After 40 years, Chuck Wagner still feels very passionately about his wines because, well, they are his wines.
When Wagner, then 21, started Caymus Vineyards in 1972 with his parents Charlie and Lorna, almost all of Napa Valley’s wineries were still family-owned. Today, Caymus has become a very large operation, and its brands — the iconic Special Selection Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, its "everyday" Caymus Napa cab, Belle Glos pinot noirs, Mer Soleil chardonnays, and Conundrum white blend — are made in two different wineries (one for reds, one for whites) with grapes owned or sources from several different California appellations.
But Wagner bemoans the fact that many of the family wineries that were once his neighbors have sold their properties — and in most cases the use of their names — to larger corporations. And he still carries a fairly large oak chip on his shoulder from the old days when Napa Valley wines were always measured, often unfavorably, against those of the classic regions of France.
At a recent dinner at Colicchio & Sons restaurant on New York’s West Side, Wagner poured his mostly marvelous wines and talked about his family and the current state of the wine industry over hamachi, monkfish, and dry-aged sirloin. He inquired of guests whether they thought Bordeaux cabernet sauvignons or Burgundy pinots noir age better, noting that he prefers the latter while making clear that he is not including the age-worthiness of Napa cabs in that assessment. He flinched when his delicious 2009 Special Selection cab was compared favorably to the muscular top-growth Bordeaux reds from Pauillac — no more Bordeaux comparisons, please, even laudatory ones.
Wagner’s frank assessments also extend to himself and his wines. For example, he says that Conundrum, a very popular white blend, "is not a wine lover’s wine" because it is off-dry (lightly sweet), a judgment that brought protests from its fans around the table. He notes that his father didn’t originally like the wine, but warmed to it when it began to generate a healthy cash flow.
Wagner also admits to nudging his four children into joining the family business, especially after his visit to Trimbach, a multi-generational winery in Alsace, the ancestral home turf of the Wagners. "The kids fell in love with the business — after being pushed a bit," he laughs, noting that three oldest are already Caymus employees, while the youngest is still thinking it over. Similarly, when someone brings up the subject of farm labor, he is passionate and compassionate in defending the hard work and integrity of the many Mexican families who work in California’s wineries and vineyards.
Whether it is establishing very high standards for the quality of his wines or in advancing the legacies of family-owned wineries, Chuck Wagner remains truly a "special selection."