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How to Stay Relevant, Part 2: Caymus and the Wagners

Most wine brands come and go. Here's how one family has established longevity, legacy and a path forward
Photo by: Courtesy of Wagner Family of Wine
Charlie, Jenny, Joe and father Chuck Wagner have shrewdly built on the success of Caymus Napa Cabernet.

Posted: Jul 2, 2015 12:30pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

As the world of wine continues to balloon, swelling with ever more regions, brands and demographics, the wine producer must be like the proverbial shark: Keep swimming or die. But these iconic brands have gotten it right in their own ways.

In the 1980s boom years for California Cabernet, farming families who had just begun tinkering with grapes a dozen years before were snapping up land and erecting California Mission-style “châteaus,” flexing Napa Valley’s newly muscular physique.

One of the hardest hitters in the '80s was Caymus, founded in 1972 by Charles, Lorna and son Chuck Wagner. Their 1984 Special Selection shot to the top of the game as Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 1989, and the 1990 notched another No. 1 win in 1994.

Over time, younger talent, phylloxera, outside money and plain inertia dulled many of the old stars. Yet Caymus kept facing down the brand-hungry conglomerates and moguls' vanity vineyards while expanding Cabernet production to six figures. In every single vintage from 1978 through 2012, a Caymus Cabernet has been awarded a score of 90-plus points on release.

When I asked Chuck’s son Joe his thoughts on Napa’s future, he replied, “to stay relevant, it’s continuing to create these richly layered and textural type of Cabernets that cannot be created elsewhere,” taking a deliberate shot across the bow at winemakers who now decry the unabashedly ripe and fruity style of California wines like Caymus.

Still, the Wagner family, whose company now also includes Joe's siblings Charlie and Jenny, has long understood that a successful large-scale California producer cannot live on Napa Cabernet alone, a category that may prove popular if and when today’s young imbibers come into affluence—or not. Back in the early glory days, Napa Cab wasn’t competing for wallet share against Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe and Oregon Pinot Noir, much less Jura, Corsica and Lodi.

Chuck Wagner always had a knack for beating the curve before categories ascended. The 1989 Conundrum white upended the “fighting varietal” status quo with a brand built on the wine's personality rather than on the kitchen-sink blend of varieties within it.

Chuck planted Chardonnay in cool-climate Santa Lucia Highlands before the AVA was even approved. Divining an increased appetite for brighter, zippier California Chardonnays, the Wagners extended Mer Soleil with the unoaked Silver bottling in 2005. In 2001, they tuned up the Belle Glos label for single-vineyard Pinot, a category that had begun oscillating and has since gone to 11.

Today, Charlie oversees Mer Soleil and the Conundrum red launched in 2011, Jenny guides the Emmolo brand of Napa Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, and Joe keeps the flame for Belle Glos, while also handling some of the day-to-day for the flagship Caymus Cabs.

In order to cover even more ground and for “generational planning” for his six kids, Joe, 33, and his wife, Amber, formed a new company in 2014, called Copper Cane. Its anchor was Meiomi Pinot Noir, a brand spun off from Belle Glos that had swelled to equal the rest of the Wagner Family of Wine volume combined before being moved to its new home. Meiomi is Pinot from three California counties, not vineyard designated. Its suggested retail price is also $22 instead of $60. Joe added a Chardonnay last year to keep it company.

Copper Cane now has an Oregon Pinot called Elouan at $25, a Zinfandel called Beran at $22 and a red “field blend,” Carne Humana, at $35. Two sparklers are in the works. Bourbon in barrels. A gin of Sonoma Chardonnay and local botanicals. A “Calvados-type” apple brandy. Cigars by Joe for the fellas and swimwear by Amber for the ladies (and also the fellas, actually).

These aren't (entirely) arbitrary choices. Oregon Pinots are shiny gemstones on any big-city restaurant wine list. Zinfandel's renaissance has brought high-end heritage bottlings—and mailing-list exclusivity. For on-premise wine sales, both the $15-to-$19.99 and the $20-plus categories (where Copper Cane walks the edge) grew vigorously from 2013 to 2014—9.9 percent and 9.2 percent in value, respectively—according to Nielsen. Whisky’s up 10.7 percent. Sparkling 7.1.

I asked Joe: Is the Copper Cane paradigm a democratized version of what’s kicky in premium drinks right now?

Well, for the moment. “I’d say that we’re trying to hit wines that are going to be in that $20-to-$30 price point that’s reachable for a younger consumer who’s wanting to learn more about fine wine,” Joe replied.

But Joe hinted that he might go upmarket in the future. Not long after I spoke to him, we all learned that he might, indeed, do whatever he wants: He is selling the 700,000-case Meiomi brand, with no vineyards, to Constellation Brands for a mind-blowing $315 million. He plans to use that to buy 2,000 to 3,000 acres of California vineyard land.

So the Wagners' relevance game relies on navigating the market with an eagle eye on the next thing and a stern hand on the price rudder, while laying the groundwork for Wagners future. With Caymus, Conundrum, Mer Soleil and Belle Glos, the Wagners have proved a brand can be financially durable—and Joe is betting on the land to stay rock-solid even longer.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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