Late in the fall of 1983, John, an eccentric wine-business friend, insisted we join him and his wife, Jennifer, on a trip to Napa and Sonoma. The excursion included events that would ultimately change both our wine-stained lives forever. We flew into San Francisco and rented a white Lincoln Towne Car, the size of a small yacht. We cruised across the bay and into wine country. I was mesmerized. In November, with harvest completed many of the vineyards still had leaves of rustic red, yellow and harvest gold. The trip had many memorable moments, including the haunted San Francisco B&B’s where John insisted we stay. Lest we forget the corner sushi bar whose concept of hospitality was to curse in Japanese as you entered.
Donna spent the whole trip politely passing on any red wine tastings, limiting herself to whites. She had yet to develop a taste for rich red wines with their structured tannins. As if acting in unison, the red wines would begin to pour and her right hand would cover the wine glass. That was until the moment in the living area of our Healdsburg B&B when Donna lost her cabernet virginity. Around four in the afternoon we sat with a few other guests to share the day’s wine tasting bounty. John opened a bottle of Jordan Cabernet and insisted Donna give it a full-on chance. With much trepidation, she lifted the glass to her lips and took a sip, letting the wine settle on her palate. At that instant she knew what she had been missing all along.
Time was short, Jordan closed at 5. John and I jumped into the Lincoln, crammed full with 25 cases of wine we could not easily find back in Texas (which at that time was many). We raced the clock up the winding road to the Jordan Estate. Our tail pipes literally scraped the ground from the weight as we hit bumps in the road. A small car headed down the drive in our direction, stopped and a young lady told us the tasting room was closed. John impatiently pleaded our case, offering the tale of lost cabernet virginity. Understanding our plight, she turned around and sold us our final two cases of Cabernet. In 1983, airlines had no baggage limit. All 27 cases made it to Austin without so much as a single lost bottle and thus my wine collection was born in style. While Donna still loves her Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, red wines are now often her wine of choice.
While losing one’s Cabernet virginity is an experience not to be trifled with, it was my chance meeting with Caymus founder Charlie Wagner that proved to be my second seminal wine moment. A picture from that day, me in my stylish 80’s beard and red striped rugby shirt standing beside Charlie in his red plaid work shirt still hangs in my office. The day was cold and drizzling and we were driving the crossroads between Hwy. 29 and Silverado Trail looking for interesting little wineries when we saw the unassuming Caymus sign.
We pulled up to what appeared to be a small home, got out hoping to get inside, away from nasty weather. It was there a gruff 70ish looking round, bald man, in a well-worn plaid shirt and puffy black jacket, came around the corner. We introduced ourselves and he introduced himself as Charlie. I knew from pictures he was Charlie Wagner, owner of Caymus. After asking if we could do a tasting, Charlie’s response was something like, “You can’t understand my wines unless you know my vines.” He said we could only do a tasting if we were willing to take a trip through his sloppy wet vineyard. This man who always saw himself as a farmer first, no doubt offered the ploy as a way to send us packing, assuming we’d pass on a rain-soaked vineyard excursion. Charlie assumed wrong.
Charlie Wagner was born in 1912 on a farm and vineyard in Rutherford, not far from where the winery sits today. His parents began making wine in 1915 and by the enactment of prohibition in 1920 were producing 30,000 gallons a year. 1943 was the year Charlie and his wife Lorna Belle Glos (the namesake of Belle Glos Pinot Noir made by their grandson, Joseph Wagner) purchased their first vineyard, 73 acres, in Rutherford. After gaining a reputation as an artful wine grower, Charlie grew weary of his superior grapes going into other winemakers’ blends. In 1972, Charlie at age 60 and his family (including 21-year-old son Charles who now runs Caymus) produced their first wines under the Caymus label. Wine Spectator magazine in1989 named Caymus Special Selection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Wine of the Year.” Two years prior his picture appeared on the cover of Spectator with the headline declaring “The Best Damn Cabernet in California.” In that same issue, Charlie was quoted as saying, “There’s more work than glory in being a farmer, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of it.” Charlie worked those vines until 2002, when he passed at 89 years old. This was the man who wanted me, a young wine wannabe from Austin, to know his vines. I was honored.
That day we traipsed out into the muck, fully unprepared for such an adventure. Joining us was a big, friendly and water-logged yellow dog that continuously shook his woolly coat free of moisture, giving us the sensation of standing in a yard sprinkler. Charlie talked about each vine as though it was his child and I was mesmerized. I was, at that moment, forever destined to live a wine-stained life.
We spent close to an hour in the vineyard, Charlie wearing his large rectangular glasses, suspenders and puffy waterproof jacket, me in my damp stylish tweed coat. Apparently, we’d passed the test and were allowed to move on to the winery for a tasting of this man’s wine. It was my first time to share wine with such a notable winery owner. He took us through the wines, pointing out flavors and nuance. A board resting atop two wine barrels served as the tasting room. Apparently we passed the tasting test, too. I hope we appeared as eager students rather than just another carload of tourists. That must have been the case because we were invited into his home, there on the property, where we spent a wonderful afternoon in the kitchen of his small home, tasting and talking. I was hooked.
It was there, in the warmth of the Wagner kitchen, feeling the glow from rich Caymus Cabernet, I knew that someday I would return as something more than a tourist. Someday I wanted to share my wine and hoped the recipient enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Charlie Wagner’s wine on that wet November afternoon.
This experience was my first introduction to what I call the “wine club.” The wine club has grown in dramatic fashion over the last twenty years. All it takes to join the club is a passion for wine. Exclusive it is not. This shared passion for wine is often enough to pollinate relationships, start friendships, open doors and interestingly enough break down social and economic barriers. Looking back to my meeting with Charlie Wagner, all it took was for him to feel our shared passion to create the opportunity to spend an afternoon together with one of the great wine pioneers of his time. From time to time, I still chat with winemakers I met twenty years ago over a glass of wine. At wine events and tastings you find people discussing this shared passion, who, if they passed on the street, might never engage in so much as a second glance. Through wine, we who share the passion are all part of the club. Do we find people developing lasting relationships over a shared passion for vodka? Rarely.
In 2011, I was back at Caymus for a tasting of Belle Glos Pinot Noirs and ran into Charlie’s son Charles, as he sat at a picnic table sharing lunch and a glass of wine with friends. I pulled out my iPhone and showed him the 1983 photo of me and his dad dressed in that red plaid shirt. Charles became noticeably moved as he stared at the picture. Looking up he said, “That was Dad’s favorite shirt. Every time it got a hole, he’d have Mom sew it up.” The shirt was such an iconic part of Charlie, Charles reported that after his father’s passing; it was cut into squares, each one framed and given as a visual memory to Charlie’s children.
I also learned from Charles that the winemaker for those early Caymus vintages was a young U.C. Davis graduate, Randy Dunn. I have been an ardent fan of Randy Dunn’s Howell Mountain Cabernets since their early releases in the late 1980’s. In fact, a bottle of 1989 Dunn lays prominently in my cellar, a memento of my eldest son’s birth year. Napa Valley was and continues to be a small world.