Charles F. "Charlie" Wagner, the legendary founder of Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley, one of California's greatest wineries, died on Wednesday at his home in Rutherford where he was born and raised. He was 89.
"My dad passed away during last night, peacefully and at home," said his son and partner, Chuck Wagner. Wagner had been ill for several weeks, and spent the past holiday season in the hospital before returning home earlier this year.
A plainspoken, colorful maverick with a quick wit, Wagner was a farmer first and winemaker second. "There's more work than glory in being a farmer, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of it," he said in an interview with Wine Spectator in 1987, the year he appeared on a cover that called Caymus Cabernet "The Best Damn Cabernet in California."
Wagner not only loved farming but also prided himself in producing consistently high-quality wines. A two-time winner of Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year for its Special Selection Cabernet, the winery under Wagner's direction became synonymous with finely crafted Cabernets, Zinfandels and Sauvignon Blancs.
Wagner was a notoriously hard worker who took a dim view of slick wine marketing strategies. When asked to explain why Caymus produced such luxuriant Cabernets, he claimed that the key to his success in winemaking came because of long hours on the seat of a tractor, nurturing the grapes. "He was a continuous innovator, never accepting the conventional wisdom if he believed his own approach would improve the quality of the grapes," said Chuck.
In 1972, at the age of 60, when most people are thinking about retiring, Wagner, along with his wife, Lorna, and their son, Chuck, founded Caymus. The elder Wagner had grown weary of selling his grapes for low prices to Napa Valley wineries, only to have them get lost in larger blends. He rightly believed that he had a special piece of property ideally suited to grow Cabernet and Zinfandel and set out to prove it.
The winery initially produced a variety of wines, including Riesling and Pinot Noir, and a value-oriented brand called Liberty School. The Liberty School label depicted the schoolhouse in Rutherford that Wagner had attended. But by the 1980s, the winery began to focus more on Cabernet and with the 1984 vintage, which won Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 1989, Caymus Special Selection became one of the world's most recognizable labels. The winery's 1990 vintage won the same honor in 1994.
A constant presence in the tasting room, Wagner was firm in his opinions and not afraid to share them. "If a wine doesn't appeal to your palate, it's not your wine," he told visitors, urging them to make up their own minds about what they liked or didn't like. One time, when asked what he thought about critics who didn't like his wines as much as he did, he quipped, "Well, that's the way the ball bounces."
Frank Altamura, owner of Altamura Vineyards and a former employee at Caymus, recalled how Wagner would pour wines for visitors in the tasting room. "Here was the guy who made the wines, standing behind a board stretched between two barrels, pouring them for you," Altamura said. "That was the picture people had of Caymus."
Though at times stern, Wagner was highly respected within the industry and Napa Valley, and known to help those who needed it. He helped one of his former employees, Randy Dunn, start his winery in 1979.
Even as Caymus and its wines became famous, Wagner shunned ostentation. "We don't like to brag about it," he said, "but we think we do a good job here and if people like the wine, well, great."
His wife, Lorna, his son, Chuck, two daughters and numerous grandchildren survive Wagner.
Funeral services are private.
-- James Laube
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions