Wine Star: Caymus’ Chuck Wagner

The Napa cult Cabernet legend shared his family’s 40th anniversary vintage

Wine Star: Caymus’ Chuck Wagner
Napa vintner Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards (Rick Wenner)
Oct 28, 2021

Chuck Wagner was 19 years old when his parents sat him down for a talk. “My dad said, ‘Chuck, your mother and I would like to start a winery, if you'll join us. And if you don't, we're going to sell the property and move to Australia.’”

Thus started the legacy of Caymus Vineyards, an icon among Napa Cabernets. As Wagner presented his Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 40th Anniversary 2012 (91 points, $60 on release), he explained that their first vintage, 1972, sold for $4.50 a bottle. “When we started our business … the wine-and-food culture had yet to arrive.”

Senior editor James Molesworth said Napa pioneers like Wagner and his family set the stage for the region’s success. While new players and big acquisitions steal much of the spotlight in Napa, Molesworth pointed out that Caymus has twice earned Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year honor, for the 1990 and 1984 Special Selection bottlings. “Slow and steady is just as dynamic,” Molesworth said.

Wagner said Caymus evolved from homemade wine to trying to emulate Bordeaux to a phase that began in the 1990s that Wagner continues today. He waits until the grapes start to wrinkle—he describes it as looking like an orange peel—before picking. “We reduce the amount of juice … by 20 to 25 percent,” explained Wagner. “It expresses Caymus how I see it should be expressed, which is around rich textures.”

Wagner shared family photos and his observations on Napa’s evolution over the past five decades. While some of his contemporaries are focusing on single-vineyard expressions, he prefers to blend grapes from several regions. He prefers the wine to take the attention. “It’s not about me,” said Wagner, whose children represent a new generation of the California wine industry. “We will come and go, but Caymus could and should remain on a long journey.”

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