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A Conversation with Chuck Wagner

Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards has spent his life in the vineyards of Rutherford, near the center of Napa Valley, steering his family’s business from its earliest beginnings to the present day.

Why did you choose to make your career in winemaking?

I think it really came down to working alongside my parents and seeing my Dad’s excitement about making wine and sharing it at the table. We were farmers and knew that choosing that life meant taking on a lot of risk and hard work. Still, creating Caymus with them was one of the best times of my life – I have to hand it to them that they were willing to dive in with both feet. I grew up on our Rutherford property and can’t really imagine taking another path. I think about my parents most days and miss them.

What is the most beautiful part of the winemaking process? Most challenging?

I’ve always considered myself a farmer first, and there’s nothing more captivating to me than being out in the vineyard – really at any time of day – and taking in what is happening in any given moment. Even in the winter, when there are no grapes on the vine, there’s pruning that needs to be done and there’s great satisfaction in that. The challenges of winemaking are many, but I think one that we will always face is working to be consistent, whatever Mother Nature hands us in any given year. That’s what keeps winemaking so interesting, even after decades of doing it.

What was the most exciting vintage for you? Most difficult?

Each vintage brings its own excitement and challenges – looking back, our first vintage of Special Selection, in 1975, was unique in that regard. Of course we were excited to introduce a wine that represented our very best lots and the best winemaking we had to offer – but we were also taking a risk. We knew that this wine would be judged on a different level, and we have always said that if we did not have a wine that met our most exacting standards in a given year, we would not release Special Selection. We were hopeful that this first vintage would live up to its name, and its release launched a new tradition at Caymus that continues to push us to keep getting better and better.

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What is the best meal you ate that was paired with your wine?

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many good meals with our wines – probably my favorite thing is sitting around the table with my kids trying out wines they’ve made that haven’t yet hit the market. But meals are something to look forward to, not just look back on – and it would be boring to drink only our wines. One of my favorite meals would be split pea soup matched with a 2005 Didier Dagueneau Pur Sang Sauvignon Blanc. The main course would be seared rib eye, blue center, with grilled jalapeno and grilled spring onions served with 1999 Joseph Phelps Bacchus Vineyard Cabernet. Final course is a Padron cigar 1926 series and a circle of good friends.

What is YOUR favorite wine and why?

Well, when it comes to my favorite Caymus wine, that’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! I must say 2009 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet is one of my favorites. Everything- fruit, tannin, finish, acidity levels - really came together with that vintage and got me excited – like I’d really hit my stride after 40 years of winemaking. That’s one of the favorites I’ve ever bottled.

Beyond Caymus, there are so many fantastic wines from all over the world, I can’t pick one. As a winemaker, I try to be respectful of different styles of winemaking and the terroir where the fruit is grown. Generally, with any good wine, balance is key. Also, the flavor has to draw me back for the second taste. Although I’ve had exceptional wines from all over the world, I have to admit that I prefer wines from California. They are my favorites.

How does it feel to have your children follow in your footsteps?

I’m very blessed to be working side by side with two of my kids, Jenny and Charlie – they are in charge of their individual wine brands and are focused on different varietals, and it’s great to see them build their own success. I never wanted to push them into the business, but I’m very glad they caught the bug – we all spend a lot of time in the vineyard. They’ve evolved into being real partners in the business and are often the first ones I go to with a new idea. What’s even more exciting is when they bring their ideas to me. More and more these days, I can sleep well at night knowing that they’re with me at Caymus and helping to steer our path into the future.