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The Art Of Wine And Cigars

Distinguished and In Demand, Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon is the Product of One Family's dogged Determination
Jeff Morgan
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

Chuck Wagner drives a vintage 1967 turquoise Chevy pickup alongside his Napa Valley vineyard, its wheels kicking up rust-colored Rutherford dust--a fine powder assigned mythical powers by certain local grape growers. "It's still got its original paint," the square-framed, sandy-haired winemaker says proudly of his vehicle.

Among automobiles it's a minor victory of tenacity over time, but if Wagner wants to talk perseverance and heritage, he need only look to his own family's history. Each generation has faced challenges--from the devastating 1906 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco, to Prohibition, and even a vicious attempt on Wagner's father's life--weathering them all through vision and hard work that have made the clan's Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon one of the most revered red wines out of Napa Valley today.

Wagner is a fastidious sort who pays attention to detail. The 46-year-old winemaker runs a tight ship at his family's renowned, yet spartan, winery in the checkerboard vineyard town of Rutherford. He carefully follows the progress of each aging barrel of valuable wine, which can sell for as much as $100 a bottle. "We know our Cabernet is

special," says Wagner. "The distinctiveness is partly related to soil and partly to wine-making techniques."

Wagner's simple, yet spacious, 15,000-square-foot barrel room is packed to the ceiling with quietly maturing wine. Next door to the impressive structure sits a tiny, unobtrusive cinder-block building 12 feet wide and 22 feet long--a modest 264 square feet. "This was our old barrel room," Wagner explains, leading the way to a cool, dark and windowless lair that now serves as his office. Family pictures line the walls. The ceiling is covered by a three-dimensional topographic map of California, where Wagner likes to point out what he considers will be the next great wine-growing regions of the state. (He's betting on Monterey County and the Paso Robles area.)

The old barrel room is also a good place to store cigars. Taking up a significant portion of Wagner's desktop is his custom-made humidor, by the French firm Elie Bleu. Part of a special edition (Bleu made only 20 such humidors in 1995), Wagner's is number 15. "A good cigar is like a great wine," he says. "Once you finish a glass, it calls you back for another." Wagner's metaphor is spoken with the authority of someone for whom good taste is a way of life. He then pauses like the proverbial kid in a candy store before his tidy collection of mostly Cuban cigars.

"There's nothing quite like a Cuban cigar," he says, lifting a smooth-wrappered Partagas from his humidor. Lined up neatly along the humidor's Spanish cedar interior lie rows of hand-rolled Cuban Bolivars, El Rey del Mundos, Cohibas, Montecristos and H. Upmanns. Visually, both humidor and its contents make an arresting display of fine artisanship.

Before purchasing his humidor, Wagner kept his cigars scattered about in small boxes. "I needed to either build another room or get a bigger box," he recalls. While the humidor wasn't cheap, it cost less than building an entirely new room. He'd already done that years ago to make space for more wine barrels.

The story of Caymus Vineyards' rise to prominence is part of the wine phenomenon called Napa Valley, a singular spot so well suited to grape growing that nearly every inch of the 30-mile-long valley appears to be reserved for vineyards. Napa's uniqueness has long been apparent; by the late 1800s, more than 150 wineries graced the valley. Some, like the once mighty Inglenook, made wines that were not only the toast of cities like San Francisco and New York, but also of Europe, where they won wine competitions and the attention of many curious consumers.

However, Prohibition nearly killed the California wine industry. When Robert Mondavi opened his eponymous winery in 1966--some 33 years after Prohibition's repeal--barely six wineries in Napa Valley had nationally distributed wines. Today, some 240 wineries dot the valley, making wines with reputations now beyond reproach.

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