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Caymus: The Wagner Legacy
By Gerald D. Boyd
Jul 17, 2007
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At Caymus Vineyards in the Napa Valley, the family creed is, "one wine, one label."  Caymus has been operating since 1971, when Charles F. (Charlie) Wagner, his wife Lorna, and their son Chuck built a winery on Skellinger Lane, naming it after a local land grant.  Over the years, that one Caymus wine has been emphatically red, and now, more than three decades later, Caymus is comfortably established as one of California's iconic wineries, noted for its Caymus "Special Selection." 

But as things have turned out, there's more to Caymus than Special Selection, including the somewhat confusing 'Charles-Connection.'  In 2002, Charlie Wagner passed away, leaving Caymus in the hands of his son, Charles J. 'Chuck' Wagner.  Chuck's two sons, Charlie II and Joseph J., are part of the extended Wagner winemaking tradition, though they make their own wines for separate brands that are independent of their father's winemaking at Caymus, but distributed by Caymus Vineyards.  'Conundrum' is another separate brand that has no Charles connection, though this white blend is often thought of as a Caymus wine.  It is made by Jon Bolta, mostly from grapes selected from the Wagner's Mer Soleil Vineyard in Monterey County. 

From the beginning, Charlie Wagner proved to be an astute grape grower and winemaker with an admirable reputation for red wine.  Recognizing that following in the steps of a successful father can be a benefit or a bane to a young winemaker struggling to make his own mark, Charlie's two sons struck out on their own, more or less.  Charlie II became winemaker for Mer Soleil Chardonnays and 'Silver' Chardonnay, from the family's Mer Soeil Vineyard in Monterey County, while his younger brother Joseph set out to make single-vineyard Belle Glos Pinot Noirs from select vineyards along California's coast. 

Charlie II spends a couple of days a week at the Mer Soleil Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands.  'We started planting Mer Soleil in 1988 with Chardonnay, Viognier and a little Marsanne and Roussanne, adding a small barrel room in 1995.  The first vintage of Mer Soleil was made at Caymus in 1992, and we added Silver in 2005.'  He says that plans are now underway for a new winery building at Mer Soleil that will also house 'Conundrum.' 

You might say that winemaking is in the blood of Charlie II, since he started making wine with his father at 16 years old while still in high school.  Now 27, he maintains the Wagner family motto of one wine, one label:  'Caymus is known for Cabernet Sauvignon and I believe that Mer Soleil is equivalent to that,' says Charlie II, adding that the Mer Soleil style is more traditional California but with moderate French oak, while 'Silver' is similar to 'a $40 no-oak Chablis.'

Joseph, 25, makes Belle Glos Pinots in the former white wine side of Caymus Vineyards, but prefers, as does his brother Charlie II, for the wines to be known as Wagner Family rather that 'by Caymus.'  The limited line of Belle Glos Pinot Noirs includes a Pinot Noir Blanc, a Sonoma Coast blend, and three single-vineyard Pinots: Taylor Lane Vineyard (Sonoma Coast), Clark & Telephone Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County) and Las Alturas Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County).  Taylor Lane and Clark & Telephone were released first in 2002, followed in 2004 by Las Alturas.  The name Belle Glos honors Joseph's grandmother Lorna Belle Glos Wagner, co-founder of Caymus Vineyards. 

Commenting about the Belle Glos style, Joseph Wagner admits that he shares a similar out-of-the-box thought process for winemaking techniques with his father at Caymus, but emphasizes that he stresses individuality and is always looking for what is best for the wine.  Stylistically, Belle Glos Pinot Noirs reflect their origins, whether those lie in Monterey or Sonoma, but there is also a fruit intensity that is similar in many ways to the plumy characteristics of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignons. 

While Belle Glos Pinot Noirs have been earning plaudits in many wine circles, there is one packaging issue that continues to draw pro and con comments.  Belle Glos has elected to finish the top of the bottles with a soft wax seal that, while esthetically attractive, can be a mess to remove.  Since at least 50% of the three single vineyard Belle Glos Pinots are sold in restaurants, I asked Joseph how sommeliers react to the wax capsule.  'Well, there is a bit of complaint about opening the bottles at table, but they (sommeliers) do like the esthetics,' Joseph demurs.  His position is that once you know how to remove the top of the wax seal, it's easy. 
No question; the Belle Glos Pinot Noirs are elegantly packaged in punted Burgundy bottles, topped by the slickest application of a red wax capsule I've yet seen, but  there is a caveat.  Smooth and shiny, the capsules, deep red for the Pinot Noirs, light pink for the Pinot Noir Blanc, drape gracefully down one side of the bottle.  The sturdy pull tab is easy to grasp and zip off, unlike some flimsy ones on Champagne and sparkling wine bottles.  With the tab removed, there is a jagged separation between the main part of the wax capsule and the small piece remaining on top of the cork. 

