University of California Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California
Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
Charles F. Wagner and Charles J. Wagner
CAYML'S VINEYARDS: A FATHER- SON TEAM PRODUCING DISTINCTIVE WINES
Interviews Conducted by
Copyright 1996 by The Regents of the University of California
Charlie Wagner, circa 1990
Since 1954 the Regional Oral History Office has been interviewing leading
participants in or well-placed witnesses to major events in the development of
Northern California, the West, and the Nation. Oral history is a modern research
technique involving an interviewee and an informed interviewer in spontaneous
conversation. The taped record is transcribed, lightly edited for continuity and
clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee. The resulting manuscript is typed in
final form, indexed, bound with photographs and illustrative materials, and
placed in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and
other research collections for scholarly use. Because it is primary material,
oral history is not intended to present the final, verified, or complete
narrative of events. It is a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in
response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved,
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All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement
between The Regents of the University of California, Charles F
Wagner dated September 20, 1993, and Charles J. Wagner dated
September 16, 1993. The manuscript is thereby made available for
research purposes. All literary rights in the manuscript, including
the right to publish, are reserved to The Bancroft Library of the
University of California, Berkeley. No part of the manuscript may
be quoted for publication without the written permission of the
Director of The Bancroft Library of the University of California,
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be
addressed to the Regional Oral History Office, 486 Library,
University of California, Berkeley 94720, and should include
identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated
use of the passages, and identification of the user. The legal
agreement with Charles F. Wagner and Charles J. Wagner requires that
they be notified of the request and allowed thirty days in which to
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Charles F. Wagner and Charles J. Wagner,
"Caymus Vineyards: A Father -Son Team
Producing Distinctive Wines," an oral
history conducted in 1993 by Carole Hicke,
Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft
Library, University of California,
Copy no .
WAGNER, Charles F. (b. 1912) and WAGNER, Charles J. (b. 1951)
Cavmus Vineyards: A Father- Son Team Producing Distinctive Wines. 1994, ix,
Background, working family land in the Napa Valley; purchase of Liberty
School property, 1943; Caymus Vineyards, from the point of view of two
generations of management: building a winery, equipment, cooperage,
marketing and distribution, grape varieties, rootstocks, appellations;
reflections on family, and the future of the business.
Interviewed in 1993 by Carole Hicke for the Wine Spectator California Wine
Oral History Series. The Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft
Library, University of California, Berkeley.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTERVIEW HISTORY- -by Carole Hicke vi
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION viii
I INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES F. "CHARLIE" WAGNER
Vineyard and Winery 3
Growing Up in the Napa Valley 6
Working in the Winery During Prohibition 7
High School Days 8
VINEYARD OPERATIONS 9
The Home Property 9
Spray and Custom Tractor Business 9
Purchasing the Liberty School Property 10
First Plantings: 1943 11
CAYMUS VINEYARDS 13
Starting the Winery 13
More on Vineyard Operations: 1940s 13
Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 17
Other Growers: Laurie Wood 19
Pests and Pesticides 20
Allied Grape Growers 21
Winery Operations: Marketing 22
Building the Winery 24
Making Wines: 1972 24
Label Design 28
Selling the Early Wines 29
Alsatian Grapes and Wines 30
Pinot Noir 30
The Wagner Family 33
Changes in the Napa Valley 34
Future of the Wine Industry 37
Liberty School Wines 38
Awards and Judgings 39
Origin of the Name "Caymus" 40
II INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES J. "CHUCK" WAGNER
Agriculture in the Napa Valley 42
Old- timers in the Wine Industry: Andre Tchelistcheff and George
Childhood and Education 46
CAYMUS VINEYARDS 49
Starting the Winery 49
More on the Winery: the Building and the Equipment 53
The Mid-Seventies: Progress 54
Tasting and Decisions 55
Developing One's Palate 56
Growth in the 1970s 59
Lorna Wagner's Contributions 60
Managing the Business 62
Evolution of the Distribution System 66
Liberty School Label 70
Other Equipment 76
Vineyard Changes and Experiments: Trellising 76
Importance of Soil 77
Special Selection Cabernet 79
Chuck Wagner's Family 80
Organic Farming 82
A Single-Vineyard Cabernet 84
Maternal Ancestors 86
Ideas for the Future 87
TAPE GUIDE 89
The California wine industry oral history series, a project of the
Regional Oral History Office, was initiated by Ruth Teiser in 1969
through the action and with the financing of the Wine Advisory Board, a
state marketing order organization which ceased operation in 1975. In
1983 it was reinstituted as The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral
History Series with donations from The Wine Spectator Scholarship
Foundation. The selection of those to be interviewed has been made by a
committee consisting of the director of The Bancroft Library, University
of California, Berkeley; John A. De Luca, president of the Wine
Institute, the statewide winery organization; Maynard A. Amerine,
Emeritus Professor of Viticulture and Enology, University of California,
Davis; the current chairman of the board of directors of the Wine
Institute; Ruth Teiser, series project director; and Marvin R. Shanken,
trustee of The Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation.
Until her death in June 1994, Ruth Teiser was project originator,
initiator, director, and conductor of the greater part of the oral
histories. Her book, Winemaking in California, co-authored with
Catherine Harroun and published in 1982, was the product of more than
forty years of research, interviewing, and photographing. (Those wine
history files are now in The Bancroft Library for researcher use.) Ruth
Teiser 's expertise and knowledge of the wine industry contributed
significantly to the documenting of its history in this series.
The purpose of the series is to record and preserve information on
California grape growing and winemaking that has existed only in the
memories of wine men. In some cases their recollections go back to the
early years of this century, before Prohibition. These recollections are
of particular value because the Prohibition period saw the disruption of
not only the industry itself but also the orderly recording and
preservation of records of its activities. Little has been written about
the industry from late in the last century until Repeal. There is a real
paucity of information on the Prohibition years (1920-1933), although
some commercial winemaking did continue under supervision of the
Prohibition Department. The material in this series on that period, as
well as the discussion of the remarkable development of the wine industry
in subsequent years will be of aid to historians. Of particular value is
the fact that frequently several individuals have discussed the same
subjects and events or expressed opinions on the same ideas, each from
his or her own point of view.
Research underlying the interviews has been conducted principally in
the University libraries at Berkeley and Davis, the California State
Library, and in the library of the Wine Institute, which has made its
collection of materials readily available for the purpose.
The Regional Oral History Office was established to tape record
autobiographical interviews with persons who have contributed
significantly to recent California history. The office is headed by
Villa K. Baum and is under the administrative supervision of The Bancroft
The Vine Spectator California Winemen
Oral History Series
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
CALIFORNIA WINE INDUSTRY INTERVIEWS
Interviews Completed July 1992
Leon D. Adams, Revitalizing the California Wine Industry. 1974
Leon D. Adams, California Vine Industry Affairs: Recollections and Opinions.
Maynard A. Amerine, The University of California and the State's Wine
Maynard A. Amerine, Wine Bibliographies and Taste Perception Studies.
Philo Biane, Wine Making in Southern California and Recollections of Fruit
Industries . Inc . . 1972
Charles A. Carpy, Viticulture and Enology at Freemark Abbey. 1994
John B. Cella, The Cella Family in the California Wine Industry. 1986
Charles Crawford, Recollections of a Career with the Gallo Winery and the
Development of the California Wine Industry. 1942-1989. 1990
Burke H. Critchfield, Carl F. Wente , and Andrew G. Frericks, The California
Vine Industry During the Depression. 1972
William V. Cruess , A Half Century of Food and Wine Technology. 1967
Jack and Jamie Peterman Davies, Rebuilding Schramsberg: The Creation of a
California Champagne House. 1990
Paul Draper, History and Philosophy of Winemaking at Ridge Vineyards: 1970S-
William A. Dieppe, Almaden is My Life. 1985
Making California Port Wine: Ficklin Vineyards from 1948 to 1992. interviews
with David, Jean, Peter, and Steven Ficklin, 1992
Alfred Fromm, Marketing California Wine and Brandy. 1984
Louis Gomberg, Analytical Perspectives on the California Wine Industry. 1935-
Miljenko Grgich, A Croatian-American Winemaker in the Napa Valley. 1992
Joseph E. Heitz, Creating a Winery in the Napa Valley. 1986
Maynard A. Joslyn, A Technologist Views the California Wine Industry.
Amandus N. Kasimatis, A Career in California Viticulture. 1988
Morris Katz , Paul Masson Winery Operations and Management. 1944-1988. 1990
Legh F. Knowles , Jr. , Beaulieu Vineyards from Family to Corporate Ownership.
Horace 0. Lanza and Harry Baccigaluppi , California Grape Products and Other
Vine Enterprises. 1971
Zelma R. Long, The Past is the Beginning of the Future: Simi Winery in its
Second Century. 1992
Richard Maher, California Winery Management and Marketing. 1992
Louis M. Martini and Louis P. Martini, Wine Making in the Napa Valley.
Louis P. Martini, A Family Winery and the California Wine Industry. 1984
Eleanor McCrea, Stony Hill Vineyards: The Creation of a Naua Valley Estate
Otto E. Meyer, California Premium Wines and Brandy. 1973
Norbert C. Mirassou and Edmund A. Mirassou, The Evolution of a Santa Clara
Valley Winery. 1986
Peter Mondavi, Advances in Technology and Production at Charles Krug Winery.
Robert Mondavi, Creativity in the Wine Industry. 1985
Michael Moone , Management and Marketing at Beringer Vineyards and Wine World.
Inc. . 1990
Myron S. Nightingale, Making Wine in California. 1944-1987. 1988
Harold P. Olmo , Plant Genetics and New Grape Varieties. 1976
Cornelius Ough, Researches of an Enologist. University of California. Davis.
John A. Parducci, Six Decades of Making Wine in Mendocino County. California.
Antonio Perelli-Minetti , A Life in Wine Making. 1975
Louis A. Petri, The Petri Family in the Wine Industry. 1971
Jefferson E. Peyser, The Law and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Lucius Powers, The Fresno Area and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Victor Repetto and Sydney J. Block, Perspectives on California Wines. 1976
Edmund A. Rossi, Italian Swiss Colony and the Wine Industry. 1971
Edmund A. Rossi, Jr., Italian Swiss Colony. 1949-1989: Recollections of a
Third-Generation California Winemaker. 1990
Arpaxat Setrakian, A. Setrakian. a Leader of the San Joaquin Valley Grape
Elie Skofis, California Wine and Brandy Maker. 1988
Rodney S. Strong, Rodney Strong Vineyards: Creative Winemaking. and Winery
Management in Sonoma County. 1994
Andre Tchelistchef f , Grapes. Wine, and Ecology. 1983
Brother Timothy, The Christian Brothers as Wine Makers. 1974
Louis (Bob) Trinchero, California Zinfandels. a Success Story. 1992
Charles F. Wagner and Charles J. Wagner, Cavmus Vineyards: A Father- Son Team
Producing Distinctive Wines. 1994
The Wente Family and the California Wine Industry, interviews with Jean,
Carolyn, Philip, and Eric Wente, 1992
Ernest A. Wente, Wine Making in the Livermore Valley. 1971
Warren Winiarski , Creating Classic Wines in the Napa Valley. 1994
Albert J. Winkler, Viticultural Research at UC Davis (1921-19711. 1973
John H. Wright, Domaine Chandon: The First French-owned California Sparkling
Wine Cellar, includes an interview with Edmond Maudiere, 1992
INTERVIEW HISTORY- -by Carole Hicke
Charles F. "Charlie" Wagner's family have been in the Napa Valley
wine business since 1906, when his father purchased a farm that included
vineyards. Charlie himself had been growing grapes since 1943, but until
the early 1970s , he had never made wine , other than a few batches
annually for home consumption. Still, his homemade wine had brought him
a reputation for skill as a winemaker, and he eventually decided to go
into commercial winemaking if his son would agree to help; otherwise, he
considered selling the vineyard. The son, Charles J. "Chuck" Wagner,
agreed to the venture, and the two of them put up the winery themselves.
Named Caymus after a group of California Indians, this new winery
made wines from the premium varieties Charlie had planted in mid
1960s- -Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and some Johannesberg Riesling.
Charlie continued using the techniques he had developed over the years of
making wine at home, producing wines that were well received.
As the Cabernet Sauvignon attracted more and more attention in the
mid-1970s, the Wagners gradually increased production, although never to
the point of adding more than one employee a year. They had decided not
to produce greater quantities but to concentrate on making wines of high
quality and consistency.
Father and son developed the distinct Caymus wine style as a team
and continue to make the tasting decisions together, though Chuck has
gradually assumed more responsibility for the overall management.
Evidence of his hands-on attention to every detail is his work with
coopers in Missouri and Ohio to develop a method of toasting American oak
to his specifications. Both men agree on the absolute importance of the
vineyard- -its soil and climate--in forging the wine.
And both agree that Caymus Vineyards will continue as a family
business. "We would like to start a tradition that we see has been going
on for years [in Europe]," notes Chuck. Such a tradition contributes
significantly to Napa Valley winemaking.
Charles F. and Charles J. Wagner were interviewed on November 15 and
16, 1993, at the Caymus Vineyards winery as part of the Wine Spectator
California Wine Industry Oral History Series. Each reviewed his
transcript, making a few emendations. Karen Perry was helpful in
arranging appointments and furnishing information. Merrilee Proffitt was
responsible for book production, and Judy Smith transcribed the tapes.
This series is part of the ongoing documenting of California history
by the Regional Oral History Office, which is under the direction of
Willa Baum, Division Head, and under the administrative direction of The
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office University of California
Room 486 The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California 94720
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[Interview with Charles F. "Charlie" Wagner:
I'd like to start this afternoon by asking you when and where
you were born.
I was born a quarter of a mile from this site here on the
farm that my parents bought in 1906. I was born in 1912.
Let's back up a little bit and find out how your parents and
grandparents got here.
My father emigrated from Alsace in 1885.
Why did he come?
The war of 1870 forced German rule on that area, and his
parents were very upset with the rule of the German regime,
so two of the boys left home and came to the United States.
My uncle came first, and when he came to this country he
worked as a section hand on the Union Pacific when they were
putting the railway through. When they entered the Nebraska
Territory, well, he wanted to get back in agriculture. He
had saved a few dollars, and he got off the train, so to
speak, and homesteaded. He set up a farming enterprise in
What was his name?
His name was John. My father left there in '85 --the uncle
came two years previous.
'This symbol (##) indicates the beginning of a tape or a segment of
tape. For a guide to the tapes, see page following transcript.
Your father's name?
His name was Charles. He came directly to the area that his
brother had settled in, and he also homesteaded in Nebraska.
From 1885 to 1890, weather conditions were very severe;
winter conditions were rough in Nebraska. Being a single
man, he forgot about it- -gave up his homestead, and he took a
train and came to San Francisco.
Wasn't that when all the cattle were killed in storms?
I don't know, but he said the weather conditions were such
that he didn't feel as though he could tolerate them.
Did he ever tell you stories about coming over on the ship?
No. I was very remiss in not asking questions when someone
was able to answer them, but you don't think of those things
when you are young. The uncle stayed in Nebraska.
Do you know what they were farming in Nebraska?
Corn and other grains. The uncle ultimately went into
livestock and bought hogs. My father, when he hit San
Francisco, went to work in the brewing industry.
Can you tell me what year he came to California?
He came to California in 1890.
Do you recall the name of the brewery he worked for?
I have no recollection of the name of the brewery. He might
have said it, but--. There were several large breweries in
San Francisco at that time. He took a night job, shoveling
malt. Night work paid a few pennies more per hour.
My mother came to this country in about 1897. She had
an uncle who was living in San Francisco at that time. He
had come previously.
Where was she from?
What was her name?
Does that mean bridge?
It's a Dutch name. The family originally started out in
Emden, which is right down on the Dutch border. My
grandfather must have had Dutch ancestry from the name. He
was a tailor by trade, and he set up business in Bremen.
How old was your mother when she came over here?
She was eighteen or nineteen.
That was a long way to go.
Well, that's the way it was in those days. My parents met in
1898 or 1899, and they married in 1900. She was working as a
house maid for a family, and after they married she opened a
small delicatessen store, and my father continued working in
She was a good cook, I bet.
She was a good cook, yes. Most of those people were good
Did she specialize in German cooking?
German food, yes. My father wanted to get back into
agriculture, and they looked in Sonoma County and here [Napa
Valley]. When the  earthquake hit, this was the
deciding factor. They wanted out of San Francisco. They had
two children then and one on the way.
Vineyard and Winery
C.F. Wagner: They came to the Napa Valley, and they bought the property
where the Honig establishment is now.
Hicke: Can you describe where that is?
C.F. Wagner: It's just a quarter of a mile from here.
C.F. Wagner: No, almost due west from here.
Hicke: How many acres was it?
There were sixty- seven acres on the whole property.
What was there when they bought it?
There was a small acreage in grapes, and pasture and hay
land. That's what was there when they bought it. If my
memory serves me correctly, I think they paid nine thousand
dollars for it.
What did your father decide he wanted to do with the
He farmed it. He planted more grapes. Like every European
family, they had cows and always had a hog or two, and they
had chickens, so they had their own eggs, butter, and cheese.
It was rather self-sufficient.
No hops. Along about 1914 or '15, my father didn't feel that
he was getting what the grapes were worth, so he started his
own winery in 1915.
I forgot to ask you what kind of grapes they were.
Generic grapes. There was some Riesling, some Sauvignon
vert, some Petite Sirah--just a generic mixture.
Were they mixed in the vineyard?
They might have been at first, but later he planted bloc by
bloc as varieties. He started his own winery and made
perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of wine. His wine was made
in the fall and bulked out in the spring of the following
year to blending and bottling facilities in the Bay Area.
These were generic wines; they were the vin ordinaires of
Red and white?
Red and white both. He prospered. He made a few bucks at
Did your mother help with the winery?
