Decanter Interview with Chuck Wagner

Caymus Chuck Wagner Brook People & Places Articles
  • Friday 25 February 2005

Most US wine drinkers like their wine rich, concentrated and immediately drinkable. Chuck Wagner at Caymus crafts his wines, including the flagship Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, entirely to cater for this taste. STEPHEN BROOK meets a man who knows his market.

During the 1980s it was possible to visit what looked like a shack among the prized vineyards of Rutherford in the heart of Napa Valley. A large cordial man in braces would often be hovering around the tasting room. It was Charles Wagner, the then owner of Caymus, looking for all the world like an Oklahoma dairyman. His wines weren’t always great: there was some rather odd Pinot Noir, batches of Zinfandel, late-harvest Riesling, and then there was his Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wagner, descended from a line of Alsatian farmers, knew his vineyards could produce Cabernet of immense richness and concentration. He had already been making a wine called Special Selection since 1975, a wine crafted by his then winemaker Randy Dunn, and given prolonged barrel-ageing – sometimes as long as four years – to ensure the wine was approachable on release.

By the mid-1980s Caymus’ Special Selection had become one of Napa’s most admired Cabernets. Dunn left in 1986 and eventually set up his own winery, and Charles Wagner’s son Chuck began taking on more and more responsiblity. Charles Wagner died in 2002, in his 90th year.

Special Selection Cabernet has admirers and detractors, but both are likely to admire its sheer drinkability. It is almost always drinkable on release, although it can age for 10 years or more in bottle.

In producing this style of Cabernet, the Wagners displayed an instinctive grasp of the American palate. And this understanding has been the common factor in Chuck Wagner’s extensions of the Caymus portfolio. In addition to the Napa Valley wines, Wagner also produces a successful, idiosyncratic white blend called Conundrum, and a Chardonnay called Mer Soleil from vineyards in Monterey. And now he is adding two Pinot Noirs to the range, one from Santa Barbara, and the other from Taylor Lane, a vineyard near the Sonoma Coast.

Harvest Time

I arrive at Caymus as the harvest is in full swing. When I ask Chuck Wagner what time I should put in an appearance, he suggests 7am. I’m too shocked to protest. Chuck is there, scribbling onto a large noticeboard attached to the exterior winery wall, where he lists the tasks of the day. We taste a few samples pulled from the tanks, but I find it hard to judge the qualities of wines that have just completed fermentation. I ask Chuck what he is looking out for when he tastes these infant wines, and the answer is simple and brief: ‘Bad characters’.

We then spend an hour in the vineyards. Caymus purchases some fruit, but Wagner’s long-term goal is to farm all the grapes required for its Cabernets. A detailed inspection of the trellising and pruning systems confirm that, like his father, Chuck Wagner is as much a farmer as a winemaker. When I put this to him, he shrugs.

‘We’re just wine people. I grew up here, and as a boy I did jobs like spraying and helping my dad prune. That was in the days when we weren’t making wines ourselves but were selling all our grapes to Inglenook. I do find viticulture exciting, and I think we’ve become very good at it here in Napa. My own view is that the quality of a wine comes as much from the farming methods as the soil. There’s a lot of talk about appellations and terroirs within Napa, but I find it hard to identify subregional characteristics here. Instead we all share a goal of what Napa Cabernet is supposed to taste like, and we adapt our farming to give us the fruit that will produce it.’

But not all Napa Cabernets taste the same. Wagner defines his ideal wine as ultra-ripe, supple in texture, accessible in its youth, and with well-integrated oak. He could be – and probably is – describing his own Special Selection. He admits the style has changed. Today he picks later, so that the wines are ripe, free of any herbaceous character, and have higher alcohol (14.5% rather than the 13% more common in the 1980s); the tannins are sweeter and the acidity lower.

Later, we clamber into the pickup and drive to the rugged Atlas Peak district above Napa Valley. Caymus owns a small vineyard here, and Chuck wants to see how the harvest is coming along. A winemaker is checking the grapes as they are tipped into the destemmer. I note that there are a few shrivelled, even raisined, bunches in the bins. Wagner is unapologetic: ‘I like sweet fruit in our wines, and can easily tolerate around 10% of shrivelled bunches in the fermenters. The result can be quite high alcohol, but American wine drinkers are accustomed to it, and even expect it.’

We go to lunch in Rutherford and share a bottle of Mer Soleil. I ask him how this Central Coast Chardonnay came into being.

‘I wanted to make Chardonnay, but good land in Napa was getting too expensive. I looked at Edna Valley, but settled on Monterey. At first I planted 7ha and had no intention of making more than 3,000 cases. But my neighbours down there kept offering me more and more land to lease, and as the wine was becoming successful, I couldn’t resist the offers.’

From the outset Mer Soleil has had a very marked character of its own: ultra-ripe, with distinct flavours of tropical fruit, and a good dose of alcohol. It’s a wine that makes a beeline for the Californian palate, but Europeans may baulk at its flamboyant character and hint of pineappley sweetness.

‘The vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey are very cool and we need, and get, a very long hang-time. We’re in no rush to pick, as there’s usually no rain, and I like to wait to get the acidity down. That’s why the wines tend to be high in alcohol.’

Since 1989 Caymus has produced a white wine called Conundrum, a varying blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Muscat, and a dash of Viognier and Semillon. Seventy percent of the wine is barrel-fermented and aged eight months in wood; the rest remains in tank. With about 5g of residual sugar, it is discernibly sweet, which may account for its success, despite a fairly high price tag.

Wagner’s newest venture is Belle Glos in Santa Barbara County. The wine, named after his mother, is a Pinot Noir made from 30ha planted in the Santa Maria Valley. The winemaking is in the hands of Chuck’s son, Joe, who ages the wine in 50% new oak. It’s an attractive medium-bodied wine, with rich aromas of tomato as well as fruit.

There is a risk in a Napa-based producer extending himself throughout the state. But in the case of Caymus, it seems to have paid off, and Chuck Wagner has a sound grasp of what the American market is looking for. Nonetheless, the reputation of Caymus rises and falls on the strength of its Cabernet Sauvignon. As well as the Special Selection, Wagner also produces a Napa Cabernet, made mostly from purchased grapes, and aged in about 35% new oak for 20 months. Unlike the prestige wine, it sometimes contains a little Merlot or Cabernet Franc, and sells for about half the price of Special Selection.

Special Selection is made entirely from grapes grown on Caymus’ Rutherford estate. Since 1997 the oak-ageing period has been significantly reduced from four years to around 18 months to retain the freshness of the wine, and ripeness levels have increased while acidity levels have decreased. So stylistically the wine is in accord with current American taste.

From the last 15 years, the best vintages include: 2001 – elegant and powerful, with a long, fresh peppery finish; 1999 – a ripe cassis nose and harmonious palate; 1994, with blackberry and black cherry fruit, power and youth; and 1991 – a minty nose with elegance rather than power. The wine is not universally admired, but has won sufficient recognition over the past 25 years to have achieved what Wagner always wanted: it has become an American classic.

Caymus Special Selection is imported by Vineyard Cellars and The Wine Treasury.

Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter, and is the author of The Wines of California (£20, Mitchell Beazley).

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