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Fathers and Sons

The story of Chuck and Joe Wagner is the struggle of balancing family loyalty and independence
Photo by: Courtesy of Joe Wagner
Joe Wagner's father, Chuck, has been preparing him to take the wheel his entire life.

Posted: Nov 23, 2016 11:30am ET

By Mitch Frank

“You’re going to be a pauper. I love you and will always support you, but you’re going to be a pauper.” These were not the words I was hoping to hear when I told my father 22 years ago my dream of becoming a journalist. I had gone to college looking toward medicine, but discovered that my real passion was telling people’s stories. It’s probably not the life my dad imagined for his only son.

At first, his reaction stung, but I realized he wasn’t trying to dissuade me. He was just hoping I understood the challenges I would face.

I was thinking about fathers and sons when I wrote our Nov. 30 cover story on Joe Wagner, who built and sold Meiomi and is now busy building a new company, Copper Cane. Joe’s success is a story of California Pinot Noir’s success, and a snapshot of where the American wine industry is today and where Wagner thinks it will be tomorrow.

But it’s also the story of a father and son. Joe learned the business from his dad, Chuck Wagner, who built Caymus Vineyards into one of America’s best-known Cabernet brands. I spent time with both Joe and Chuck, and I was repeatedly struck by how alike they were. They have both been successful because they are not afraid to get their hands dirty and toil in the vineyards and cellars; both also have a clear vision of how to give wine drinkers what they are looking for.

Having grown up at Caymus, working alongside his own dad, Chuck dreamed of handing his company, Wagner Family of Wines, to his kids; three of his four children have worked with him so far. Chuck gave each an opportunity: Launch your own brand, with his support, and learn from your successes and failures. Joe’s project was Belle Glos and its offshoot, Meiomi. Yet, just as Meiomi rocketed to success, Joe left the family company to strike out on his own.

Joe offered me multiple reasons for his decision to leave, but I suspect the biggest factor may have been his desire to blaze his own path. Joe has the same leadership streak that made Chuck so successful, and the two of them started butting heads over where their business was heading. It led to tensions with his older brother too.

Sons want their father's approval. I wanted my dad to understand why I loved writing. But sons also want to write their own stories. I had known for years that my father’s path—he recently retired after 45 years as a successful lawyer—was not one I wanted to walk.

When I sat down for the first time with Chuck, I sensed how torn he was. He toiled for decades alongside his own dad, who could be a stern boss, to build something together. Chuck was kind and generous with his time, but I suspect he was also a little ticked off I was writing about Copper Cane and not about Wagner Family.

Yet, he was fiercely proud of Joe and his accomplishments. Just a few hours earlier, he and Joe had met for breakfast. “Did you talk business?” I asked. “No. We don’t talk business anymore,” he said. (A few hours later, I asked Joe the same question, and he answered, “We’re a wine family. All we talk about is business.”)

Sons want their fathers to be proud of them, but they also want to be proud of themselves. Fathers dream of big things their sons will accomplish, yet reality never quite matches dreams. I play baseball with my two young boys in the backyard every day, but won’t be disappointed if they never take the field for the Mets. They need to find their own path, and I will support whichever one they choose to walk.

My father is a wine lover, the first one I ever met. Every now and then, I meet a sommelier who says, “Oh, your dad ate at my restaurant one night.” When I first heard this, I thought, “Is dad dropping my name to get good service?”

But the sommeliers always say the same thing: “Man, is he proud of you.”

You can follow Mitch Frank on Instagram and Twitter at @FrankWine.

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