Oh, she worked at it, sure. Hell, women cooked for the help
in those days .
What were you doing?
I was just a kid; I wasn't born until 1912. I was three
years old when he started the winery, so you figure it out.
As soon as I was able to do some chores, keeping the wood box
full was my job. When I was old enough to hold a milk pail
between my legs, I milked cows. That's how I started.
You said you had at least two siblings?
I had four sisters. The two older sisters were born in San
Francisco, and the other two were born on the farm.
So you grew up here when there wasn't much else going on?
No, nothing else going on.
There have been enormous changes.
Many, many changes- -many for the better, and many not for the
better. It was a free world then, you know, and you could do
what you thought was best. If you wanted to plant a tree or
dig a hole in the ground, you could do it without getting a
permit from somebody who didn't know as much about it as you
did. It is far different today.
Did your father build the winery himself?
Yes, with some help; he hired some help. He converted a barn
into a winery; he put in cooperage, insulated it, and so
Did you have any neighbors?
There were neighbors. We were surrounded with neighbors.
There were neighbors to the south and to the east, and the
Napa River was to the west.
Were they growing grapes or doing pretty much the same thing
that you were doing?
No, not necessarily. I think the people to the south had a
small prune orchard and raised sheep. The people to the east
had a big field of alfalfa, and alfalfa is cut two or three
times a year.
There was certainly a wide variety of crops and animals.
My father planted more grapes, more prunes, some pears, kept
some hay land, and kept some pasture land. This was the
basis of the home property.
I married in 1934 my wife, Lorna.
Hicke: What was her last name?
C.F. Wagner: Her middle name is Belle, and her last name was Glos
Growing UP in the Naoa Valley
We need to back up a little bit.
Where did you go to grade
A little school that was originally on part of our property
here, called Liberty School.
Oh, now I know where you got your Liberty School label name.
Was that a one-room school?
A one-room schoolhouse , yes. I recall as many as thirty-five
students under one teacher, with eight grades. They left
school with a better education than most of the kids in
junior high school today. Believe me.
What type of things did you study?
We had a general education. We had reading, writing, and
arithmetic; this was grade school. A little history. Let me
think for a moment. Gradually the tenants in the school
lessened, and when I graduated from grammar school in 1926, I
was the lone graduate. It shows how the attendance had
Why was that?
Oh, people moved out. There wasn't the influx of families
any more. Most of the people who had families, the children
had left home for other walks of life.
I spent four years in St. Helena High School, and after
high school I went to work for my father full time.
Working in the Winery During Prohibition
What was your father doing all this time?
along, for one thing.
The grapes that we grew were shipped east in small lugs.
Sometimes he got paid for them, and sometimes he didn't.
Sometimes he got a bill for the freight instead of a check
for his grapes. It was rough times. He got stuck with
25,000 to 30,000 gallons of wine when Prohibition hit, and
the federal government made him retain bond on this and make
monthly reports without any recourse. He had to do that for
over a period of years until the wine developed sufficient
acid that they allowed him to bodily dump it. So that was
the end of the little winery at that time.
When Prohibition was repealed, we cleaned up things and
reactivated the winery. We had two years' crush on hand, and
at that time there was no place for bulk wines, let alone
bottled wine ; so the wine we had on hand my father sold for
distilling purposes, and that ended the winery completely.
So after that he didn't--
Nothing over there any more in the way of a winery, but we
continued to grow grapes there. It was 1936, I think, when
they started the Napa Valley Cooperative, and we were a part
of the charter members of the cooperative, so our grapes went
Do you recall anything about the Prohibition days and what
was happening in the valley?
Prohibition days were something else. I think that was the
beginning of disrespect for any law and order whatsoever. I
recall that there were some large bootleg syndicates started
in the valley here, and these folks would turn out a thousand
gallons a day of high-proof sugar alcohol. They peddled it,
and they even got in the end to where they were highjacking
from each other.
I was out of high school then, and I bought sugar
alcohol in five-gallon cans for as cheap as $1.75 a gallon.
What did you do with it?
[ laughs ] A couple of fellows from San Francisco would come
up who wanted it, so I would take their car and go out and
get three or four cans of that. I'd pay $1.75 a gallon for
it, and I collected $6.00 a gallon from them. [laughter] So
that was few extra pennies. That's a little bit of history.
Hicke: That's interesting, because there aren't very many good
stories about Prohibition.
C.F. Wagner: That isn't a good story. It's really a bad story; there's
nothing good about it. It really went on to teach people
disrespect for decent law. In bootleg days, in some
speakeasies for $1.50 a pint you could buy bathtub gin or
whatever. It wasn't good.
High School Days
Hicke: Back to high school. What were you doing in your
out-of -school time? Were you helping around the farm?
C.F. Wagner: I had my chores to do . I couldn't go for sports; I had to
get home and take care of the livestock and so forth. So I
didn't play any sports in high school. I was never an honor
student, to be truthful.
Hicke: Were there lots of other kids in your class, or was it a
C.F. Wagner: The class I graduated with in high school was about
thirty- three kids.
Hicke: Did most of them leave the area?
C.F. Wagner: Most of them left the area, yes.
Hicke: What did you do when you graduated from high school?
C.F. Wagner: I went to work for my father full time.
Hicke: Before we go any further, have we covered most of your notes
that you made on your background?
C.F. Wagner: Pretty much so.
The Home Property
After I was out of high school for four years, I married. In
' 36 I leased the home property and operated that on a share
basis with my folks. I did outside tractor work, and I did
custom spraying as a sideline.
My father passed away in 1939, and from that time on I
leased the property from my mother.
When you say the home property, you mean the acreage that
your father owned?
C.F. Wagner: That's right.
Spray and Custom Tractor Business
And you had a spray business?
I did custom spraying and custom tractor work; I worked other
people's farms. On one farm I worked on a cost-plus basis.
That was a farm that we ultimately bought. I saw that his
fruit was picked and did the necessary work. Whatever it
cost me, he got a bill for, and I got a fee for doing
whatever needed to be done.
That was on a handshake basis?
Do you recall the names of any of the people that you worked
I covered a lot of territory in spraying and tractor work.
It would be difficult to name names. The man whose farm I
operated on a cost-plus basis was named Freyermuth. He was a
doctor, and his wife owned the property.
But they didn't live there?
No, they lived in San Francisco. Her father was Henry
Harris, who was a pioneer in this area. That's how she
obtained the property that I operated.
Purchasing the Liberty School Property
They were unhappy with whatever they could get out of the
property, and they decided that they wanted to sell it. They
asked if I was interested, and I definitely was.
We reached an agreement where we bought it on a
contract-of - sale basis. At the close of the deal I paid
$1,500 down, with the agreement that I pay $5,000 that crop
season, after the crops were in. The going price of the
property was $25,000, and that included the Victorian that is
north of where my son lives and the rights to the property
that the Liberty School sat on. The original owner of the
property, Henry Harris, did deed that piece for school
purposes back in the 1800s, with the proviso that should the
school ever be abandoned, the property would revert back to
his heirs or assignees. So, having purchased the property
from his heir, we were an assignee, and I filed against the
district and got back that acre and a half, or whatever the
school property amounted to, as part of the original deal.
That's how Liberty School came into the picture.
Is Liberty School still there?
No, we used the building to house transient labor to harvest
crops for a few years. One spring we were over at the coast,
and while we were away some vandals got in there and broke
all the windows- -multi -pane , six-foot windows --and smashed
the doors up. The building was in need of a new roof then,
so we decided there was no use to try and repair it; we'll
take it down, since we want to build here anyhow. So the
lumber from that building went into my home.
So you still have part of the Liberty School.
Whom did you hire for transient labor?
Usually Mexican people. We had connections. Sometimes
Puerto Rican people. You'd get a man in who had a crew of
people, and he would contract to pick your prunes or pick
your grapes, and he took care of the people who worked under
him. That was the basis of the operation.
That's what everybody up and down the valley did?
Yes. I had four sisters, and as time went on some were very
unhappy with the progress on the property. They thought I
was taking advantage of the home place- -milking it, in other
words. It got to where we couldn't get along with it, so we
tried to buy the whole property on the basis that we bought
our own property, but nobody would hold still for it. I told
my mother, "If you don't want me to run the property, and you
don't want me to buy it, sell the God-damned thing." So she
sold it to a fellow by the name of Jack Nelson. One of my
sisters more or less engineered the deal, which I have many
regrets about. It was like a sweetheart deal, a deal that we
could have handled without a problem. But the property was
gone, and that was the way it went.
What were you growing on your property?
Here we had about forty acres in prunes, about twenty acres
in walnuts, and some land that was planted here and there to
a few almond trees up in back.
It must have been beautiful in the spring.
First Plantings: 1943
It was, yes. We planted our first grapes, if I recall
correctly, in '43.
What did you plant?
We planted ten acres of Burger and about twelve acres of Napa
How did you decide on those?
We wanted production. We were dealing with ordinary grapes
that went to- -at that time we had dropped out of the
cooperative, and we belonged to Allied Grape Growers. These
grapes went to Allied. Tonnage was tremendously high. As we
went along, prunes sort of fell by the wayside, and we
couldn't make young trees grow any more. It seems we had a
bacteria gomosis problem- -that' s what the University [of
California, Davis] called it- -with young trees. We planted
seven acres of young trees, and in three years I didn't have
an acre left, so we took out the prune trees and went for
We planted first some Pinot noir, some Cabernet
Sauvignon, and some Riesling.
How did you choose these?
Not for any particular reason, except that they were paying
pretty good money for them.
Did you talk to other people about it?
Yes. It wasn't like it is today, where everything is
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. This business wasn't as
Starting the Vinery
We went along, and we didn't feel as though we were being
paid for our varietal grapes according to their value.
You were selling these to Allied Grape Growers?
Yes, we were with Allied. As a matter of fact, I sat on the
board of directors of Allied Grape Growers from about 1968 to
1974. I had an understanding with the president of the board
and the other members that as long as we drew a new contract
every year, I could gradually siphon off grapes from the
gross delivery for our own use.
We got to talking about a winery here, and I was rather
undecided. I said, "Well, why do I want to do it alone?"
Chuck, was just out of school then. He had put a couple of
years in junior college and wasn't doing any good there. I
said, "If we start a winery, do you want in on it? If you
don't, we'll consider selling the property." Chuck said,
"No, I think I'd like to go for it."
At that time, frankly, I don't think Chuck knew a good
glass of wine from a glass of water.
More on Vineyard Operations: 1940s
Hicke: Let's back up to the 1940s for a minute. You had just
planted Burger and Napa Camay grapes. I would like a little
more detail about what was happening in the forties and
C.F. Wagner: Well, the grapes were sold.
Hicke: When did you get into Allied Grape Growers?
C.F. Wagner: I went into Allied Grape Growers in about 1960.
Hicke: Before that, who were you selling to?
C.F. Wagner: The Napa Valley Cooperative. I could be off on the dates,
but it's pretty close.
Hicke: How many acres of grapes did you plant in '43?
C.F. Wagner: About seventeen acres.
Hicke: Then you had to wait for a while, obviously.
C.F. Wagner: Yes, for it to come into production.
Hicke: Is that a hard time to get through?
C.F. Wagner: You have other crops, you know. We were heavy in prunes at
the time, and the prunes kept us going. On the home property
we had our own drying facilities, and between the two
properties we had about eighty acres of prunes. I also dried
prunes for other folks.
Hicke: When are prunes harvested?
C.F. Wagner: Oh, you can harvest prunes starting about the first week in
Hicke: A little before the grapes, then?
C.F. Wagner: They are always before the grapes, except this year. This
year I have two prune trees, and we picked a lot of grapes
before I picked those two prune trees. So I don't know the
Hicke: There isn't any answer that covers everything, is there?
C.F. Wagner: No. As things went on, I was still operating the home
property, and I did lease other properties- -some prune
orchards and hay land, or grain land. I did raise hogs at
one time; I believe I could have had as many as two hundred
head of hogs.
Hicke: What did you do with them?
C.F. Wagner: This was under the [Franklin D. ] Roosevelt administration.
They had surplus grain, and I bought alfalfa hay by the
carload. I had a hammer mill, and we mixed up the mash for
the hogs to eat. This was hog business. Then, all of a
sudden, without any notice whatsoever, FDR raised the price
of feed grain beyond what I thought I could pay, and he
dropped the price of hogs, all in one stroke of the pen. So
I couldn't get out of hogs fast enough.
Was this in the mid-forties?
It was in the late forties.
After you got out of hogs, what did you spend your time on?
You must have been spending a lot of time on the hogs.
Oh, they didn't take that much time. I had a couple of boys
from Oklahoma working for me.
Did you concentrate more on grapes?
I concentrated on the fruits that we were producing, grapes
and prunes .
After you first planted the Burger and Napa Camay grapes, did
you plant more of that later?
No, that's all of those grapes that I planted.
What was happening in the war years? Did it affect your
No. We were in prunes and grapes, and also we had the hogs
then. We raised hay and grain on leased property. We did
whatever we could to keep things going.
Did a lot of people leave at that time?
I don't think so. I think the people who had left mostly
were those who were drafted, the young men who were drafted
into the service.
How about the fifties? You slid through those in a hurry.
No, I think we covered it pretty well. Incidentally, I
didn't tell you that in the forties we had a pretty heavy
mortgage on the property on this contract-of -sale basis, so
we cut off five acres, with the Victorian, and we sold that
for $7,500. This relieved the pressure of the mortgage that
we had the time.
Was the rise in property value because people were getting
interested in this area?
No. There was a lady by the name of Florence Fargo Wheeler,
a descendant of the Wells Fargo family. Her father was
Wells, and I think her uncle was Fargo- -one or the other.
She bought the property. The property, in the interim
between then and now, has changed hands three or four times.
Some renovation took place there, but the last sale of that
Victorian and five acres went for $1,005,000.
Oh, my. Well, at least you got out from under your mortgage.
That's right. What are you going to do?
So you just kept on with the prunes and the grapes?
That's right. I believe it was in '63 that we bought another
property, between here and Rutherford. It had been used for
row crops and pasture. We cleaned it up and planted that to
Cabernet Sauvignon and some Chenin blanc . I think we paid
$47,500 for that property.
In '66 I had a disgruntled employee who had left under
bad circumstances, and came back and pumped seven 22 slugs in
me. It laid me up in the hospital for about two months.
Along about that time, I thought, "I don't know if I'll ever
be able to do all the things I'd like to do again," so we
sold that piece of property that we had developed. That was
the end of that piece of development.
Let me ask you a little bit about planting,
worry about things like spacing?
Did you have to
Spacing is a matter of choice, I think. Everyone has his own
ideas. I think most of us do our own experimental work in
that respect. At first, all the vineyards here were mostly
planted eight foot by eight foot. Then I put in a couple of
small pieces of ten by ten. The University was recommending
wider spacing, and we found that very discouraging, because
you couldn't hang that many extra pounds of grapes on a
grapevine to make up for the difference.
Why did they want you to use wider spacing?
I don't know what their theory was. That's something you'll
have to ask them about. When we put our varietal grapes in,
we came on the idea of keeping the spacing ten foot in one
direction, and we planted six foot the other way. That gave
us many more vines to the acre, and that is perhaps one of my
favorite spacings today. You can get through the ten- foot
way for cultivation and your gondolas, and you still have the
vines close together.
So you still have vines planted ten by six?
Yes, we still have some ten by six. My son is experimenting
with different plantings; it's his choice now.
In the forties and fifties, and maybe even in the sixties,
people didn't think too much about the soil and the
I think there are many, many different microclimates in the
valley here. I think we have about four different types of
soil on this property.
Is that right?
Yes, there's a wide variation. These lands are either of
volcanic origin, or they are alluvial soils laid down by
sedimentation from heavy flooding in years past, or they are
a mixture of both. There are areas that I wouldn't want to
plant Cabernet Sauvignon on, and there are areas that I
wouldn't want to plant some other varieties.
Cavmus Cabernet Sauvignon
Your Cabernet is your most famous wine.
We put the first Cabernet planting--! was looking for a clone
of Cabernet that perhaps didn't over-bear but gave reasonable
production. I wanted a little looser bunch that ripened
maybe a little earlier. We ran into such a clone, and we
propagated from that. That's our mainstay today yet.
Can you tell me what clone it is?
I don't know what clone it was. I can't think of the name of
the man whose property it came from.
Hicke: It came from another grower?
C.F. Wagner: Yes.
Hicke: It was obviously a success.
C.F. Wagner: That and the particular soil it was put in.
Hicke: What kind of soil is it?
C.F. Wagner: We're on more or less well-drained soil. It's gravelly loam
for the most part.
Hicke: Is that the alluvial or the volcanic soil?
C.F. Wagner: A mixture, really, when you come right down to it. We come
right down to the creek here, and we run into deep alluvial
soils. A little farther away we run into the volcanic soils.
There's a tremendous mixture.
Hicke: So you have Cabernet on both kinds of soil?
C.F. Wagner: Yes. We find that by proper pruning and perhaps trellising,
which my son is experimenting with, we get good quality, and
we get production from both ends.
Hicke: Did you do any trellising when you first started planting?
C.F. Wagner: No. We had wires, if you want to call that trellising.
Hicke: What kind of wires?
C.F. Wagner: We had a basic wire. It was cordon pruning that we used. We
ran the vines on cordons, and then we ran two wires up above
that we trained our canes on. This was the basic structure
for a number of years.
Hicke: How did you know about pruning of vines?
C.F. Wagner: That's a hard question to answer. I think you grow into it.
There's no teacher for that. You do your own
experimentation, and you find that which best suits your
Hicke: Did your father help you along with any of this?
C.F. Wagner: No, he wasn't living when we bought this property.
Hicke: He probably didn't worry about pruning.
Oh, he pruned, yes, but it was the old-fashioned, spur
pruning that was used on the vin ordinary grapes of
It was not the fine art that it is today?
