Friday, January 31, 2014

Wagner talks about Solano County winery


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Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards speaks at Thursday's Solano Economic Development Corp. luncheon at the Hilton Garden Hill in Fairfield. (Barry Eberling/Daily Republic)
 January 31, 2014
FAIRFIELD — Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley found that he really liked the grapes being produced by growers near the Solano County border.

“It makes one wonder, ‘What’s in a county line?’ Not much,” Wagner said.

Wagner Family of Wine is expanding its winemaking endeavors to include Solano County. Last year, the county approved permits so the family can build a winery, bottling and distribution complex on the 178-acre Hopkins Ranch along rural Cordelia Road. The winery is to be by far the largest in Solano County.

Wagner used Thursday’s Solano Economic Development Corp. 31st annual meeting to introduce himself to the community. More than 300 civic and business leaders attended the lunchtime event at the Hilton Garden Inn.

His great-grandfather homesteaded in Solano County’s Elmira area in 1861. But his great-grandfather then moved to the Napa Valley and the Wagner family became established on a farm near the small town of Rutherford.

Wagner described his youth in Rutherford as going hunting and fishing with his dog. Then, as a high school freshman, he got called into the office. His father, Charlie Wagner, had been shot by a disgruntled former employee, but not fatally.

“Even as a freshman in high school, I felt a need to help,” Wagner said.

Six years later, his father and mother asked him if he would help them launch a winery. If not, they said, they would sell the Napa farm and move to Australia. He said he would.

Caymus Vineyards was born. The family planted 55 acres of grapes, with Wagner, his father and another man doing the pruning. In 1987, his father appeared on the cover of Wine Spectator with the blurb, “Best Damn Cabernet in California.”

“With this, the phone began to ring,” Wagner said. “We began to produce more wine.”

Wagner worked with his father at Caymus Vineyards for 30 years, until his father died. Today, the Wagner family grows grapes in four counties and is about to add Solano County.

Climate is all-important to growing wine grapes, Wagner said. He called Solano County’s climate “amazing.”

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a place you can get on the highway and the temperature can change one degree a mile,” Wagner said.

California has five viticulture regions based on heat. Wagner said the regions in Solano County “smear” together, as opposed to having distinct boundaries.

Another plus for Solano County is its water supply, Wagner said.

Cities and farms in the county are just about the sole recipients of water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s massive Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Napa County opted out of the project before Monticello Dam was built in the late 1950s and gets none of the water.

“We can’t get it from the other side, but we can get it over here,” Wagner said to laughter.

Solano County also has rich soils, perhaps richer than they should be for quality wine, Wagner said. Vines in rich soils produce berries in greater quantities, but of lower quality, he said. Struggling vines produce smaller but higher quality berries.

Napa Valley shares the problem, Wagner said. He didn’t see it as serious.

Wagner Family of Wine will begin planting a vineyard on the Hopkins Ranch within a few weeks, Wagner said. This will be root stock. There’s another year to decide what variety of grape will be grafted on, which means determining what variety is best for this site.

“I’m not sure,” Wagner said.

He praised the friendly people he’s found in Solano County.

“I love Napa, but there is sometimes a little pretentious quality to our valley,” Wagner said.

Wagner didn’t profess to come to Solano County knowing everything about the wine business.

“There is no such thing as perfection in our business,” Wagner said. “It is very difficult.”

Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or Follow him on Twitter at