn Cabernet, was an entomologist (a zoologist who studies insects) who had also minored in winemaking and biochemistry at the University of California at Davis. With the aid of Dunn's science background and additional help from various local winemakers, Caymus refined its cellar techniques while developing the smooth, sleek style that it is known for today. "That [decade with Randy Dunn] was our great learning curve," Chuck Wagner says today.

Dunn believes that the secret to both his own and Caymus's success stems largely from the high quality of each winery's raw materials--their Cabernet grapes. "We're not doing anything special [in the cellar]," he says modestly. "We're blessed with good fruit." Given the consistently favorable Wine Spectator reviews of Caymus Cabernets going back to 1973, Dunn's hypothesis rings true.

Caymus made 250 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1972, its first vintage, and sold the wine for $4.50 a bottle. The 1994 vintage, its most recent, costs $36. Caymus Special Selection--a limited reserve production wine made exclusively from the home vineyard--weighs in at a hefty $100, and total wine production (which features wines like Sauvignon Blanc as well) is now up around 70,000 cases. The numbers do not include other wine ventures to the south in Monterey County and Paso Robles. Chuck farms a 100-acre vineyard in Monterey called Mer Soleil, from which he makes a richly textured Chardonnay. A newer partnership with longtime Paso Robles growers--the Hope family--will yield a red table wine called Treana, made from Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese grapes.

Looking back over the years, Chuck says, "We tried really hard, and we haven't stopped." His expansion into Southern California is meant to assure not only his, but his four children's economic security. "When you come from humble beginnings, you don't want to return," he adds.

While hard work is clearly a factor in the Wagner family's success, they were fortunate to own a choice piece of land at a time when California Cabernet was about to take off. In the early 1970s, California was better known for Gallo and Paul Masson jug wines than its premier varietals.

A turning point occurred in 1976, when a contest was set up in Paris, pitting a group of California Cabernets and Chardonnays against famous Bordeaux châteaus and Burgundys. At the now famous Paris Tasting, California roundly trounced the French, much to the chagrin of the French judges, who had tasted "blind," without knowing the wines' identities. A Time magazine article about the tasting catapulted California--and Napa Valley in particular--into the public eye.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, just a few miles down the road from Caymus (which also was a contestant in the Paris Tasting), placed first among the Cabernet-based wines. Its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon beat out such stellar French châteaus as Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. "Ballistic is a word that has been used," says Stag's Leap owner Warren Winiarski to describe the Paris Tasting's effect on his own wine's reputation and sales. "People have never stopped talking about the event."

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