Oh, no. It is an art today.
Other Growers : Laurie Wood
C.F. Wagner :
C.F. Wagner :
Who else was growing grapes around here in the fifties?
Everyone was leaning heavily towards grapes at that time. I
don't know when the neighbors pulled their other crops out,
but it was a gradual changeover into grapes.
Are there any others around now who were growing grapes here
The only one that I could name at this time is perhaps Laurie
Wood. He grew up in the area, and he was raising grapes at
that time. Properties have changed hands, so everything
I'm interested in learning as much as I can about the early
Beaulieu Vineyard (BV) pioneered the varietals in this area.
When they sold out to Heublein, that was the end of BV, but
there are still grapes there.
Did you exchange information with other people on grape
growing, weather, and things like that?
Not really, no. I think everyone perhaps did their own
Farming is a difficult business, I should think; it's chancy.
It's a way of life.
You look as though you expect to accept philosophically
whatever comes as a farmer.
C.F. Wagner: Yes.
It sounds hard to me, since you don't know what is coming.
It's not a formula that you can go by, add different things
together, and have a net result.
I guess that's what makes it seem so difficult- -that it is
different every year.
Every year is different. It's all in the laps of the gods.
Mother Nature is the guiding light of the whole procedure.
I forgot to ask if your father grew up on a farm in Alsace.
Yes, they farmed there.
Have you got anything else in your notes?
No, I think that's it.
What yeasts do you use? That's part of the winemaking
process, and maybe we don't want to go into that now.
My son can talk to you about winemaking. In the early days
of. winemaking we just used natural yeast; things just
fermented without benefit of any cultured yeast. Today it's
almost a science. We control fermentation temperatures, we
add a cultured yeast. First we add sulfite to subdue the
wild yeasts, and then we add the cultured yeast that gives us
a more predictable and controllable fermentation.
Pests and Pesticides
What about pests and pesticides in the early days?
Mildew was the biggest thing we had to fight with in the
early days, and we used sulfur for that. Later on we had the
same thing that we have today: we had leafhoppers sometimes,
and we sprayed for those. We haven't sprayed for the last
couple of years for leafhoppers; they haven't been a problem.
The leafhoppers are usually the thing that spreads Pierce 's
disease. In the stream we have back here there were a lot of
wild berries, and we found that we had a pattern of Pierce 's
disease going right out from where those heavy wild berry
patches were. So we made a clean sweep and obliterated the
berries completely. We burned them all first and then
sprayed the area, and there are no more berries.
They were sheltering the leafhoppers?
They carried the disease, and the vector, as we call the
leafhopper, took it from the berry vine into the vineyard.
The strange thing about it is that at that time the
University recommended planting wild berries in order to help
control Pierce's disease. It's hard to believe that. We
proved the exact opposite of that.
You planted the varietal grapes in the sixties.
In ' 66 , yes .
What made you decide to do that?
We thought in terms of high-quality grapes, and that was
where the trend was and where the profit was.
Did you see the demand coming?
Oh, the demand was picking up right along.
Were you still with Allied Grape Growers?
Allied Grape Growers
When you joined Allied Grape Growers, what was happening
Allied Grape Growers at that time was the largest grape
growing cooperative or wine cooperative in California. They
controlled the Petri brands, the Italian Swiss [Colony]
brands, and they owned the big Asti plant. As time went
on- -I don't know what year it happened, but Heublein was
interested, and they gave us a big song and dance about being
able to take care of all the grapes we could produce. They
gave a long-term contract with the promise of having all the
grapes the growers could grow, and all of this sort of thing.
They paid the Allied Grape Growers off on their equities with
It wasn't long after that when Heublein started to
renege on their contract, and it ended up in a long
litigation procedure in a federal court. The Allied Grape
Growers lost their facilities and the works. Heublein walked
away with it.
Were you involved in that?
I was sitting on the board at that time. Everything Heublein
touched turned to poison. They were murderous.
There wasn't much you could do?
No, nothing we could do. Frankly, I think they had the
federal judge in their pocket.
Do we want to say who the federal judge was?
I have no idea. I couldn't even remember.
What was your part in it? What did you have to do? Did you
help make decisions?
No, they made the decision in the courtroom. The board voted
on this or on that, but any board of directors does.
I guess you had to decide if you wanted to go on fighting or
C.F. Wagner: We had to take whatever was handed down to us.
Winerv Operations: Marketing
I guess now we are almost up to the point where you are
deciding to have a winery. Why did you think about that?
We thought it would be the ultimate, really. We thought we
would start on a very small scale and really thought that if
we made good wine, everybody would beat a path to our door.
We soon found that a path didn't develop, so we started to
sell through brokers to retail outlets, restaurants, and what
We dumped the brokers over a period of time and tied in
with a man by the name of Ira Gorvitz, who ran an
organization called Wine Marketing International, and he put
our wines out on a national basis. The only problem with
Gorvitz was that he would get paid, and then he would send us
a check from his company for the wine. He got into us for a
couple hundred thousand dollars, and finally we had to break
it off. We had some litigation going, and we got rid of him.
When was this?
I can't tell you what year it was. Chuck can probably tell
you. It was in the late seventies or early eighties.
We took on a marketing director, John Skupny. John
dealt with distributors in other states. He was a good boy;
he did the job for us. We still dealt on a brokerage basis
in California. Then John found that he could do better
elsewhere, and he went to work for Clos du Val . It was a
walk-away thing where he left us under good circumstances,
and we're still friendly.
We dealt with two or three brokers in California, and
finally we decided we would go all the way with distributors.
Our first distributors in California were Jalco in the north
and Bohemian in the South, both owned by one parent company.
We did well with them up until about two months ago, when
they decided they weren't going to stay in business any
longer. They closed their doors and paid us up completely;
there was no problem there. Today we are with a big
California distributor, Southern Wines and Spirits. Their
California division is American Wines.
Gradually over the years I've turned more responsibility
over to Chuck. When we started the winery, we did
incorporate under the Caymus label. We gave out company
stock to the children and to the grandchildren. In order to
keep things so that no one could interfere with the
operation, I saw to it that Chuck had controlling interest.
Down the road, regardless of what happens, no one can put us
in disagreeable circumstances.
That's important for a family operation.
It is. I didn't want Chuck to go through the problems that I
went through with my family, so we nailed that down. Chuck
has developed, and for the last five years any success of the
business has been his responsibility.
Building the Winery
Let's go back to the early days of the winery,
a winery here?
Did you build
Did you design it, or did you have an architect design it?
No, no architect. No, we didn't fool with an architect. We
just put one small building up, and it's still there. Four
or five years later we had need for another building, and we
put that up. Then we tore half of it down, and we retained
half of it along with our bottling line there now. We put a
warehouse across the way; that is where we ferment all our
white wines now in barrels.
Four years ago we bought three acres from the
neighboring property, which we're on now, and decided we were
going to put this big building up. We had need for
warehousing; we were renting two warehouses elsewhere, and we
wanted to bring everything in-house. That's how it stands
It was in 1971 or '72 that you started the winery?
We started the winery in '72.
That's when it was bonded?
Making Wines: 1972
What were your first wines?
Cabernet Sauvignon, some Riesling, Pinot Noir, and we did
pioneer a blush wine of Pinot noir that we called Pinot Noir
Is that right? When was that?
In 1972. We didn't push it. If we had pushed it, that could
have been the blush wine today instead of White Zinfandel;
but we didn't. It has kind of fallen by the wayside today.
It's not our main item. We concentrate more on the wines
that we're best known for and that we do best.
When was your first crush?
I want to find out how you go about acquiring the talent for
That's something that you could almost call self education.
You taste, and you taste again, and if you like what you are
tasting- -let ' s put it this way, and I tell many people the
same thing: you as an individual are your own wine expert.
If it satisfies your palate, and you like what it is, then
it's the wine you like, regardless of what anybody tells you
or what you read. If you don't like it, certainly it's not
your wine. If somebody tells you a wine is terrible, and you
like, so be it. Wine is very personal.
But how do you learn to taste wine so that you can make a
wine that gets the high acclaims that yours does?
The high acclaim that wine gets starts out in the vineyard
with the grapes you crush. Then with the clean and proper
vinification you develop a wine, and it either ages well and
flies, or it doesn't. We were just lucky in that respect.
We had a good combination, and it was a stroke of luck.
Did you have goals in mind when you started with your
Not necessarily, no. It was just that as time went on, we
got the message from the critics, and we began concentrating
more on the awards that we got.
I think wine tasting must be an art.
No, it's personal. You either like it, or you don't. It's
as personal as your choice of friends.
How do you develop complexity in a wine?
That's up to the individual's palate, whether they think a
wine has complexity or not- -I think. Wine stands on three
things: acid, tannin, and fruit, if you want complexity, but
that's only my opinion. These have to be together in the
proper sequence, just like a proper marriage is at least
three elements. If a wine is too tannic and your tannin
stands out, it takes away the fruit. It takes acid to
balance those, because if wine doesn't have sufficient acid,
down the road it will be blah. It's a balanced product.
We want to know what
Do you taste other wines?
We taste other people's wines, yes.
other people are doing.
Mostly Californians , or French?
On occasion we taste some French wines, but it's mostly wines
that we compete against. Oregon doesn't offer us any
problem; they're not in our Cabernet [class], they're not in
our Sauvignon Blanc, and so forth. Washington produces some
pretty fine Merlot, and some people like the Washington
Cabernet. Again, it's a matter of taste. I wouldn't condemn
their wines, but they're not to my palate. That's the way it
Are your wines consistent? Do you aim for consistency?
We aim for consistency, yes. I think that's the bottom line,
in order to keep the public happy with you. They are
entitled to a consistent product. They buy a bottle of wine
of a given brand now, and a year from now they see that brand
of a different vintage. They have it, and it is totally
different; it is not consistent, and they don't feel
confident with you any more. You've lost their confidence,
in my book. It's the same thing as buying a car, and you get
a lemon. You're not going to buy that make of car again.
It's the same with shoes or other clothes; if you get unhappy
with a brand, you won't be going back. I think wine is in
the same category.
How do you deal with changes in the weather to maintain your
consistency of the wines?
That has never bothered us. Since we have been in business,
we have not had a year when we have had red wine problems .
Only one year did we have a white wine problem, and that was
in '82. They were musty- flavored with a total lack of fruit.
No one produced a decent white wine. Some were better than
others, and some weren't worth a damn. There were no truly
good white wines produced in '82.
That was a weather problem?
Rot. The rot started, and the wines all had an off lick [?'
Do you remember anything about that first crush? Did it all
go according to plan?
[laughs] We had a little Mickey -Mouse crusher, and we had to
fork the grapes into the little Mickey-Mouse by hand.
Was it a hand crusher?
No, it was a little electric crusher with a one-horse power
motor on it. You had to get into the must pump with your
hand or a baseball bat and shove the stuff in there so it
would go through. It was problematic. It was almost on a
Where did you get these little machines?
We bought them from a little business- -that ' s still in the
business--in St. Helena, The Compleat Winemaker. We still
have the little crusher that we loan out to people who want
to make a little wine for themselves.
As we have progressed, we have changed equipment
somewhat. I bought used equipment from a place that was once
a winery that went defunct. It was the first heavy-duty
equipment that we bought, and that served our purpose for a
number of years. Then we upgraded and put in the crusher
that we have today. We have had three different press
systems. The last two have been similar, except the last one
has been twice the size; so that's progress.
You never cease spending money in this business.
You were telling me about the bottling.
When we first started it was all hand bottling. We had a
little filler thing with three little spouts on it. You
would shove a bottle in there, it would get so full, and then
you would pull it off. Then they had to be hand-corked, and
the foil had to be put on by hand- -spun by hand,
It was a
The label had to be put on by hand. The first thing we
used was a little deal that showed the label through, and it
glued it. Then you took it and laid the bottle in a little
wooden trough, and you could put it on by hand very easily.
Then we went to a labeler that we bought used. We had it
shipped out from some used equipment place. We had a man go
over it, and that worked to some degree.
Then we bought a mechanical corker that answered the
purpose for a little while. There was a lot of handwork
attached to it, but it would take a series of bottles at one
time and ram the corks in. They were then passed on and
handled by hand after that.
Then we went for the big bottling line that we have
today. It's rather expensive, but when it is operating will
do about eighty to eighty-five bottles a minute- -that ' s
labeled, palletized, and out the door on the pallet.
Quite an improvement.
Yes, and expensive.
Does the bank help you finance all of this?
Yes, we have a line of credit with B of A [Bank of America].
We have limitations that we stay well within. We enjoy a
very favorable line of credit with B of A, and we want to
keep it that way.
How did you design the label?
The first labels we had, the wife of some fellow in The
Compleat Winemaker did a little hand design.
Do you still have a copy of that?
There should be one around somewhere. If I can find one,
I'll see that you have it. [see following page] Then we had
Sebastian Titus design our next label, which we kept for a
number of years. We have upgraded that a little since then.
Examples of Camus Vineyards
and Liberty School Lables
produce*) ani) tcllUJ at (lie wi
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PRODUCED AND BOTTLED BY
RUTHERFORD. NAPA VALLEY. CA.
ALCOHOL 13.0% BY VOLUME
Ak-ohol 12.0 1 ? bv Volunu-
Special /9<S4 Selection
This wine produced entirely from Cahernel
Sauvipnon grapes Aged 4 \ears m H\ gallon
French Limousin and Never barrels
GROWN, PRODUCED & BOTTLED BY
RUTHERFORD, NAPA VALLEY, CA.
ALCOHOL l.i* BY VOL CONTAINS SUI.FITES
SaECTED AND BOTTLED BY CAYMUS VINEYARDS
RUTHERFORD, NAPA VALLEY, CA ALCOHOL 13.0% BY VOLUME
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NAP A VALLEY
How do you make up your mind to change the design, or how did
you decide to change the design?
I don't know. The first label that Titus developed for us
was one of my favorites, but they've changed it a little bit
since then. I'm out of that today, anyhow.
How long did you stay in it?
I started to back off about five years ago. I figured that
if Chuck was going to run the business, he'd better get in
and run it and not wait until I die first.
Selling the Early Wines
What else besides labeling and bottling did you have to do to
start the winery?
Well, sell wine. We did buy an interest in Wine Services
Co-op when they started the building there, and we stored
wine there. All the bottled wine was stored there until we
went for our own warehousing here. We still maintain an
inventory there of about 20,000 to 30,000 cases, because all
out-of-state shipments do go through Wine Services. It's a
Is that in Fremont?
No, they started in Fremont, and now it's right across from
the high school. It's a big building. I forget what the
storage capacity is there--! think a million and a half cases
or something like that. There is no distributor that we ship
to who buys one whole truckload of wine from us. They'll buy
a truckload of wine, and maybe five hundred cases are from
us, and two or three hundred cases are from somebody else.
Wine Services Co-op loads us consolidated there, and they do
all the paperwork and bill us on a monthly basis.
How many cases did you bottle that first year, '72?
I'm only guessing, and my son may tell you differently, that
it was around 1,500 cases.
And it was primarily Cabernet?
C.F. Wagner: No, it was Pinot Noir.
Alsatian Grapes and Wines
How did you happen onto the Pinot Noir Blanc?
I had run into it in Alsace, and I liked it very much.
That's why I thought I would try it here.
Have you been back to Alsace?
I've been there four or five times. I'd like to go back once
Did you find the exact farm where your father lived?
The people lived in little villages there, and they farmed
outside the villages. People there in those days never lived
on the little acreage they had. No one had a given piece of
acreage; they had what they would refer to as a few acres
here and a few acres there. You understand what I mean;
there was no consolidation of acreage whatsoever.
They had to trot around to do their farming?
That's right. I still have relatives there,
I guess that explains your interest in Riesling also.
Yes. We got away from Riesling. We found that Riesling here
was not our wine. There is a poor market for it, poor
demand, and it didn't measure up to Rieslings from Europe, so
why push it? Anything we can do as well or better than they
do in Europe, fine.
How did you decide to make Pinot Noir?
I like Pinot Noir. I got started on Pinot Noir back in the
fifties. I was friendly with the foreman of Beaulieu
Vineyard, and when they were through picking there was a
second crop. With their permission, I would go out and glean
some from the second crop, and I made Pinot Noir for myself.
You just liked it?
It was my favorite wine once, but frankly my favorite wine
today is an old Zinfandel, and next comes Cabernet Sauvignon.
Do you make a Zinfandel?
We have a good Zin, yes.
When did you start doing that?
The first year we made wine, we made a little Zinfandel.
Did you increase your amounts of Zinfandel?
To some degree, yes. You know, Zinfandel isn't all that
plentiful. Very few properties produce grapes that make good
Zinfandel wine. The vines like to struggle a little more,
and you would rather have them on a hillside somewhere. It's
a vine that, to make fine wine, has to struggle a little
more. You don't want Zinfandel growing on lush land. It's
all right to use for White Zinfandel, but for a base for a
red wine, no. More land produces good Cabernet grapes than
Where are your Zinfandel grapes?
We bought some just west of Rutherford this year. We've tied
into a piece of property there, and we're going to see how
the wine goes. If we like how the wine turns out, we'll tie
the people up with a contract.
What about appellations? That must have changed a lot.
I disagree with all this sub-appellation stuff. I just can't
see it. I think Napa Valley is good enough for an
appellation. When you have Rutherford Bench, or Oakville
Bench, and all this garbage, you pit one neighbor against the
other. If he happens to be on the wrong side of the line,
somebody says, "The grapes in this area are worth more than
the grapes in your area." It shouldn't be. Regardless of
where you are, and your grapes measure up, if they make top
wine, you deserve top price- -regardless of the bench or
particular appellation. I disagree with some appellations.
Napa Valley is pretty well known.
Yes. I think if you carry a Napa Valley appellation on your
label, and you make wines people like, that's all you need.