Belle Glos suggests that you can penetrate this piece of wax with a corkscrew, removing the cork in one motion.  I have found that running a corkscrew coated with Teflon through any wax capsule defeats the purpose of the Teflon.  So, I used a wine waiter's corkscrew to remove the wax and cork, only to have my shiny corkscrew now coated with red wax.  So, to get to a clean cork, I had to pop off the piece of wax, an awkward process that I cannot believe is too popular with sommeliers.  While Belle Glos Pinots get top grades, the wax capsules get a mixed review--great to look at, but a pain to remove.
Bel Glos Wines, Yorkville Highlands (Mendocino County) Pinor Noir Blanc 'Oeil de Perdrix' 2006 ($22):  Made in the French style known as oeil de perdrix (eye of the partridge), this delightful pink wine is partially fermented in French oak barrels.  The color is salmon-pink with fresh strawberry and ripe apple aromas.  The balanced flavors are bursting with fresh fruit and the wine has good structure and a medium inviting finish.  Produced in honor of Phyllis Turner, a Wagner family friend and colleague, a portion of the proceeds from each sale will go toward the research to cure breast cancer.   89

Belle Glos Wines, Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County) Clark & Telephone Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($38): This vineyard with the unusual name was planted in the early 1970s on its own roots to the Martini clone of Pinot Noir, one of the first clones planted along California's coastal vineyards.  The aroma is distinguished with a variety of sweet spices under cranberry and red fruits.  There's subtle toasted oak, combined with fresh berry flavors, refined tannins and a long, strong finish.  This unique Pinot Noir will benefit from an extra two or three years in bottle.  90

Belle Glos Wines, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County) Las Alturas Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($50):  Opinions vary on the best site in California for Pinot Noir, but the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County is, by any measurement, among the top locations.  Las Alturas Vineyard was planted with the trendy Dijon clones, matched to the individual slopes of the land (and you wonder why top Pinot Noir is so expensive).  This is a robust wine with layers of exotic spices, mint and dark fruits.  The textured flavors are forward and fruity, showing subtle earth and leathery notes.  Las Alturas is 100% Pinot Noir, elegant and with great length.  91

Belle Glos Wines, Sonoma Coast (Sonoma County) Taylor Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($50):  Taylor Lane Vineyard, located about six miles from the Pacific Ocean, is a high-risk site for grape growing.  On many days during the growing season there is heavy fog and strong winds, requiring the vines to be trained on a high, traditional trellis system to achieve maximum maturity.  This deeply hued wine is loaded with ample spice and dark fruits like black cherry and plums.  The concentrated flavors are rich and textured, seasoned with dark chocolate notes.  For now, the finish is a little tight and the wine needs time, but this is one to lay down to enjoy in the future.  Of the three Pinots under this brand, this bottling is my favorite.  94

Caymus Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($70):  The color of this Cabernet is one of the attractions of good wine; deep sparkling ruby at the center with an intense purple rim.  The aromatics are layered dark fruits, especially black currant and plums that follow through to the richly textured flavors.  Subtle toasted oak blends nicely with the bright ripe berry and spice, supported by firm tannins and excellent acidity.  The wine has a long finish and the promise of even more complexity with additional bottle age.  Chuck Wagner says that patience was required at harvest in 2004, a year with 'a double-barreled weather pattern in the Napa Valley,' to bring the grapes to full maturity, and in this Cabernet his patience paid off.  94

Caymus Vineyards, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 'Special Selection' 2004 ($136):  Caymus' 'Special Selection' bottling was first produced in 1975, and every vintage since the original rendition of the wine has stayed true to its name.  Favored grape clusters from individual blocks are set aside for Special Selection.  The wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in French oak barrels.  The 2004 Special Selection has a deep, inky color, a lovely seamless aroma of dark fruits like blackberry, and nicely integrated toasted oak.  The flavors are bright and inviting, with ample berry and coffee notes.  It finishes long and textured; a complete package.  Special Selection has long been a favorite of mine, being one of those wines that is difficult to describe; you just like it.  95

Conundrum Wines, California White Table Wine 2005 ($24):  Winemaker Jon Bota, neither a Charles nor a Wagner, has been making this unusual blend for the Wagner family since the first vintage in 1989.  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semilion, Viognier and Muscat are the components of Conundrum.  It's fragrant with a subtle Muscat aroma, backed by hints of ripe apple.  A noticeable touch of fruit sweetness lifts the ample fruit, mixed with melon and apple and finished with a crisp mineral-citrus.  89

Mer Soleil Vineyard, Central Coast (California) Chardonnay Barrel Fermented 2005 ($42):  Charlie Wagner II has a deft touch with the sumptuous Chardonnay fruit from Monterey County.  The wine is beautifully balanced with honeyed ripe apple aromas and flavors, spicy notes, and the subtle texture of barrel fermentation.  There are hints of ripe pear and honey in the flavors, and the wine finishes with length, balance, and great texture.  If you're bored with over-oaked Chardonnays, Mer Soleil is the way to go.  90

Mer Soleil Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County) Unoaked Chardonnay 'Silver' 2006 ($42):  The Mer Soleil Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County supplies the grapes for both Mer Soleil Chardonnay and Silver Chardonnay, the latter now in its second vintage.  Silver is for Chardonnay drinkers--or those wine consumers who are looking for pure Chardonnay sans oak.  Silver is all lemon and mineral, with good texture and length.  The stainless steel fermentation retains Chardonnay's lively fruit and acidity.  An added plus: Silver is closed with a screw cap.  Two Chardonnay styles, priced the same; take your pick.  89