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.
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.
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."
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.