They'll beat a path to your marketplace. No matter what your
appellation is, if your wine doesn't measure up, and people
don't like it, then it's not going to fly.
You have had such great success with your Cabernet. Can
We've strived for consistency. We taste one wine against the
other consistently. The grapes from different areas that we
put in our Napa Valley Cab- -different quantities of them we
blend with the grapes from another farm, and we maintain
consistency on that basis. As far as the Special Selections
is concerned, it comes strictly from our own vineyards, and
we choose the very best of our own. After it is in barrels,
we go over the barrels and make up our minds how many cases
of Special Selections we want for that particular year, and
we set that many barrels aside. The wine has to measure up,
or it doesn't get marked for such.
Speaking of barrels, tell me what you used for cooperage when
you first started.
We used some French oak, some American oak, and today we lean
very heavily towards American oak. We do buy some French oak
yet, but there is an outfit in Lebanon, Missouri, Independent
Stave, that gives us just what we want in a barrel. There
are many ways of forming barrels. Years ago barrels were
formed over live steam in order to get the proper shape to
them, and then they were heavily charred for spirits,
what the barrels were used for in yesteryear.
Today the barrels are formed over the heat of oak
sawdust, and a flame is created there. The degree of
toast- -not charring; there's a difference between charring
and toasting. We specify that we want a light toast, a
medium toast, or a heavy toast, and these people give us just
what we want in forming the barrel. They do it just the way
the French do it. The wood is air-dried for two years before
it is used.
I went through cooperage factories in France in Cognac,
and it is very interesting. Forming a barrel is an
I've seen some of the wineries in Bordeaux that make their
own barrels, so I have a little idea of how they are made.
How do you know whether you want a medium toast or a light
We put the wines in them and make our decision. Over the
period we've been in business, we have decided just what
toast we do want.
You just keep tasting?
Yes. We have changed and blended and so forth, and we have
come down to a rule of thumb, so to speak.
Did you and Chuck do that together?
We did, and now it's his responsibility.
The Wagner Family
Let's back up a little bit. I'd like to hear a little about
your family. When were your children born?
My wife and I have three children. Our oldest daughter was
born in 1937, which makes her fifty- five.
What is her name?
What is she doing now?
She is director of food and beverage at Kaiser Hospital in
And the second child?
Connie Beitler. She went through college, too. She has
three boys, and she devotes her time to them and taking care
of the home. I think she took the proper route.
Where is she living?
In Medford, Oregon. Her husband is tied in with Medford Wood
Products up there. They started a sideline up there of
veneers, so he has a piece of the veneer action. He's been
in lumber for all of his working life. He has been a lumber
salesman, and he travels a bit selling these veneer products
for the people he works with.
So Chuck was the youngest?
Yes. He was born in '51.
Did they all grow up right here?
Changes in the Napa Valley
Can you tell me a little bit about the changes you have seen
over the years in the Napa Valley?
The changes I've seen have not been for the best. We've seen
an influx of very wealthy people, and they have raised our
property values way beyond reason. I don't like that for the
simple reason that it's a tax base. You are taxed on a
property tax basis, and the day you die the government taxes
your family again on the value thereof. I don't like that.
The influx of people here, and the tourists- -if it keeps on
increasing, where are people going to be?
My wife and I were in St. Helena yesterday, and it was
like a jungle. It's like Market Street in San Francisco was
twenty years ago. I'm not kidding you. It's unreal.
What do you think about the Wine Train?
I'm not in favor of the Wine Train.
It doesn't help the congestion?
No, I don't think it helps a damned thing. I think it adds
to the congestion. If you're ever on that highway there, and
the train happens to be going across the highway, you get a
line of traffic held up. If there were a fire someplace, or
an ambulance wanted to get through, they would be held up as
well. There will be a line of cars a half a mile long,
waiting to cross while that train crosses the highway. After
all, it's going rather slowly, and there about ten cars on
it; use your own imagination.
The thing I don't like about the Wine Train most of all
is that where their tracks crossed private property, they
renovated that crossing and sent the people a bill for it.
Some of these crossings cost these people as much as $15,000
or $20,000 and made them very unhappy. On top of that, they
were told they had to carry insurance for their protection
for any accident that might happen on that crossing.
So all you have is a restaurant on wheels that is
competing with every other restaurant in the valley. They're
sucking out of the public hog trough. All these crossings
and so forth are put up by tax dollars that wouldn't have
been necessary if it weren't for the Wine Train. It isn't a
fair shake, that's all.
What are the good things that have happened?
Well, people have a nice atmosphere to live in. They eat and
drink good food and wine. And we still have our family and
friends around us. People learn to live with the influx of
tourism. Of course, tourism helps pay the bill here, too.
It's such a beautiful place to live.
It is. It has its virtues. But it has become very
expensive, you know. We bought this piece of property that
this building is on, and for the three acres we paid $50,000
an acre. Then we put this building up, and today we live by
the dictates of bureaucracies. Okay, we applied for a
building permit. First thing, they came down and looked it
over, and they said, "Well, you're on a flood plain. You
have to raise the level of your building site two feet." I
asked, "Why? Every other building is down on the same
level." "You're on a flood plain." I said, "I talked to
people who lived here 150 years ago, and there is no sign of
it being under water." "Well, if you want your permit, you
will raise the ground level."
We talked about it, and we went to the board of
supervisors and went through the hassle there. We would have
delayed building for a year, and building costs were going
up. We had need for the building; we were paying rent for
warehousing elsewhere. So we decided we'd go the route.
Raising the level of this ground two feet, hauling the fill
in, and so forth, cost $25,000. Just like that, a cost that
didn't need to be.
After we got the building going, then we had to have
people come in from the sanitation department to decide where
we could put our sewage system and drain fields. We dug
three holes with a backhoe , and two women came from Napa.
They got down in the hole and squeezed the dirt, and they
were doubtful whether this had sufficient drainage for what
we wanted, but finally they okayed it. That went on for a
couple of days- -arguments and what -have -you.
Then the septic tank people came in and laid the drain
field out. He's a friend of ours, and he said, "Gee, this is
some of the best drainage that I've run into in the last two
years." That's what he said, against these women feeling the
dirt and being doubtful. Oh, it drives you.
Quite a change from when your father built his winery.
Oh, you couldn't drive a nail in the building today without a
We have people working in the field, and today we have
to keep a sanitary privy out there for them. If someone
working in the field were caught urinating in the field, we
would be called to task for it. Well, animals go out there,
you know. What are we going to do about it? Talk about
What do you see for the future of the valley?
I think that down the line people might possibly get a little
smarter, and maybe one day we will be governed by the people
we put in office and not by the bureaucrats they appoint.
You think that's a possibility?
It's a possibility. Either that or we will have to go back
one day to the vigilante committees. [laughs] It's wild.
Take [the Bureau of] Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the
restrictions they put on you and the changes they demand of
you. Some years ago on our label we had the name of the wine
in a little white box on the label. You've seen it; we went
back to it. They sent us a notice that we could no longer
use it. We had to "cease and desist" from using the box. So
we printed the name of the wine just there. Then down the
road we made an application to reestablish that box, and they
okayed it. Smart people.
How about the state legislature?
Do you have any good
They're all bureaucracies. People who sit in office, most of
them are sitting on their brains, pardon the expression.
Future of the Wine Industry
What do you see for the wine industry in general?
Unless one of these environmental organizations comes along
and finds something with wine like it did with apples and
Alar, and the watermelon scare that we had some years ago,
along with the cranberry scare we had once, I think the wine
business will move along beautifully. But if we get one of
these shoved at us, it could raise hell. Every one of those
scares that they had was totally unfounded. Alar was not
toxic. The media picked that up and blew it out of
There is one thing I forgot to ask you about back at the
beginning. How did you decide what rootstocks to go with?
The original rootstock, after we got away from the natural
rootstock, which are non-resistant vines, we went with
St. George. As far as I'm concerned, it's still the one
rootstock that is immune to the problems that we have been
having. Now there have been several new rootstocks
C.F. Wagner :
developed, and Chuck has been experimenting with them. Down
the road, who knows, but I still favor the St. George.
How did you choose it?
That was the only resistant rootstock we had. Then the
University developed A x R #1. Its heritage was partly wild
vines blended with some domestic, however they do that. This
gave a more predictable crop, more predictable production,
along with heavier yield, and it was great- -until all of a
sudden phylloxera took hold in it. Then they told us it was
a new strain of the bug. Frankly, I disagree with that. I
think by propagation and re-propagation and re-propagation of
that rootstock, it lost its immunity to the phylloxera bug.
I think they just went too damned far with it, and then
phylloxera took hold. That's only one man's opinion.
Are your grapes mostly on St. George still?
We have some St. George yet. We got out of A x R y/1 totally
the last pulling of grapevines, which was two years ago; we
have no more A x R y/1. We have young vines coming on that
are not yet in production.
What are you planting on now?
That's a question for Chuck. He's experimenting with two or
three different rootstocks. He probably has some in mind
that he will tell you about.
I'd say it was a very wise decision to go with St. George.
It was the one rootstock that we had at one time, the only
one that was resistant, and it still is resistant. The only
thing is that it isn't as predictable as the other rootstocks
as far as yield and performance is concerned. But for long
life, free of disease and bug problems, it had it.
Liberty School Wines
I'd like to ask you about your second label
When we started back in the early seventies, we found that we
didn't make sufficient wine, so we bought some wine. We
already felt that we had a reputation of good wine, and we
didn't want this purchased wine to hurt whatever reputation
we had developed at that time. So we searched around for a
name for a second label. It dawned on me that this was the
property of the old Liberty School; let's call it Liberty
School. That's the way it went?
Was that in 1976 that you started the second label?
I forget when we stared that. Maybe Chuck can give you some
insight into that. Anything I tell you could be off a couple
of years. Liberty School stayed strictly with purchased
wines for a number of years, and some of those old Cabs,
after they were aged, were exquisite.
Do you have a library of your wines?
Oh, we have a few old wines, yes, but none that we could
offer to the public.
But do you keep some from each vintage?
Yes, we have some. I like old wines. They mellow out, and
they are like nectar.
Do you still have some of your first vintage, too?
Yes. I think we have three bottles left, to be frank with
you. Not very much.
Awards and Judeings
You have gotten so many awards. How do you feel about that?
We're very happy with all the awards and accolades we have
received. We certainly haven't searched for them. We are
very happy that our wines have been received and that people
have judged them. If anyone doesn't like them, we'd like to
be the first to know about it.
Do you get much feedback in the tasting room?
We get feedback from the tasting room here, yes. A lot of
hype comes out of here. People want pictures of this and
that. I guess it's like Old Homecoming Week to some of them.
What about auctions? Do you participate in auctions?
No. I think we entered the Napa Valley auction at Meadowwood
a few times, but I think Chuck has opted not to enter that
for the last couple of years.
How do you feel about growing or staying the same size?
We don't look for any more expansion. We even live with the
growers we buy grapes from. If the grapes don't measure up,
we have a clause in the contract to drop the grower. We pay
top money for what grapes we buy, and we want top quality
merchandise, and folks are happy to deliver it.
You want to stay about the same production size?
Thereabouts, yes. We're not looking for expansion there, no.
What for? We don't want to compete with the big boys.
Origin of the Name "Cavmus"
I want to ask you where the name Caymus came from.
According to California history, Mexico held jurisdiction for
a short period of time in California after the passing of the
padres, during which time they actually gave the land away in
huge land grants all over the states. Many people thought of
them as Spanish land grants, but they were actually Mexican
A man by the name of Yount came to this area in the 1830s or
early 1840s, and became acquainted with and worked with the
Mexican governor -general of that era, General [Mariano]
Vallejo. Vallejo encouraged Yount to apply for such a grant,
which he did, and he was the recipient of the first land
grant of this area. He headquartered in the area that bears
his name today, Yountville. In naming his vast landholdings ,
some 11,800 acres, he did name it after a sub- tribe of
Indians that were referred to as Kaimus. Later it was
spelled with a "C" and was referred to as Caymus. Whether
the Indians actually called themselves that or not, no one
But that's how it came about, and when we incorporated
in 1971, we thought we would use the land-grant name that is
our trademark name, which we did.
Hicke: That's really interesting. You are indeed a student of
C.F. Wagner: Not necessarily, but you learn a few things if you live long
Hicke: Thank you very much.
C.F. Wagner: You're welcome, young lady.
Transcribed by Judy Smith
Chuck Wagner, 1993.
Photograph by J . Patrick Forden
Agriculture in the Napa Valley
[Interview with Charles J. "Chuck" Wagner: September 16,
C.J. Wagner :
C.J. Wagner :
Let's start this morning by asking you when and where you
I was born in St. Helena at St. Helena Hospital on September
You grew up here in the Napa Valley?
Yes, of course. I was born and raised here, as well as were
my parents. As a matter of fact, I was born in the same
year, 1951, that my father built the house here, so I came to
this ranch as my mother and father moved to this ranch. This
is the only place I've ever lived.
As you were growing up, what was the Napa Valley like?
My family has seen a lot of agricultural business. I know
you talked to my father about this previously, but I'll go
ahead and try to reduce it to a small amount of time. When
my dad's family came over, my grandfather came from a grape -
growing area, and he grew grapes. It was 1906 when he first
came into the valley, and they started the winery by 1915.
But because of Prohibition they ended up leaving the wine
business and going into other ag industries.
Napa Valley at the time was growing not just grapes but
many other ag crops, so my family was typical. Other crops
1 This symbol,
indicates beginning or end of a tape or a tape
prevailed and most of the grapes were pulled. They planted
primarily prunes. However, over the many years that they had
this property- -this was my grandparents' property- -they
commercially grew squash, potatoes, tomatoes, hay crops, and
many other ag products. Stone fruits- -there were cherries and
peaches. Just about the works. People nowadays don't even
realize that the Napa Valley is just a good region for
growing most anything agriculturally. It just seems that it
is specifically perfect for wine grapes.
If we're producing a Cabernet Sauvignon under the Caymus
label, and it's our Napa Valley bottling, we believe that
it's eventually going to seek its own price level. In other
words, we might ask more than what it's worth for a while,
and it might be sold for less than what it's worth for a
while, but typically there's a range that people relate to.
There's a value- -package , the type of wine it is, the quality
of the wine- -and you're going to end up selling wine at a
certain price point.
I think that also goes with our agricultural industry in
California. You find that, yes, for a period Napa was
growing all types of other crops, but there were other parts
of California that exceeded Napa Valley's production of all
of those crops. However, other parts of California started
out in grapes and found that it wasn't their forte. So over
the years there has been this transition, namely because of
the quality of the wines, and Napa has gone sole monoculture,
grapes, because it was destined to happen sooner or later.
So each area does what it does best?
Yes. I don't think anyone in the Valley today would expect
that Napa is going to change to another ag industry. We're
in grapes, and this is forever. Maybe we are a step ahead of
a lot of other wine-growing communities because of that.
There are a lot of good wine-growing communities in the state
of California up and down the coast, but they're new. Sonoma
[County] certainly is not new; it's just much bigger and
doesn't have a picturesque valley which is only three or four
miles wide and thirty miles long. Sonoma County is very
sprawling, with hilly areas, so you can get into one area
that is pretty, and the next one is let go. I think part of
Napa Valley's preference is pictorial; it's something people
like to remember.
This agricultural specialization is probably the same sort of
thing that happened in Europe over the centuries, and here it
has taken place over a few decades.
That's right. Not that long ago, your folks and mine came
from Europe. They started growing grapes, and it didn't
matter where they were, because they knew that was what
grew- -at least those families who were in grapes in Europe.
So, yes, this is something that is very young here. We're
such a young industry, it's hard to believe we've gone as far
as we have .
Did you have neighbors that you recall?
Oh, sure. I feel as though we had a lot of neighbors that
were old family friends, old-timers in the valley. They
didn't grow primarily grapes; in many cases they were prune
growers or what -have -you. It was just an ag community that
people made a living by. My childhood memories are of having
those old fellows come over, sitting down and talking to my
dad about what the problems of the day were, and they
certainly weren't about grapes. My images of childhood are
not going out in the vines with my dad so much as they are
running through the orchards . As he drove along the
perimeter, I'd run through the orchard. My mom and dad would
be driving along the side... those are really vivid memories.
Or the prunes in bloom. So it was quite a bit different.
Old-timers in the Wine Industry:
Andre Tchelistchef f and
I could tell you a few stories about the old-timers who came
around. One of the biggest names, dean of winemakers in
California, is Andre Tchelistchef f. Andre worked at Beaulieu
Vineyard and made wines along with another fellow there.
Andre's name was not nearly as big as it is now. He was kind
of a wild cross between French and Russian- -we weren't quite
sure what he was- -but he was quite an individual, quite a
character. He would come out to the vineyard, just to the
south of our property, which used to be Beaulieu Vineyard,
and he would drive fast. Around here none of the growers
likes to drive fast, because if you get a lot of dust on your
grapevines it doesn't help them out, because the natural
things just don't happen as far as photosynthesis. Also,
dust hosts mites, so you end up with a mite problem on top of
People would get upset about it, but Andre would always
go out there and drive fast to make a lot of dust. He'd
rationalize this by saying that there was a Rutherford dust
component; the dust was good to a point. He was also a guy
who was generally very friendly and fairly close to the
family. Although they didn't visit socially, he would come
over during the daytime, and he would never knock; he would
just walk in the door and start yelling, "Charlie, Lorna." I
do remember that. It was a different way of doing things.
These were his mannerisms, and we didn't like or dislike
them; it was Andre.
Did he give your dad some advice on grape growing?
He may have been asking advice. [laughter] But, yes. I
think usually it was just because we were neighbors: "What
are you going to do here? When? Why?" Or, "I'm going to
have a tractor come in. Do you want to use the same
tractor?" Typically it was whatever farming neighbors would
be talking about.
That's interesting. I don't think I've ever talked to anyone
who might have given advice to Andre Tchelistcheff .
