Lorna Belle Glos Wagner, the strong family matriarch who worked behind the scenes as she, her husband, Charlie Wagner, and their son Chuck founded Caymus Vineyards and helped put Napa Cabernet on the map, died Oct. 2. She was 97.
Lorna Belle was never in the limelight. She was a quiet, enduring presence at Caymus Vineyards for decades, a Napa Valley native from a family with winemaking roots dating back 150 years. In 1972, when she helped found Caymus, Napa Valley was struggling to define itself as a wine region and gain wider recognition. When she died at her Rutherford home on Wednesday, just shy of 98, Caymus and its sister wineries—Conundrum, Belle Glos, Mer Soleil and Meiomi—were enormously successful.
“She had a good run for sure, yet to me it seems like the end of an era, as she was the last of the wagon-train crowd,” said her son Chuck. He recalled that she worked at the winery, made lunch every day and performed any job that needed to be done, from harvest to the bottling line.
Lorna Belle's family was part of a wagon train of 44 that left Bible Grove, Mo., in 1857 and settled in Sacramento, Calif., Chuck said. Both sides of her family were part of Napa winemaking history—her paternal grandfather, Charles Glos, worked at Bell and Greystone wineries, while her maternal grandfather Lafayette Stice made wine for Brun & Chaix (now Ladera), then John Sutter Wine Co., and later at Inglenook Winery. Lafayette's son Henry produced the first Beaulieu wines in 1900 for Georges de Latour.
Charles Glos' son Charlie married Mabel Stice in 1910 and, five years later, Lorna Belle was born, the fourth of seven children. That same year, her future father-in-law, Carl Wagner, started Wagner Winery using grapes from a 70-acre ranch he purchased in 1906 after arriving in Napa Valley from Alsace, France. Just a few years later, all three families would see their winemaking ventures evaporate during Prohibition.
Lorna Belle married her high-school sweetheart Charlie Wagner in 1933, and eight years later they began farming prune and walnut trees at their property off Conn Creek Road in Rutherford. In the 1960s, the couple had the foresight to rip up the trees and plant vineyards. For a decade, the Wagners sold grapes to Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony, while saving a small amount to make their own wines.
By 1971, Charlie and Lorna Belle wanted to either start a winery or sell the land and retire to Australia. They decided to stay, and in 1972 the couple started Caymus and turned their home winemaking talents into something bigger with the help of Chuck, fresh out of high school.
Lorna Belle was at the heart of the Wagner family as its Cabernet Sauvignon became a model of consistency and excellence. She is the namesake for the family’s Pinot Noir label, Belle Glos, now made by her grandson Joseph. Five of her grandchildren are winemakers.
Her husband predeceased her in 2002. She is survived by her son, two daughters and six grandchildren.