Legendary Napa winemaker Charles F Wagner died last month. Howard G Goldberg pays tribute.

Charles F Wagner, a founder of Caymus Vineyards, producer of superlative Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons, died on February 20.

Wagner, 89, died in Rutherford, California. He had had a stroke in November, a Caymus spokeswoman said.

Caymus is famous for its deluxe Special Selection Napa cabernets – the 1998 version is priced at over one hundred dollars a bottle. These wines are the equals of such standard-bearing California cabernets as Heitz Cellars’s Martha’s Vineyard, Beaulieu Vineyard’s Georges de la Tour Private Reserve and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’s Cask 23. In 1998, 10 vintages of Special Selection in Melchiors – immense bottles each holding the equivalent of 24 standard bottles – sold for US$46,000 (€53,000) at Sotheby’s in Manhattan.

The auction was only one peak in Wagner’s career, which began in 1941, when he bought 73 acres and began planting vines. By 1972, when he was 60, he had lost interest in selling his grapes to wineries like Inglenook, where they got lost in nondescript blends. With his wife, Lorna, and their son, Chuck, he created Caymus. From 1984 on, Chuck ran Caymus’s operations.

Their first regular cabernet, 240 cases from vines planted in the mid-1960s, was dated 1972. Caymus’s initial Special Selection, from top-flight lots given prolonged barrel aging, was made in 1975.

Wagner, a ruddy, crusty farmer who preferred Italian opera (especially tenors), his three dogs and endless hours on a tractor to celebrity, never let Caymus’s international reputation go to his head. He was folksy to the end.

Written by Howard G Goldberg in New York11 March 2002