It's like me or my dad or Andre- -certainly Andre has come so
far in this industry that one has to realize that much of
what he's learned is through all the bumps and bruises along
his path. I guess these were the days of his bumps and
bruises. We're not born to know everything, and you
certainly can't get an education and learn in four or six
years all about winemaking. It just goes against nature. If
you're going to be successful at whatever you do, you're
going to be successful.
I can think of another fellow who is somewhat of an
old-timer here, who has since passed away. His name is
George Deuer. George was winemaker at Inglenook, I think
from 1936 to 1963. He was of German or Alsatian descent, and
because my family were of much the same descent, they were
friends, and he would always visit. After he had retired and
we had gone into the first years of business here in
winemaking commercially, George would come, and we would talk
to him. I have to say that my first year of winemaking,
which was in '72, the first year of the winery, George helped
me at least as much as my dad. His ideas were more on the
commercial side: how to move wine and what pump to use, how
not to aerate wine, how to do some chemical analysis and add
sulfurs--the sorts of things that really helped me out, all
areas that my dad seemed to be lacking in.
Yes, the more technical area,
George kind of filled that
Would he just wander in and help you out?
At the beginning we ran both the vineyard and the winery.
The winery was very small; we had crushed only forty tons the
first year. That means that I worked maybe two days in the
winery and three weeks in the vineyard; so primarily we were
out in the vineyard. By the way, during 1972, 1973, and
1974, my father, myself, and one other fellow pruned all of
our vineyard, which took four months a year for those years.
I would have a list of questions, and George would sit
down and say, "This is how it is." Certainly I was blind. I
had only helped my dad as a child bottling wine. I tried to
drink some but didn't really like it much until I was sixteen
or eighteen. I was writing down notes, and I had no idea
what the foundation was. I kind of learned the technical end
before I found the foundation. I think it was good; I don't
think that was bad.
Childhood and Education
C.J. Wagner: Nowadays it's kind of neat to be a winemaker (which I want to
talk about, too). To be in the wine business is okay, to be
in agriculture in Napa Valley is okay. But back in those
days it wasn't. I mean by that that in my childhood years I
was not particularly proud of what my father did. He was a
farmer, and at the time this is the fifties farming was
going through some rough times. The farmer had fallen in his
importance in our social levels. I guess my point is that
you would probably prefer your father to be a truck driver or
anything else besides a farmer.
Those are the days I grew up in, so I didn't learn a lot
about the industry at the time. I've got my own kids now,
two boys aged eleven and thirteen, and a daughter age six.
Both boys are working here during the summer. They already
have a foundation. They already know how you check the
ripeness. They tended a four-acre piece for me this year to
pull off extra clusters. They know that the sugar comes up,
and we pick the grapes at a certain ripeness level. They're
not really quite clear on that, but they know how to crush,
what fermentation is, what yeast is and how it works.
Secondary fermentation they have a blurry idea of. "And then
C.J. Wagner :
we just put this stuff in barrels and wait." [laughter]
There's a lot of stuff in between, but they have a grasp on
the foundation, which I did not, partly due to the fact that
they are proud of what their father does. Now it's okay;
things have changed. It's probably just cyclical; it's
probably going to change again. It was a very important part
of what I used to worry about.
Where did you go to grade school?
All my schooling was in St. Helena- -elementary , junior high
school, and high school. My high school class was small, 120
What kinds of things did you like about school?
I got involved in sports.
Yes. It doesn't seem like it was that long ago, but I think
we went to school more to have fun than to study. I think a
lot of us would probably admit that certainly that was the
case. Particular interests? I don't think I had any other
than being in sports. I did not like history, which is
something my dad always liked and which he found surprising.
Now I like history.
I can tell he likes it, because he has told me the story
about naming the winery and things like that. Did you have
anybody who was particularly influential in either your
school or your family?
No. [laughs] I was never really driven by any single
person. I'm going to say that there were the few people to
really opened my eyes to different wines that I didn't know.
I didn't know how good wines could be. Robert Stemmler
worked for a couple of years as a consultant for us in about
'73 or '74, just for a short period. He didn't do much; he
was mainly a chemist. I remember he brought some sweet
German wine, very expensive, probably some Berenauslese or
something like that, and also some Pinot Noir, French
Burgundy, which I don't think I had had previously. These
wines were super.
Also at that time Spring Mountain Vineyards was really a
highlight winery. So I remember tasting the wines that Bob
brought, European wines, and also the Spring Mountain wines,
which I thought were extraordinary. I thought to myself, "If
we could ever make wines like this, I would be happy." We
would never, ever achieve the reputation of Spring Mountain,
for sure, I figured; that would never happen. But I figured
that if we could ever make wines like that, or if we could
make one sweet wine like Bob had brought- -if we could just
make one in a lifetime, wouldn't it be something to make
something so great?
That established a goal for you?
Yes. More than people, I think I had wines for goals.
Getting back to school, you played football for St. Helena?
Any other sports?
No. I was just a jock. I was the captain of the team for
both track and football for my sophomore and senior years.
Then I started college. I started at Napa Community College,
and I played football there, of course.
Starting the Winery
I hadn't been there more than two months when my dad came to
me with the offer that he wanted to build a winery. He
wanted to get the family back into commercial business in a
small way. If I was interested, then we'd do it; if I wasn't
interested, then we wouldn't. At the time, I think he was
considering selling the property.
What prompted him to consider this path?
As I said, we had prunes. I know that another part of
California is responsible for driving Napa Valley out of the
prune business. The prunes were pulled, Prohibition was
gone, and the natural thing to get back into was grapes. Dad
had pulled the prunes in the mid- sixties, and he planted
Cabernet Sauvignon, Johannisberg Riesling, and Pinot noir.
Those vines were just coming into production in about 1970 or
'71. He was fetching good prices selling the grapes
elsewhere, and I think the light came on: "If I'm getting
these prices for these grapes, and the winery wants them
again next year at a higher price, then maybe I should look
into producing some wine from these grapes myself."
It was the same thing that happened to my grandfather.
He planted grapes from 1906 to 1907 and started the winery in
1915, because the vineyards had come into production, and he
probably thought he could make some good wines from it. My
dad had planted the grapes in the mid-sixties, and by '71
felt that he should possibly get back into the commercial
That's an interesting parallel.
My dad may not have said this to you, but he always made wine
all his life. As a child, I used to drink these old wines
because they were old, they were special. I didn't like them
What do you mean by old?
He'd bring out wine from the forties and fifties, and by the
time I was working here in '71, we were drinking the 1950s
and 1960s wines, just typical food wines. I began to
appreciate good wine. They were delicious. Mainly Pinot
Noir is what he made, and that's why he planted Pinot noir
He said he liked Pinot Noir.
He did, and he liked Riesling, too. When my grandmother's
place was sold in 1963, his home barrels were brought into
this room here. So right here is where we had barrels, and
we had empty cases upstairs and the full cases over there.
We'd be right here on the floor, bottling one-by-one, filling
each bottle with a little hose.
My dad had built a reputation over those many years,
since the twenties, as one of the best, and in many eyes the
best, home winemaker in the Napa Valley.
He didn't tell me that.
He has skill, and it hasn't changed. We did pick up some
technology along the way, but all the wines --and when we
speak of red wines especially- -are made exactly the way he
made them. They're fermented with the same yeast, we use the
same temperatures, we pick pretty much in the same realm of
ripeness, they're put into barrels and aerated with the same
techniques. Even to date we don't use a pump to pump out
barrels. When you have a barrel full of wine, one of your
choices is to get a pump, stick a gooseneck, or a pipe, down
to the bottom, turn on the pump, and it sucks it out. At the
same time, you usually get a charge of air that goes through,
and the pump will drive air into the wine. If it's a certain
type of pump, it can shear the wine particles in the wine
itself, along with oxidation.
My dad would siphon, which is to stick a hose down a
barrel, suck on it to get the siphon going, and then go from
one barrel to the next. We use this same technique, except
we don't suck on it anymore. We have a racking station that
is probably like none other, where we bring a forklift in,
pick the barrels up, and siphon; we siphon all the barrels.
So fermentation techniques, aeration, racking, and production
techniques in general have all followed suit with what my
father did years before we were commercial.
How did he develop these techniques?
I think it was, again, just the bumps and bruises. You just
talked to people when you had dinner with somebody, or
whatever. Besides that, these are not hard to learn. This
is typical from his homeland in Europe. These techniques
were used forever and ever, for maybe two hundred years by my
So your dad came to you with this offer,
How did you feel
I didn't have a lot of direction. I wasn't really enthused
about the school I was going to, and I was not impressed by
the viticulture I was taking down there, that's for sure. It
was really a poor program- -not that that needs to be said.
You had already started thinking about viticulture?
Yes, I had, and I was in chemistry, and I didn't mind that.
I took the offer with the idea that I'd try it, and I just
dropped right out of school and went out pruning
vineyard- -just with a snap of the fingers. That was with my
dad. I don't know if he was happy. I guess he was happy
about it. We poured the slab for the new building on this
first winery that we did ourselves. We did all the power and
plumbing in this building, and then we had a carpenter come
in and put the building up on it.
I remember that I had a friend come out who was the
quarterback on the football team. He had tracked me down to
find out where I was and what had happened to me. He walked
up and said, "Wagner, what are you doing?" I said, "I'm
going to try and work the ranch here and see what it's like."
He said, "You're kidding." He just couldn't believe it. He
got in his car, and he took off.
I talked to him about a year ago, and he had no idea
that we had success in the wine business. He became a high
school teacher and a coach, and that's what he is now. I
talk to him about wine.
My father wanted to try this, but I'm not sure he
thought the wine business a safe bet. I think that if he had
built the winery and a year or two later been given an offer
to sell it, he probably would have. I think he was tenuous
about the whole project. But our first wines got into the
bottle. Although they weren't that great, they seemed to
sell. Of course, they weren't selling for a lot of money,
and the production was low, so it wasn't like we were filling
a great, big pipeline with wine. It was just Pinot Noir and
Johannisberg Riesling. Johannisberg Riesling was our first
C . J . Wagner :
C.J. Wagner :
Do you remember how many cases?
I've got it in notes. I kept all the notes from all the
years of winemaking. I think we had about 240 cases of
Riesling. It was really heavyweight Riesling that was
fermented without temperature control. It was fine for the
first year, but it really oxidized after that. Riesling is a
very delicate variety that you have to be very careful with.
When my dad made Riesling in his home wine cellar, he made
small lots, so the fermentation would never create a lot of
heat, and it wasn't a problem. We went to 500-gallon tank
fermenter in the first year of production, so it got pretty
Was there a lot of residual sugar?
No, you'd make it bone dry and heavy. It ended up being
somewhat like Freemark Abbey's at the time. It was a style
of wine that there is none like produced nowadays. Who makes
Riesling in Napa Valley? Nobody nowadays.
It's hard to make it dry and have it come out right, isn't
It's hard to make it dry and palatable. [laughter]
Yes, that's what I understand.
Rieslings are usually so delicate, fine, and usually
That was obviously based on an Alsatian wine that he liked.
Exactly. As a matter of fact, he had even imported some
Alsatian wines in the mid-seventies, so we brought those in
for a few years .
More on the Winery: the Building and the Equipment
C.J. Wagner :
Let's back up just a little bit. You started out pruning,
and you were building the winery. How did that go? Did it
take you a long time to build it?
I'm guessing that I went to work about November, and by the
next September our building was up and ready.
This was in '71 that you started?
Yes. Our first production year was in September of '72.
What were you doing after you put the building up?
I just did whatever there was to do around here, I guess We
bought used barrels; we started off the winery with used
That's interesting. Where did you get the barrels?
The 53-gallon American oak barrels were from Beaulieu. There
were also quite a few puncheons from Inglenook, which were
133 gallons to 147 gallons. Some of those were European
woods, but it didn't really matter, because they were old
barrels, and there was no wood left in them. They were just
vessels to hold and age wine.
I took care of the vineyard, and vineyard work goes year
around, just about. I guess I just got into doing
everything. I'd run to Berkeley to buy cheap vineyard rope.
I'd do some phone work to find out where I should purchase
goods at the best price. There were certain pieces of
equipment that we needed for vineyard operations, so we would
get into that, find out what the different ones were, and
then plan on one or another.
What about equipment for the winery?
Equipment for the winery has been pretty basic. I think the
Compleat Winemaker just started business about then, and I
think we bought our first crusher from them. It's been a
successful business as a winery equipment supplier out of St.
Helena. We may have been his first sale. It seems to me he
told me that. I think we bought the first Howard press he
ever sold, that was for sure.
Our equipment was really basic, and we picked in boxes
the first year. We just dumped the boxes into a little hand
crusher, and the hand crusher was over the fermenter. We had
three redwood open- top tanks, one old one from Inglenook and
two new ones, and that's what we did our red fermentations
in. I'd climb up on a plank on top of the tanks and punch
C.J. Wagner: It was just like a home winery, a little bit bigger than a
garage winemaker. It was nothing special.
The Mid-Seventies: Progress
C.J. Wagner: Things progressed, and we did sell wine. When we began to
sell wine, the interest level went up, and as the interest
level went up I was prouder of what I was doing. The
mid-seventies were a transition time from vineyard to the
wine business. As far as how I felt about farming as a
child, I felt just as poorly about a small family wine
business trying to compete in the real world of wineries,
against Inglenook, Beaulieu, et cetera. This was not always
welcomed in the valley itself. Maybe in the cities people
thought, "Gosh, who is this little guy?" Just like a home
brewer is now, compared to Budweiser; it's kind of an
interesting parallel. I felt as though we were such a little
guy, and some people thought, "What are you guys trying to
do? You're trying to start a winery?" Although most of them
probably wanted to try it, you know. There's a certain
spirit involved and a certain competition that creates
The mid- seventies were real formative years in that we
began to sell wine, and we already started to establish
ourselves as a good wine producer. That changed my outlook.
It certainly took my total interest. All of my interest went
towards grapes and wine production at the time. I'd say I
was probably flailing for the first two or three years, and
then in the mid-seventies I hit midstream.
Tasting and Decisions
Who made the tasting decisions and so forth on the
We always did that together, as we do today, including
whoever happens to be working for us at the time. It's
always been my father and myself and one or two others.
Who else might be involved?
It could have meant that George Deuer was involved. Bob
Stemmler was involved to a point for two years. We had a
fellow from Davis who worked for us for nine years. Although
he wasn't an enologist, he had a good friend in enology.
Randy Dunn was his name and he was part of our tasting and
decision making. During the time Randy Dunn was here, we no
longer had any help as far as chemistry from either George or
Bob. We were a threesome that worked very well together. We
kind of piloted the wines more towards the market than our
own personal taste.
Which was what?
We had some changes in production. I mentioned that we use
the same techniques as my father used, but one major
difference that we've developed is the use of new wood
barrels, because that's something that my dad had never dealt
with before. We dealt enough in that area to know that we
know what sort of wood character wine should have for the
type of wine it is. If it's an enormous wine, it can handle
an enormous amount of wood. There's no such thing as too
much wood for the wine; there's just not enough wine for the
That threesome lasted pretty well. In about 1982 or
'83, we took on our first sales and marketing person, and we
got him involved in our winemaking as far as tastings go.
Who was that?
John Skupny. Now we no longer have three people [tasting].
We probably have five people, which includes sales and
marketing, our white-wine maker, myself, and my father. I'm
primary, in that I'll form all the red wines into a
direction, but when the final blends come in, I would prefer
to do my best at it and then to involve more people for more
input. I think that's a real healthy way to run our
business. The primary reason for my saying that is that a
lot of people don't run their businesses that way, and I see
failures. You find these winemakers who have far-fetched
ideas and directions which aren't possibly the best for the
market. It's their own personal taste that they are having
involved in this.
Our white -wine maker loves wines --red wines, too. We
have my father, myself, Jeffrey Friedman is our marketing
guy, and Rod Rowe takes care of the barrel room; he does all
the racking for me and blending and that sort of thing. I
like this. It's a consortium that really works, and it
certainly enthuses anyone who works around the winery to know
that they have had a part of how something tastes. That's a
real important part.
You're saying that the wines are improved by having several
different opinions other than your own, and that people can
go wrong when they just rely on one person's individual
C.J. Wagner: Yes. I think there has been a lot of that. Many winemakers
who actually bottle wines under their own personal flavor, so
to speak, don't have as much success. Also, if I make a
blend that I think is the best wine I've ever tasted in my
life, and my dad doesn't like it, we say that he has the
power of veto. If he says no, it doesn't get bottled that
way; we change something. But typically we always get along
real well. We've had just a little things--! mean, after
this many years of working with him, I know exactly what he's
going to say about every wine. [laughter] I know more about
that than I do about the wines themselves.
Developing One's Palate
One thing I'm interested in is how one develops one's palate?
You've obviously learned this from scratch.
The way I've done it is just through practice. You just do
it so much. People will say that Cabernet smells like green
olives and has a somewhat herbaceous flavor and richness of
chocolate and tea, and whatever else might be involved.
And Sauvignon Blanc has those vegetal edges to it. When I
taste Cabernet, it tastes like Cabernet, and when I taste
Zinfandel, it tastes like Zinfandel. So I have developed a
direct link to the way wines taste, and I don't grasp onto
any of those other flavors and so forth that people recognize
as Cabernet. In other words, if you had a blind glass of
wine, you might smell it and say, "Green olives," and you
might taste it and say, "It tastes herbaceous." I want to
say, "This is a Cabernet." To me, when. I smell it, it smells
and tastes like Cabernet.
So you have a memory picture of Cabernet as a whole?
Yes, and of the other varietals that we deal with.
Definitely. I developed that ten years ago, and since then
I've developed further--! can taste wines from another area,
and I know a lot of other people can do this as well. I can
taste wines from Santa Barbara or Paso Robles. I may be
wrong sometimes, but generally speaking I'm not. You can
develop those sorts of tasting techniques. It's part memory
and part trial and error and practice. We've been doing it
so damned long.
