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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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Given Napa Valley's inherent ability to grow extraordinary Cabernet Sauvignon, it's no wonder that a short drive from either Caymus or the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars leads wine travelers to any number of outstanding Cabernet producers: Mondavi, Opus One, Dominus, Dunn, Diamond Creek, Spottswoode, Chateau Montelena, Silver Oak, Heitz, Shafer--the names roll off the tongue as smoothly as the wines. Both Napa's vine-studded valley and surrounding mountains offer optimum conditions for coaxing exquisitely ripe, enduring flavors out of this assertive, domineering grape.

Great wines have brought even greater growth to the valley, and Napa is now a far cry from the sleepy farm region that Chuck Wagner's grandfather moved to in 1906. The towns of Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga sport trendy boutiques and restaurants that cater to throngs of travelers who have picked this area as their number one wine destination.

Yet Napa's valuable monoculture securely anchors the region's cosmopolitan airs to its agricultural heritage. Walk into Tra Vigne, for example. This polished Italian restaurant in St. Helena keeps a decidedly local spin on its excellent wine list, adding only a respectful nod to the wines of Italy.

On the walls hang photographs of early Napa Valley wine settlers. One turn-of-the-century image features a handsome group of vintners, one of whom was general manager at the time for the famous Inglenook winery. (Inglenook produced some of Napa's greatest Cabernet Sauvignon before its name became associated with a jug wine brand in the 1970s. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola now owns the Inglenook property, which was first planted in 1879 by a Finnish sea captain and fur trader named Gustav Niebaum. It is now called Niebaum-Coppola Estate.) The Inglenook general manager, Lafayette Stice, smiles at the camera. Originally from Scotland, Stice found his way to Napa, where he married a local girl named Sarah Belle Turner. Their granddaughter, Lorna Belle, married Charlie Wagner, and later gave birth to Chuck. Now, when Charlie or Chuck eats at Tra Vigne, he can order his family's wine while gazing at a piece of the family photo album.

Holding a neatly burning Partagas, Chuck is thankful for his and his family's hard-earned good fortune. He knows it rests on the continued success of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1993--considered a weak year in Napa Valley--Chuck decided that quality was not high enough to release a Special Selection Cabernet. The best lots from the vintage were declassified and blended into the regular Cabernet. It was a difficult decision, but one that preserved the integrity of the label.

Chuck applies the same premium on quality to the cigars he smokes. "One inch of a bad one--and you've got to put it down." That's why he prefers Cuban cigars. "I don't know if other cigar regions will find the magic of Cuba," he sighs, wistfully.

Nonetheless, Wagner appreciates variety in a smoke. "I don't know anyone who enjoys just one cigar or just one wine." Where does he get his Cubans? "Everyone has his sources," the winemaker responds coyly. "I don't smoke them daily, but I enjoy them regularly."

With Napa Valley as his backdrop, Chuck Wagner's regular smoke would be the envy of most cigar aficionados. "My favorite memory is of a Montecristo No. 2 Cabinet selection , a torpedo," he says. The winemaker describes a quiet evening on his porch by the vineyard that has been so good to him. The cool night air, the whispering vines and the history under his feet conspired with the flavors of the gently burning torpedo. "It was truly a great cigar," he remembers. "Kind of like that great bottle of Burgundy that you can never find." Clearly, Wagner has found his niche in the world of wine. It, too, is filled with superlatives.

Jeff Morgan is the West Coast Editor for Wine Spectator magazine.

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