But it's amazing to me that you can develop that kind of
Never would I have imagined that I could taste wine like I
do. I'm really amazed at that. Now I'm just hoping it
doesn't go away. [laughter] They say that your palate does
lessen as you age. But there's no doubt about Andre
Tchelistchef f ; we haven't heard about how he's tasting
lately, but he can still taste. And my dad certainly knows
absolutely what's good and what's bad, no doubt about it.
I'm just hoping that I retain it.
I think you would find that many other winemakers agree
with me. Whatever way you learn to make wine- -whether you go
to school or you don't, or whether you are tutored- -it takes
a certain number of years beyond that point to where you
really feel safe about what you are doing, about how wines
taste, and about what you're really trying to develop as far
as end product, what you want your wines to taste like.
Instead of varying with the market demands, which over the
years have gone from high-alcohol, late-harvest Zins that you
can't even find nowadays to White Zinfandels, you need to
find a point and go for it. We've done that, but it takes a
good period of time for a winemaker to get to that point.
C.J. Wagner :
Let's just say that you are thirty-five. If you are
thirty- five, and you know what you are doing, you are a very
young winemaker who knows what he is doing. If you're going
to work until you are fifty or fifty- five as a winemaker,
it's only going to give you twenty chances, twenty years,
twenty winemaking vintages, to do your best.
Is fifty or fifty-five a normal--?
I use that figure because most winemakers that age seem to
take a back seat, and somebody new comes on board. Maybe the
new run of winemakers will go to an older age.
That's true in the management of the winery, but that doesn't
mean that they lose their palate or change their palate, does
No, I'm talking about winemaking itself. For the average
winemaker, you have twenty chances to put [wine] onto a
table. I'm guessing that would be an average for a
winemaker. We as winemakers are not happy that harvest only
comes around once a year. If you had the chance to make it
any time you wanted, and you had lots going all year long,
you would end up with all kinds of knowledge, and your
techniques would obviously change.
So it's a very long, drawn-out affair. In our whole
production of the wine business here, we have hired people
from other industries who come in. When you have an idea in
another industry, you can usually apply it within a few weeks
or months, or within a year anyway. In the wine industry, if
you have an idea you can apply it, but if you're going to
start from ground planting to bottle, you're talking seven or
eight years. People find this rate of life so slow when they
come from another industry.
That's a very interesting insight that is unique to the wine
It really is. I think it's good, and it's bad. It's good
for people, and I think it's one of the reasons people like
the idea of the lifestyle, that you have certain things that
happen all the way through the year; and then here's
September and October, and you've got the harvest, and
everything can be wonderful. There's this image that is just
great. Then we start to talk about business: "We need to
make a change here. The change is going to happen in about
three years." "Oh, okay." It really slows down the beat of
the typical businessman.
You've given me a lot of good insight about palate
development, which is kind of hard to explain.
Growth in the 1970s
C . J . Wagner :
Let's do a little more chronology, and then maybe we can talk
about some specific topics like pests. Were you hiring more
people and increasing your production?
Are we currently?
Starting in '72, did you gradually increase your production?
In 1972 and '73 we were fairly small in production, but we
were looking forward in 1974 to a year when we were expecting
to receive lower prices for the grapes. I don't remember
precisely what had happened to make us feel this way, but
I'll use this year as an example. Gallo has always been the
guy who comes out with the prices, and Gallo came out with
his prices about a month ago. I'll ask my dad to clarify
this, but probably we heard the first of August that Gallo
was going to be paying $600 a ton, and it was $900 a ton the
year prior. We saw this big decrease in what we were going
to receive. We were selling grapes to Inglenook, and all the
wineries followed suit to Gallo's pricing for the most part.
So we were faced with low prices in grapes. We had also
gotten our first wines onto the market and saw that they sold
and seemed to sell well and easily, much more profitably than
growing grapes alone. In 1974 we opted to keep more fruit at
home and sell less. Well, 1974, as we all know, maybe wasn't
the best year of the century, but it was one of those real
eye-opening years for Napa Valley. People were calling it
the year of the decade.
Yes, and especially for Cabernet. For us to have a large
bottling in 1976, when we bottled the wine, it was great to
have a whole lot of this 1974 spectacular vintage wine. That
really put us at a better pace. Our wine out of '75 was even
better than '74, and so on. So we did increase production,
and as we increased production we put a few extra people on,
but never did we ever get to where we were hiring more than
one person a year. We have twenty- three employees, and that
includes my dad and me, and we've been in business about
twenty- two years.
During that time we saw bigger production, and we felt
the label wasn't right and could afford to go to a
professional and have a new label made. We had a new label
made for the Caymus product starting about that time. The
first label we had used I drew up. My father did not believe
that packaging was very important.
That was Sebastian Titus who designed the label?
Yes. That was $500 for the label. [laughs] Now it would be
$20,000. Titus really liked the wines, and I think part of
his spirit was that he wanted to help these guys out who are
starting in the wine business. Speaking of palates, that guy
had a wonderful palate. He was a label designer, but he
really had a good palate, and we spent a lot of time together
drinking and tasting.
Lorna Wagner's Contributions
C. J . Wagner :
Over these last twenty- two years, the whole family has been
involved. I don't talk about my mom much, but for the first
twenty years she was involved in all that dirty work that
somebody had to do.
I'd like to hear a little bit about what she did.
She did all the book work. She wasn't an accountant, and we
would take the book work to the accountant. But she would do
billing, accounts receivable, and what-have-you. She would
hand- label, capsule, bottle. She was busy doing all that
stuff. All industries have spotlight people, and I certainly
don't want to be the spotlight person so much as some of the
people who work in the cellars who are so good and have so
much to do with the quality as well. I hate to belittle
them. I think my mom gets belittled just because she wasn't
a winemaker .
She did everything.
We had family arguments for the first many years. We'd never
agree on anything- -what bottle we were going to go into, what
label we wanted to develop, what capsules, what corks.
Did she have a say in all that?
Yes, no doubt. There was kind of a threesome argument
between my mom, my dad, and myself. It only took about ten
years to get that under control. [laughter] My dad is not
known as the easiest guy to get along with. He's a real
character, and he's full of spit and vinegar. That's Charlie
Wagner, and that's typical of most farmers. I don't know if
you know that, but farmers and ranchers live life on their
own, and they depend on themselves. When they have something
to do with running it, that's the way it's going to get done.
You have to have a lot of resilience and endurance to be a
farmer, I think.
Yes, and I think stubbornness comes along with it naturally.
I recall many times just biting my lip and not saying more
than I should, and I persevered through the family arguments.
I still see today that arguments happen within families in
the wine business, and first thing you know, they're no
longer together. I did persevere, and if I should get any
blue ribbon, it is for biting my lip. Looking back, it's all
fun and games, but there were very serious feelings at the
time that we all had.
Those are the ways that you arrived at your goals and your
decisions. It was necessary to go through some of that, I
C.J. Wagner: I guess that's it.
My mother was instrumental in many things. Also, she
cooked lunch for my dad and me --and this was after I got
married. We'd go to work, we'd come in for lunch, and we'd
go back to work. So it was my dad and I and my mother. Then
there was another employee, and another employee, and so on.
By 1980 or so, we had ten or twelve people who were eating
lunch at her table every day, six days a week.
She deserves a gold medal.
Finally it was just too much, and we said, "Hey, everybody is
going to start bringing lunches. It's been a good time, but
it's time to change." So we did. I even brought a lunch for
years because it just wouldn't look right otherwise.
Did your mother cook German dishes?
C. J . Wagner :
We would have German- type cold cuts and stinky cheese. That
was always the big thing. Usually people who were coming to
work for us would walk in the first day and think, "Oh, boy,
we're not eating this." But by the time they had worked here
for a year, they loved it. It's easy to acquire the taste
for some of that stuff. It seems so off kilter at first, but
so delicious it can be. Head cheese, pigs feet, red cabbage,
and liederkranz. I was raised eating that all the time.
Yes, a lot of German influence in her cooking, so it
wasn't just cold cuts. Typically we'd have a lot of fresh
vegetables off of our property. All summer there would
always be sliced tomatoes and onions, and people would put
them in sandwiches. She would also have a hot dish. She'd
always make some kind of salad, whether it was bean,
stringbean, a green salad, or a potato salad. She'd always
have something like that, and she still does that.
My mom and dad still work a lot doing fruits and
vegetables, and canned tomatoes and peaches. My mom makes
the best tomato juice you ever had in your life. I'm going
to try and get my wife to learn how to make it this year.
It's one of my goals. [laughter] It's so good. I'm
involved with her tomato-juice tasting, whether we've got
enough salt, pepper, hot chilies, and whatever else goes into
Managing the Business
We all did all the work. I did everything. I even did sales
for a while. All the way through from that to the paper work
to the bottling to buying whatever for farm and/or winery
needs, all the way up to office manager, which I pulled away
from about four years ago. My forte was not office manager.
I was managing people who knew a lot more about how to do
things than I did, and I thought, "This is great. We'll just
put crews in and let them do it," but we had some real
problems develop working that way. We ended up hiring a
controller, and he ended up being the in-house accountant
along with office manager, which was really good. More
strife in my life was caused through that type of office,
trying to get the office to run correctly, than anything
You not only had to learn to make the wine but to manage the
C.J. Wagner :
Yes, and to make everybody work without raising tempers.
How to manage personnel.
I know now; I know to stay away. [laughter] Over the last
couple of years, I realized that there are people we can now
afford to put on who know more and who will do a better job
for us. We used to send out bills and not get money back,
and sometimes at the end of the year you would look and just
say, "My God, what did we do?" You sent somebody a bill
eight or twelve months after the first one, and they'd say,
"Listen, we don't know about this," and we wouldn't get paid.
That was the kind of trash that was going on. It was all
manual. So like most everyone else, we updated.
Switched to computers and data banks?
Sure, of course. All the goodies like that. We are running
efficiently on that end, and I feel good about it. It has
allowed me to work more in the cellar and learn more about
the wines. The only thing that pulls me away from that is
going on the road. If marketing really feels it's that
important that I go on the road and do something, then I'll
go do it. This year I'll be twenty- one days out, total, away
from the winery. Next year I'd like to reduce it to twelve,
because I know what I do best, and it's here.
Let's talk a little bit about sales and marketing and how
that grew. You started out doing it yourself, you said, in
the seventies. Then you hired a distributor?
No, we hired an out-of -state broker for out of state, and we
hired a broker for California. I think we had a good thing
going at the time. The wines were respectable, the packaging
was very good, the pricing was right. There was a value that
always seemed to be associated with Caymus . It wasn't just
quality; it was a value.
As far as pricing, we went along with the crowd, so to
speak, seeing what the rest of the industry was doing.
C.J. Wagner :
I wanted to ask how you arrived at prices early on.
That's an interesting story. When we started making Cabernet
Sauvignon, the first Cabernet, the 1972 vintage, was $4.50.
This was really a nice wine out of a poor vintage. It was by
far the best '72 Cabernet Sauvignon that I had ever tasted.
By 1973, I think we were $5.50 a bottle. My dad would have
people come, and they would either come into this room or go
over to the winery. They'd buy six bottles or a case of
wine. They would ask questions, and my dad would answer
candidly, "Well, there's no reason in the world why somebody
shouldn't be able to make you, sell you, a fine bottle of
Cabernet Sauvignon for $4.50." Those people would come back
as our prices went up and haunt him, "Charlie, I was here,
and do you remember that you told me that these other people
were asking too much money, and that there's no reason why
anyone should pay more than $4.50?" He really had to eat a
lot of crow. [laughter] That was a running fear that he
lived with, that those people would come back and haunt him.
Prices did go up. Everything got more expensive. I
don't think that the first wines that we produced were
realistically priced as far as the wine business goes.
They were too low?
Yes. My dad is a good businessman, but we didn't have an
in-house accountant to tell us that there are a lot of costs
you're missing here. Certainly he wasn't plugging in all the
costs incurred to determine a bottle price.
You determined those prices by cost?
What he thought were costs, yes. I think in '74 it was $7.00
a bottle, and the wine was selling really well. At that time
there were a few wineries beginning to start up. If I'm not
mistaken, we were about the forty- first winery in Napa Valley
in 1972. During the seventies we had all these people move
into town. I don't know how many wineries we have now. Do
we have 280 or something like that? Things really changed,
and prices seemed to soar. We saw all around us our
competition going way beyond what we were asking. Of course,
it doesn't take much common sense to figure out that you
should ask a little more, for two reasons. One is to be more
profitable, and the other one is to create the right image.
For instance, if you make a great wine and sell it two
bottles for $7, people are not going to recognize that. They
won't appreciate it. We want to be on the tables along with
the best wines of the world, whatever they are. If it's a
Bordeaux that somebody in England is enjoying, we want the
consideration of having some of the Caymus wine in their
cellar. I'm not saying that price always goes along with
image, but somewhat they follow suit. Right now we're in a
day and age of value. Things have changed so much, and I
think the best example of that is the Los Angeles area. Five
or six years ago in the Los Angeles area it was the most
expensive wine that would sell the fastest. It was people
with money, and they wanted to outdo each other. Here we
are, five years later, and what is selling in Los Angeles?
They have the most successful discounting program- -discounter
markets- - in the United States.
C.J. Wagner: People in L.A. are no longer buying expensive wines so much
as buying the cheapest wine and trying to almost take the
screwdriver to somebody in order to get the wine cheaper. It
has flip-flopped, and it is now very much a bargain market.
It starts with the guys who buy the wine and ends with the
consumer; they're all into this feeding frenzy of trying to
get it cheaper. All the shop owners talk to each other and
know what each is paying, and if somebody is getting a better
deal, then the other guy gets all bent out of shape. Things
have changed in Los Angeles enormously.
Also Los Angeles always seemed to be, and continues to
be, the spawning ground of change in the wine industry.
Whatever has happened historically in Los Angeles has
happened in northern California a few years later, has
happened across the states a few years thereafter. That's
the market. What's happening is clubs, chains, and
discounters. There are a few businessmen who are doing
business as usual, still taking the normal profit, and people
are still doing business with them because they feel that
this guy gives them an honest shake. In Los Angeles most of
the wines are being sold in two areas, discount and
So our emphasis, of course, has shifted towards
restaurants. We want more business in restaurants, and we're
very fortunate that our name has come to be strong enough
that most restaurants would like to have us on the wine list.
I can tell you that in Stars [restaurant] in San Francisco
they have not only your wine on the wine list, they have a
huge box on the menu that says, "Caymus Vineyards." Have you
Yes, "Special Selection Cabernet '88." That program has
worked so well with Stars. Gosh, we should have given them
the wine for all the good it has done us. That's a great
deal. Stars is wonderful.
Evolution of the Distribution System
C.J. Wagner :
As the seventies went along, how did you increase your sales
and distribution nationwide?
We had a broker. We broke off from the broker, and we got
our first taste of business in the cold sense of the word, in
that we got sued and had a real mess with him, because he had
supposedly developed this market. We learned the hard
way. . .no one told us ahead of time.
There have been several of those, I think.
Oh, yes, it's very popular now. We put into place our first
full-time marketing person, John Skupny . John began to sell
directly from the winery to distributors out of state on a
more professional level. It worked out very well. We began
to key into certain markets. We didn't try to go into fifty
states, just to the key markets and I don't want this to be
taken wrong, but there are certain areas of the United States
which are more inclined to have culture. Some cities don't
have it, and some cities do. The northeast is full of
culture. They've been living there for a hundred years
longer than we've been living here, and maybe that's one
reason. Wine has always been an important part of their
food, for whatever reason, and as people came west across the
states, wine kind of left the menu and beer or Coke became
part of it. Massachusetts is our number three major market,
the small state that it is. New York, New Jersey are also
I want all the world to enjoy Caymus wine, but obviously
it's just going to go to the areas where people have a better
understanding of wines.
C . J . Wagner :
C.J. Wagner :
You don't make a million cases.
That's right, we don't. We have weekly meetings on
marketing, and we talk direction and that sort of thing.
Day-to-day marketing I'm not that involved with.
How about international sales?
International sales are interesting, but I'm not enthused
with them. I think Germany and Austria are pretty happy with
California. We sell to Angelo Gaja in Italy, and they seem
to be enthused. France, as you can imagine, is French wine.
French people are French people, and they're never going to
We dropped out of selling to Japan three or four years
ago and just recently shipped over some wines, a very small
quantity of just our best. Our problem with Japan is that
the people who are selling California wines into that country
really have developed the wrong sort of image for California;
it's not a great image. You find that the Japanese will buy
the old standards, whether it's first growth Bordeaux, Grand
Cru Burgundy, or the top Rieslings. Those are their
standards, the ones most sought after. In Japan, most wine
enthusiasts are not seeking California wines.
They don't think of California as having fine wine?
No, we're not in the same arena. I knew this was a problem,
and we stopped sales. We just started selling again in very
limited amounts, but we're just selling to these consumers
who are up on the top. Our intention is to create image from
the top down instead of from the bottom up. Rather than sell
a hundred cases to Japan and have this image of being a
sub-quality winery, we'd be better off selling ten cases and
just getting into a few cellars of people who care about
quality wine. That might develop into a hundred cases in
five years or whatever, and that's all we can ask at this
How about South America?
We did sell some wine to Brazil just recently. I think it
was an individual collector who just started a wine business
there. Again, though, he seems to be running in a circle of
people who know and enjoy wines, and that's what we really
like. That's what excites me. If we bring someone in who
wants to sell the wine, and he says, "I'm going to go to
Ireland, and I'm going to sell the wine," we're not excited
C.J. Wagner :
about him going to Ireland unless all of a sudden he says,
"We've got this wine tasting group, and we get together, and
we love this wine and that wine." All of a sudden we get
excited, because there are some people out there that are
knowledgeable that we want to be associated with. That's
more on a case by case study.
Australia and New Zealand?
They have quite a bit of wine of their own.
How about the size of production? Has that increased? Did
you level off?
Yes, we have leveled off. Nineteen eighty-nine was our
level-off year. We have twenty-three employees currently,
and that's where we want to stay.
How many cases do you produce a year?
Between Caymus and Liberty School together, it's about
Can you give me an approximate breakdown?
About 60,000 Caymus and 40,000 Liberty School.
Yes, mainly Cabernet. Our largest production is 30,000 cases
of Napa Valley Cabernet.
C.J. Wagner :
That reminds me that I want to ask you about appellations.
You just use a Napa Valley appellation, and I think your dad
indicated that he wasn't enthusiastic about smaller ones.
You mean sub-appellations in Napa Valley?
C.J. Wagner: I agree with him only to a point. He is for Napa Valley
forever, and that's it. I do believe that we need to develop
further, to come to sub-appellations. When you talk about
Burgundies or whatever, you finally get down to the vineyard
name, and they become more expensive. But you know you can
trust that if what you want to taste is that vineyard, you
can buy that wine. It may go to different producers, and you
understand that one producer makes it a little differently
than the others, but there's always the "common soil or
whatever the character is that comes from that vineyard.
I think those are important, but what's happening here,
Carole, is that we have a lot of wineries that are in
business, and they are becoming more professional as time
goes on. What comes along with that are public relations
people or marketing people who are using any angle they can.
They are aware of the angle of the French single -vineyard
appellation, and they are aware that there are collectors who
are after that. Therefore, if they can utilize
"sub-appellations," it gives them more marketing meat for the
public relations department to work on, a nail to drive home
as being better. This is where the Rutherford Bench comes
from. Rutherford Bench is certainly just a handful of people
who in some cases may believe that they have a special
appellation, but for the most part believe that they will
have more marketing clout if they were to pull this off.
Hicke: It seems to fit in with your philosophy of aiming at people
who are knowledgeable. If you didn't care about people who
were knowledgeable about wine, then Napa Valley is the best
thing to call it.
C.J. Wagner: That's true, but let's say it's twenty years down the road
from now. Over the twenty years we have finally pulled out
every variety that doesn't belong on this land. We found out
that Sauvignon blanc on the rich soils and Cabernet on the
poor soils is our ticket, and there's a flavor that is
associated with each of those varieties. We find that our
neighbors are kind of finding out the same thing. I'm not
saying it's going to happen in twenty years; it didn't happen
in France in twenty years. It takes a long darn time.
Eventually there becomes a character and maybe even a
style of wine that all of us are using around this little
community here, and we name it the East Bench Rutherford. I
just believe that currently it's premature for a
sub-appellation. Secondly, we're upset that it's
market-driven. It's public relations departments that are
the driving force behind the sub-appellations instead of
quality of the wines.
I'm glad you clarified that.
It has to come from the land first for a certain number of
years, until you can say, "You know, that's the way they
taste around here, and yes, we could then use a
sub-appellation. The soil is the same, the climate is the
same, the grapes are pretty much the same varieties, and the
wines taste similar; therefore, let's give it that." That
makes sense. We do not have that, not yet. I'm for some
appellations, but maybe in twenty years. Let these things
Liberty School Label
Tell me about the Liberty School label.
C.J. Wagner: My dad probably told you that he went to school there.
Yes, he told me how he got the name.
He said he was the sole graduate in the eighth grade class.
The development of the label is something that happened in
1976. We were in business and were selling wine under the
Caymus label, and we were confronted with some wine that we
had found through Bob Stemmler. There was a certain
Cabernet, bottle-ready, already barrel-aged, from Mill Creek
Winery. It was for sale in bulk, and they wanted $3.50 a
gallon. We tasted it, and we thought, "Man, this is really
nice." It was much softer than ours, and it was a very
appealing wine, a wonderful wine.
We wanted to do something with that, and we knew that we
shouldn't use the Caymus label, because we didn't want to
prostitute the name, so to speak. We wanted to keep Caymus
associated with our own vineyard, and that was it, so we
needed to come up with another label. We thought about Conn
Creek Winery as a name, and we ended up with Liberty School
as being a name and a picture. We had a drawing made of a
picture of the school, and that was it.
We came out with our first Cabernet. When we came out
with that wine, it was written up by some wine critics, and
Robert Finnegan at the time gave it a high ranking. That
wine sold like wildfire. What did that do to us? We
couldn't just leave well enough alone. We went ahead and
searched the market for more, found more, and bottled it.
That was Lot 2. For Lot 3 we actually started to bring in
wines and barrel -age them. Then we began to buy more
different wines from all over the state. We bought a lot of
Cabernets out of Sonoma, Napa, Lake County, Paso Robles. We
actually bought some out of Nevada City and other places.
We had such success with the Cabernet that we went into
Chardonnay, because those two are partners. We began to
purchase bulk Chardonnays and then blend them. Again, we
worked all around the state.
My foundation is here at Caymus and in Napa. We know
that our classic Cabernet from this area has a certain
character to it, and we think that it is classic for the
And you aim at consistency, I know, at Caymus.
Yes, we do, but at the same time, through purchasing all
these vines from outside of Napa Valley, had learned an awful
lot about our state. We found out that, "Gosh, those guys
down there do all right. Those guys up in Lake County--."
You'd never think Lake County was a good producer of anything
except pears, but there were some pretty nice Zinfandels and
Cabernets that we found from there.
That reallv was the beginning of what we are doing
today. Today we are no longer purchasing wines; we're
purchasing grapes. We have long-term commitments on grapes
from vineyards that we used to buy wines from. Now we've got
a grower, and he's in Paso Robles. He's got three little
vineyards there, and we pick the grapes, and have them made
at a winery down in Monterey County. I oversee the vineyard
operations to a certain point and also oversee the winemaking
and barrel aging of those Cabernet wines under Liberty
What we're doing for Chardonnay is similar, but we're
down in Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County. We have
been looking around in Monterey County as well. My point is
that both labels, Cabernet and Chardonnay, are going to come
from the Central Coast. We think Central Coast is really
part of the future of the wine industry. It already is
fairly hot, but I think it's going to become more of a major
part of the wine industry. The wines are less expensive to
produce and therefore to sell, and the styles, especially of
C.J. Wagner :
the Cabernet, are much softer and easier to enjoy at a young
age. Our Cabernets are not. The '91 Liberty School Cabernet
has been on the market for six months. The '91 Caymus
Cabernet will be bottled next spring. So there's a big
difference there. One is light, fruity, and berry- like, and
the other one is dense, texturous, and classic.
Do you aim at a consistency for Liberty School, too, or do
you just try to make the best wine?
This is the very beginning of the new Liberty School wines.
Although we've been buying grapes and making the wine
ourselves for a year and a half or so, right now is still
just the beginning of Liberty School. I think we're going to
see quite a transition to a certain style that people can
expect from it, year in and year out. The Cabernet is always
going to be very fruity, berry-like, a nice, easy drinking
wine and not something you'd want to age. I think those are
going to be typical features on that wine, and I think the
Chardonnay goes the same way.
But it's the wine business, and it takes years to do
anything, right? This is a change that is going to take
place over the next several years.
Are there some key personnel here at the winery who have been
here for a long time?
Our white-wine maker. I make reds, and we have another
fellow who makes white wines. He's been here for nine years.
Did you give me his name before?
No, I didn't. His name is Jon Bolta, and he's one of the
fellows that we taste with. Jon is very much a big part of
the winery here in winemaking. I guess he's been here longer
than most everyone else.
C.J. Wagner :
What about the changes in cooperage? Can you tell me a
little bit about how you started out?
I have done some market traveling and traveling to see what
they do in Europe as far as winemaking and that sort of
C.J. Wagner :
thing. We have been more than once and have visited
facilities of barrel producers that we buy from.
One was Saury, which I have never heard of.
We've been buying from him just a dribble at a time for the
last several years.
Yes. This year we changed, because he is doing a certain
technique that we asked for; so we tried twenty barrels from
him. The standard barrels have been Demptos, made in Napa;
Francois Freres and definitely Nadalie, always a standard for
us. We have tried all the others, but those are the
standards for us. We buy a lot of barrels.
I'd also like to say that one of my claims to fame is
that I've been to Missouri more than I've been to France, and
I go back there to work with American wood producers. They
have come to grips with how we are going to make American
barrels better, at least for Caymus . It has worked out
really well. We're working with two producers. Our largest
producer is the one we've been going back and seeing the most
of. We're working with air-dried wood versus kiln-dried:
should we go six months air-dried or two years air-dried, or
is there a difference? It's another long-term experiment.
We've been working on this for five years, and it's working
out really well.
Who are those barrel makers?
Independent Staves in Missouri and Canton Cooperage in
So you are getting made- to-order barrels?
Yes, we are. I go back there and go on the floor; it's much
like an automotive assembly line. Our barrel producers are
different than French barrel producers where a cooper makes
one barrel- -makes all the different components, puts it
together, and puts his name on it. Here it's more like a
machine, each worker on a separate job as the barrel moves
automatically through the facility.
An assembly line?
Yes, it's an assembly line, and we're trying to plug into
their line all the features that we think are mandatory for
good oak barrels. I have been there at the factory at 5:00
in the morning, the fires are going, and they're ready to go.
I walk in the door, and they see this guy from California.
I have to tell you about the first time. I got there,
and it was snowing. I was staying at a condominium about
fifteen miles away, and it took me quite a bit longer than I
expected to get there. The line was ready to go, and there
must have been sixty guys on the line. I walked in the door,
and everybody was ready and waiting, and they had been there
ready and waiting.
They all knew I was from California, and if you're from
California, there's just a little something wrong with you.
[laughter] You're not quite all there, or you're a
leaf -eater, or God knows what you are. I put that beside me,
and I went to the end of the line and talked to the
production manager. We had already talked the day previous
about what we were going to do. We started the line out, and
the barrels started to come around to the fires. I hung
around the fires, the area I felt needed most attention. I
pulled the first barrel off and did this treatment that I do
to barrels, and the inside of the barrel caught on fire. In
other words, I ruined the barrel.
So we went back to the typical high- toast that they were
doing, I took another barrel and toasted it, and it caught on
fire. I burned three barrels in about forty- five minutes,
and they all saw this happen. It was the best thing that
could ever happen, because it really broke all the tension;
they knew that I really wasn't worth the poor consideration
they had given me, and maybe I was a good ol' boy like them.
That was the feeling that came about, and it was really good.
I messed up three barrels, but the whole production was
close to the toast level that I was trying to get. On
subsequent trips we ended up finally getting to the toast
level that I wanted. It was just that we were getting the
barrels too hot at that point; they were too close to flash
point. The barrels that I'm used to working with, which are
French, are typically not quite that hot, and I can do my
last-fire treatment that I like to do without them catching
on fire. The production manager there felt that he had to
get them that hot; otherwise they weren't going to want to
bend. We've come to grips with that.
Back to that first day, we ended up going out to dinner
that night with the sales people, the production manager, and
the man under him. First thing you know, we had become
friends. I even drank Wild Turkey and ginger ale, which I
had never had before. He obliged me by drinking wine with
dinner, so we had this drink afterwards. We were breaking
The next day I went out on the floor there and got to
know a few of the guys, and now they all feel that I'm not
just a leaf -eater from California. That really helped. I've
been to Missouri five times, working with them. It's worked
out really well.
They know you are a real person, too, and not just somebody
out there sending requirements.
That's right. Although I make the red wines here, and it has
worked out to a good degree on the red wines, it just so
happens that the American barrels that we've been producing
back there have worked out perfectly for the whites. Jon
Bolta uses entirely those barrels now. I don't believe that
American barrels are quite up to the French in the red wine
department, but I think in some varieties they can work all
right. If it's Petite Sirah or Zinfandel , it is maybe even
better in American wood. For Cabernet it can be a blend of
American and French. Certainly people break rules all the
time. The oak we use primarily is American. But Pinot Noir
and American wood just don't go together. Those are the
sorts of things we are still finding out.
Our Caymus barrel -fermented Sauvignon Blanc is our
largest-production white wine at 16,000 cases. It sells
well, people like it; it's a wonderful wine, and it's 100
percent American wood. So I feel that we are doing something
for our country at the same time. Fifteen years ago we
bought American barrels, but they weren't the same. The
coopers were just making a whiskey barrel at the time. It
was kiln-dried, and they would not burn the inside at all;
they would just put the barrel together. We'd get it, and we
used to say it tasted like white shoe polish. It had a
really strong, terrible, dill quality. Nowadays we have more
interesting winemaking and less interest in spirits, and the
barrel producers have seen that. They say, "The graphs show
that you are getting bigger, and these other guys are getting
smaller, so we're going to start listening to you." So we've
come of age; the timing is right.
You're not only buying American, you have really helped
develop an industry. Other people, I'm sure, are going to
use them, after they have learned from you.
C.J. Wagner: That's true.
What about corks? Is that a problem for you?
It's nothing more than a cost problem, I think.
We're going to stay with corks for now. I don't know what
the future holds. I think still today if you pay for your
corks, you're going to get a good cork. But they do cost so
darned much. Our Special Selection corks are fifty-eight
cents each. We're getting the tops- -fifty-four
millimeter- -and they're beautiful. The last time I had a
corky bottle of Special Selection- -I ' 11 tell you, I haven't
had one for four years.
Vineyard Changes and Experiments: Trellising
C.J. Wagner :
I'd like to go back to the vineyard and ask you about some
experimenting that I know you are doing. What about
trellising? How did you start, and how did you develop with
We have always used trellis. We used to use standard
California planting as far as plant density.
You were talking about spacing.
We went beyond that. My dad actually started in 1966
planting 6 x 10, which gave us 720 vines per acre. I think
450 vines per acre was typical, so he had come up quite a bit
in plant density just in what he planted in the 1960s.
We put the grapes on wires, and that was kind of a
transition time when some wires were going in and some
vineyards were still planting without wires. We saw that
there was something good in wires, and the gods at Davis
said, "For every wire you add, it is going to give you a
better crop, more sunlight, all the goodies." We went ahead
and looked into some other trellising.
I went to the University of Bordeaux twice on my trips
to France. A professor by the name of Alain Carboneau is the
mad wizardry fellow who was at the time running the
University of Bordeaux's experimental station for the
vineyard operations. Just to go into this vineyard was
amazing, because some of the vines were thirty or forty years
old, and they were any configuration or wire system that you
could imagine . He had come to develop what is commonly
called the Carboneau system- -open lyre. Open lyre really
interested me, but also I saw a lot of what else he was doing
We also hire from time to time a consultant, a fellow by
the name of Paul Skinner. He is a UCD graduate. He wrote me
a letter one day and said he was out of school, and he had
his doctorate. Did we have any specific problems that we
couldn't come to grips with, and could he help? I said,
"Yes, we have red leaf here, and we can't seem to get rid of
this stuff." So he came on board with us at the time. He
had studied a lot about trellising. I think his doctorate is
in soils and plant science, but he had a lot to do with
trellising. He had seen what had happened when he had been
to Germany and that sort of thing, so he had a lot of great
ideas on trellising as well.
We really got involved in trellising with Paul, and we
fast became the experimental station for Paul himself, our
ideas going together. We did some Carboneau, but we also did
various other systems. The jury is still out on what the
best system is, and certainly we do know at this point that
it is site specific; one site is good for one trellis, and
one site is good for another. As to which trellises are
going to give us the best quality, the jury is still out.
We have probably six systems that we utilize and think
have merit. There are some we found that we don't like. We
are using systems from France, Germany, South Africa, and
Importance of Soil
C.J. Wagner: I want to also tell you, and this is very important, that
when you have a certain soil --let's say we have Cabernet out
here, and we have this gravelly loam soil first of all, it's
a given that it is going to make a good wine. The real
question is when you have some soil that has made poor
Cabernet, and it's rich soil, can you make a trellis system
produce a great wine from that soil? We don't know that
right now, but it doesn't look very promising.
We are going to make more colorful wines. I'm going to
give you an example. We have one trellis system that's up in
Rutherford on a piece of property that we lease. We put
Merlot on the Carboneau system, but it's also a non-tillage.
We planted grasses, and it's just mowed. We have an
under -vine watering system that doesn't work just as drip but
waters the overall soil. It has worked out tremendously for
us, but we don't really want those grapes, because that kind
of heavy clay soil we don't think is going to be so inclined
to make good wines. So that piece of property we're working
as a grower, and we sell those grapes out to another winery.
Not all wines can be special.
The trellising systems are not what they are cooked up
to be; they're not a cure-all. They're not going to make
soils that are not right for Cabernet Sauvignon produce a
great Cabernet Sauvignon. The soils that are so inclined to
produce great Cabernets are still going to produce them.
Let's just talk about two simple features here, rich
soil versus poor soil. I'm saying that rich soil is high
organic matter, rich, deep, fertile, great garden soil that
you would love to have for your tomatoes in the backyard.
The poor soil I'm talking about is gravelly loams that are
very high in gravels, and have very little organic matter.
The vines don't grow very big, and therefore you don't have a
lot of foliage, there are smaller berries and more
concentration in your grapes. That's going to produce a
Can you take that rich soil through one of these new
trellising systems and produce that kind of rich wine? It's
not going to happen. But what we can do is get better sugars
and better colors than what we used to get from that soil and
also better yields.
Hicke: It really affects the grapes but not the wine?
C.J. Wagner: Yes. Trellising systems are not going to make all the
Cabernet vineyards or Chardonnay vineyards in Napa Valley
wonderful. It really has to do with, first, the soil.
But trellising does affect the amount of production, color,
and so forth of the grape?
Yes, and the ripening. There are a lot of good things about
trellising. My major point is that we are not going to be
able to start making more Special Selection Cabernet off of
our property. That's life.
Special Selection Cabernet
That's one story my dad didn't tell you, and you ought to
hear it. My dad grew walnuts. He had one piece that was in
for ten years... he never picked a commercial production, and
the trees never sized up. It's the soil that I'm talking
about that is gravelly and low in organic matter. On this
seventy- three acres that he bought here in 1941, there was
fourteen acres or so of that poor soil. It was always kind
of a thorn in his side; trying to grow anything on that was
He pulled them out in the mid-sixties, and that's where
he planted the Cabernet Sauvignon. Now that's where the
Special Selection is grown. So what was for a period of his
life a piece of ground that wasn't productive has become what
we base our reputation on today. Things really changed for
him and his relationship to this piece of property. This is
a great piece of property now, and is a high-production piece
of property but not a great quality piece of real estate.
That's a really clear example of fitting the crop to the
soil, isn't it?
Let's talk about rootstocks. What did you start out with,
and how did you decide on it?
We started out with St. George, which was the standard stock.
Everyone used St. George. In the 1960s we began to plant
some A x R y/1, but we stayed with St. George. We don't need
to talk about the A x R #1 much. Simply stated, it is a
variety that UCD really thought was great, and all the
growers thought was great, because it would make great size
and great crops within four or five years of planting.
Therefore you got your money back, and everybody thought,
"This is great. "
Sort of the same story as the land [the more fertile land
looks better for production]?
Yes, very much so. Then the phylloxera issue comes up.
First of all, it's a bad rootstock, period. Even without
phylloxera, it's a bad rootstock. A x R #1 does not have
longevity, and it tends to produce too much crop. It's a
good grower and a good producer, but that's not what we're
after. So it's a bad rootstock to start with. Phylloxera is
just one of the keys that made it come out of the ground
There has been a mad rush, and the mad rush is for what
they use elsewhere in the world: What do the French use?
What do the South Americans and South Africans use? We got
books and books and books. You know, you can't wait to get
those French books translated into English so you can read
them and see what the hell they mean. We have had people
come in and translate certain parts of the books were that
Now we're planting so many rootstocks that we aren't
sure which ones are good. One of the standards is still St.
George, and 5C has been planted widely for fifteen or twenty
years, and it has pretty much been proven to be a good stock
here. Now we are planting all the unknowns that have had
great success in Europe.
You'll have to wait several years before you can even see
what it does to the grape, let alone the wine.
There you go. Isn't that terrible? It's like you are
working for your kids or your grandkids around here.
[laughter] It takes too damned long.
Chuck Wagner's Family
C.J. Wagner :
That brings up a good question. Can you tell me about your
I'm divorced, and I'm married again and looking towards
another child. There was one on the way, but my wife
C.J. Wagner :
C.J. Wagner :
miscarried. We're going to start again pretty soon, I hope.
I have three kids, two boys and one girl.
Can you give me their names?
Charlie (named after my father), Joe, and Jenny. They are
all pretty much enthused about what the winery is doing.
What a difference between the way things were, and the way I
felt about farming then, and now. Both, boys are now in the
same school, in sixth and eighth grade in middle school.
Joe, the one who is in sixth grade, told me, "You know,
everybody is wearing Caymus sweatshirts at school." It's one
of the "in" thing for kids to wear. How things change 180
That must have really made you feel good.
Oh, yes, it sure does. We don't make many sweatshirts; we
just do a few, and I guess they're hard to come by, so it's
cool if you have one.
Just like the pricing- -make them scarce. [laughter]
Is your daughter interested in the winery?
She hasn't shown an interest at this point. I haven't put
her to work. As a matter of fact, the first year of work for
Joe was this year, and he is eleven. Jenny is six. The boys
are not only involved with working around here, but they are
also in A-H. I work with A-H a little bit. They raise
project animals like pigs and sell them at the fair.
Your dad raised a lot of pigs in his day.
He's only mad that we don't give the pigs all the leftover
lettuce and so forth: "That's what pigs are for!" But the
kids raise these pigs, and they have to gain about two pounds
a day in weight until the fair. If you start giving them off
foods, they don't gain weight; they don't digest it. That's
kind of a pet peeve of my dad and my boys right now.
In a sense you are working for the future. It sounds like
you might have some up-and-coming winemakers.
Yes, I like to think that. I like to think that our family
is going to stay in the tradition. We feel like we've been
in business a long time, but really we're just babes in this
business. I mean, California is a babe compared to what
Europe has got going. So we can start this now, providing we
C.J. Wagner :
don't have prohibitionism ruin it for us like it did last
time. Gosh, there have been some great things said about
wine as far as health issues. I don't drink wine for health
as much as I just drink it as a beverage for a meal. When I
don't have wine, I don't know what to drink. Water doesn't
hit it, iced tea I don't drink, soda I don't drink.
Do you have nieces and nephews?
I have two sisters, who have never been involved in the
winery. I was the youngest child, so by the time I was out
of school my sisters were already out of college, married,
and gone. They seem to have other interests. It would be
all right with me [if they did have an interest], because I
think it would be great to get more of the family involved.
My nephew does work here however, he grows an organic garden
on a small piece.
I think I saw him. Does he wear a cowboy hat?
I'm not sure. You'd know him if you saw him, because his
hair goes way down his back. He's all organic. I don't mind
having him around. He's too far gone, but maybe I'm too far
the other way. He won't eat processed foods.
He doesn't object to wine?
Wine is okay by him.
Are you doing any organic farming?
I assume his is a
His garden is commercial, selling goods to local restaurants.
As for the vineyard, we'll never go on the record- -at least
now- -as an organic farm, but all the vineyards we are buying
from are run organically. It's easy to do ; it's not a big
issue. What I'm afraid of is if we were to go organic and
say "organically grown" for four years on the label, all of a
sudden one year the white fly would come up. Insects have
been devastating ag crops forever, so we should learn from
history that it would be a mistake. All of a sudden one year
it doesn't have "organic" on the label, and people would say,
"What did you do? Are you using insecticides this year?"
C.J. Wagner :
I don't know if being organic is such a plus in the wine
business. Some people are making a lot out of it.
You know what? Organically grown grapes is what Fetzer is
doing, for instance. People construe that to be organic
wine, but it's just organically grown grapes. It's real hard
to make organic wine and make it last. You have to have
little bits and pieces of sulfur and whatever might be
necessary for longevity and antioxidation. I like organic,
and one of the things I did in my tenure here was to apply
some insecticides here and there. I think my goal is to make
it so that my kids will never have to do that. I didn't use
to believe all the ecologists who talked bad about Chevron or
Dow or whoever was making a chemical. They said that there
were other approaches that could work and that these
companies were just feeding us with material that nay not be
all that safe. To a point I now agree with that theory.
I think it's so easy to handle organically that, gosh,
why would we ever consider using insecticide again? I also
think there are mechanical means in our industry which we
haven't even researched yet. We already have a new influx of
insectaries- -people who produce bugs that you can let loose
into certain environments.
Lady bugs have proven to go away. You put them on one
property, and they move to the next piece. [laughter] But
there are other insects, like predatory wasps that will prey
on the unwanted pests.
We've talked about organic farming. What would organic
There has been a lot of work done on organic winemaking, and
no one has really made an organic wine that has done wonders.
What is an organic wine? No sulfites, no nothing?
Exactly. The sulfur that we work with, we wouldn't be able
to use. That's it. Sulfur is our best friend. It's one of
those things that we all live with. It's mined naturally out
of hillsides .
What other kinds of experimentations are you involved in?
Once you learn how to make wine and you taste a different
variety or style, you are always inclined to, try and make
it. If you are a beer maker and are making a light lager,
and all of a sudden this guy is starting to make some
heavy-duty Bock beer, you know you have the ability, and you
want to try it. The same thing goes for Cabernet. We know
how to make Cabernet, but we're certainly looking into the
other varietals, some of the new ones, like Viognier. We
crushed our first Sangiovese this year. I don't know what we
are going to do with it; I have no idea. Our experiment
blocks include six other varieties.
I can't think of anything other than that that we are
really developing. We're typical.
I'm sure there are other things that will come to mind later.
A Single-Vineyard Cabernet
Let me ask you about the Special Selection Cabernet that has
gotten these tremendously high ratings from The Wine
Spectator. Do you have any comment on that or how that came
about? I think it's pretty unusual.
Oh, I think it is, too. I think if you add up all our
Special Selections since '75, I believe it will equal an
average of 94.5. The lowest is 90, and then we had four
great years; '84, '85, '86, and '87 were 98, 99, 98, and 98.
Even the supposedly poor years, '88 and '89, we were able to
capture a 94 and a 93.
I'm not sure what it means. I explained that we strive
for a style, and we are one of the few wineries that were
able to arrive at a certain wine style- -and a distinct style,
I might add- -and have been able to continue producing that
every year. If you want to talk about the single -vineyard
Burgundies- -well , we are a single-vineyard Cabernet producer,
because everything comes from the same land, and the wines
always have this certain character and flavor to them. And
we produce them so that they always taste similar, aside from
what Mother Nature gives you for one year to the next which
can vary to a degree.
I feel as though we have fine-tuned the Cabernet
Sauvignon varietal for Caymus . In some eyes, we have set a
standard for the state, and I guess I'm more proud of that
than I am of The Vine Spectator ratings. We find that people
try, through different ways, to emulate what we're doing.
They try to come to grips with what barrels they are using,
where their vines are planted, in what soil, and that sort of
thing. We take that all as a big compliment. I guess my
fears that we're going to fall from the limelight lessen as
time goes on, and I don't know if that's a dangerous feeling
or not .
I'm not so concerned about not being the hottest property in
California as I am about having a product that people who
appreciate wine very much can rely on and use as a standard.
I'm really proud that when people go overseas, they'll pack a
couple of bottles of our wine along and use that as an
example of where they came from: "This is what we produce."
That is a compliment.
If we can continue to do those sorts of things, that's it.
I notice that you are going to do a vertical tasting for The
Wine Experience in New York. Which wines are you going to be
I've forgotten. We cut the list down to eight wines, but it
is going to be showing of older versus new wines. I not only
want to show the old style- -because we had somewhat of a
change from the oldest wines to, say, the mid-eighty wines,
like '84, '85, '86, and '87, which were of a different
style- -but also I want to show one new wine that isn't
bottled yet that is upcoming. I'm going to try to show not
only the consistency of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet but
also to show people what the ageability is like, how the
style has evolved, and what the wine tastes like in an
That should be very interesting.
We'll see. I hope so. This is a really big event for us.
I think that answers most of the questions I have on my list.
Is there anything you can think of that we haven't covered?
I could talk about my mother's family. We didn't talk about
that at all.
I'd like to hear about that.
They're the ones who actually put us here earlier as far as
my bloodline goes. My dad's family came in 1906, but my
mother's family came I believe in the 1870s. They were the
first settlers on Howell Mountain. They planted a vineyard,
and they homesteaded 150 acres.
Do you know what they planted?
No, I don't know what variety. We went up there to check it
out --the first time I had been up there was about a year
ago- -and the foundation of the house is there, and the
garbage is there, untouched. Other people have lived in that
house, but the garbage looks untouched. My cousin and I are
going to go up there when we get time and go through the
garbage to see if we can find anything of family historical
If we count them as grape growers, that means that my
family has been growing grapes continuously in Napa Valley
longer than any other family. After twenty years they moved
down to the Rutherford area, and by that time nine more
families had moved up to Howell Mountain. My
great-grandfather worked as right-hand man to Gustav Niebaum,
and upon Gustav' s death took over as winemaker and manager of
Inglenook until his retirement.
What was your great-grandfather's name?
Lafayette Stice. I see his picture in that little cabinet up
there at Inglenook. This part of my family came here with
the second Donner party. There was the first Donner party,
who met with the hard weather and had to turn to all the
drastic things, and my family came with a second group that
started with about 100 and came here with 101; one died, but
two were born. They were early settlers.
Was the whole family named Stice?
Glos and Stice. My grandfather Glos, my mom's dad, developed
what is called the chip bud. It doesn't mean a lot to us
sitting here, but it is a form of grafting or putting on a
C . J . Wagner :
C . J . Wagner :
scion to a rootstock. In other words, you plant your
rootstock in the ground, and then you come through and graft
it. Chip bud means that you just put a little bud right into
the side of the growing rootstock, wrap it with rubber, cut
off half the top, and cover it up. Next spring, you come
through, cut the rubber and check the bud. If the bud is
good, you cut the whole top off, and from that one bud comes
the grapevine. He invented chip budding, and it's been
around the world. This method is used in other countries
That's wonderful. You might have inherited a little of your
palate for tasting wines.
Maybe, but there were no secrets. People always think there
is some family secret.
It's marvelous that your family has been here for so long.
Were other members of your mother's family involved besides
I have a few cousins who work in wineries, but no, not
really, not in a big way.
Ideas for the Future
Skipping quite a few years ahead, let me just ask you what
you see for the future.
I already answered that, I think. The family continues on,
and we would like to start a tradition that we look over to
Europe and see has been going on for years. We're almost
adamant about investors or anyone wanting to purchase this
property. There are probably cycles that we haven't seen
yet, or maybe in history there are cycles that look back at.
But let's just put it this way: if times really get bad,
land values fall, and no one buys wine, we will probably
still be here. I don't see that we will ever sell out. If
we ever come back to just growing something other than
grapes, I wouldn't be surprised; but we'll probably still be
Something we don't want to do is just cash out. That's
not what we want to do, and I think the whole family feels
that way. My dad wanted to be sure that the family has this
property, it's going to stay in the family; it's not going to
leave the family, we're not going to break it up into pieces,
and so it has to go on.
I'm sure that in the future we will have to come to
grips, as the Europeans have, with how and who to heir the
property to; who is going to run the company? The French
have come up with a system to the effect that the oldest son
takes over the business, and the other sons can't work
there- -something kind of crazy like that. I don't think I
have to worry about that. That's the next generation.
Hicke: I thank you very much for taking the time to do this.
C.J. Wagner: Thank you.
Transcribed and final typed by Judy Smith
Interview with Charles F. "Charlie" Wagner: September 15, 1993
Tape 1, Side A 1
Tape 1, Side B 15
Tape 2, Side A 27
Tape 2, Side B 40
[Interview with Charles J. "Chuck" Wagner: September 16, 1993]
Tape 1, Side A 42
Tape 1, Side B 54
Tape 2, Side A 65
Tape 2, Side B 76
Tape 3, Side A 85
Tape 3, Side B not recorded
INDEX- -Charles F. Wagner and Charles J. Wagner
Allied Grape Growers, 12, 13,
appellations, 31-32, 68-70
Beaulieu Vineyard, 19
Beitler, Connie, 34
Bolta, John, 72
Canton Cooperage, 73
early history of, 3-4; winery
startup, 13, 49-52; building
and equipment, 24, 35-36, 53-54
Compleat Winemaker, The, 27,
cooperage, 32-33, 53, 55, 72-
corks and closures, 76
Deuer, George, 45-46, 55
Dunn, Randy, 55
farming, organic, 82-83
Finnegan, Robert, 70
Fisher, Marlene, 33-34
Friedman, Jeffrey, 56
Glos family, 86-87
Gorvitz, Ira, 23
Harris, Henry, 10
Heublein Inc. , 19, 21-22
Independent Staves, barrel
makers, 32, 73-75
label design, 28-29
Liberty School, 6, 39
Liberty School property, 10-
Liberty School wines, 38-39,
marketing, 22-23, 29-30, 63
Napa Valley, changes in, 34-
Napa Valley Cooperative, 14
palate, development of, 25,
pests and pesticides, 20-21
Rowe, Rod, 56-59
Skinner, Paul, 77
Skupny, John, 23, 55
Southern Wines and Spirits,
American Wines Division, 23
Spring Mountain Vineyards,
Stemmler, Robert, 47, 55, 70
Stice family, 86
Tchelistcheff , Andre, 44-45,
Titus, Sebastian, 28-29, 60
University of California,
Davis, 12, 15, 21, 38
vineyard operations, 9-22
Wagner, Charlie (grandson),
Wagner, Charles (grandfather),
Wagner, Jenny (grandaughter) ,
Wagner, Joe (grandson), 81
Wagner, John, 1
Wagner, Katherine Dellbrugge
(grandmother), 2-3, 9
Wagner, Lorna Belle, 6, 60-62
Wheeler, Florence Fargo, 16
Wine Marketing International,
Wine Services Co-op, 29
Wine Spectator, 84
Wine Train, 35
Wood, Laurie, 19
Riesling, 24, 30
Sauvignon Blanc, 26
Zinfandel, 31, 75
Cabernet Sauvignon, 17-18,
49, 68, 70-72
special selection, 79, 84
Chanin blanc, 15
Napa Camay, 11, 15
Petite Sirah, 4
Pinot noir, 49-50
Riesling, 4, 49, 52
Sauvignon blanc, 16
Sauvignon vert, 4
Cabernet Sauvignon, 17-18,
24, 25, 26. 31, 32, 39, 59, 75
Petite Sirah, 75
Pinot Noir, 24, 30-31, 50
Pinot Noir Blanc, 24-25, 30
Carole E. Hicke
B.A., University of Iowa; economics
M.A. , San Francisco State University; U.S. history with emphasis on the
American West; thesis: "James Rolph, Mayor of San Francisco."
Interviewer/editor/writer, 1978-present , for business and law firm
histories, specializing in oral history techniques. Independently
Interviewer-editor, Regional Oral History Office, University of California,
Berkeley, 1985 to present, specializing in California legal, political, and
Author: Heller. Ehrman. White & McAuliffe: A Century of Service to Clients
and CoT^nuin-j t-y 1991.
Editor (1980-1985) newsletters of two professional historical associations:
Western Association of Women Historians and Coordinating Committee for
Women in the Historical Profession.
Visiting lecturer, San Francisco State University in U.S. history, history
of California, history of Hawaii, legal oral history.