Caymus, Mer Soleil and Belle Glos share two things in common – they are all high profile Napa Valley brands and all come from the highly talented Wagner family of winemakers. Peter Lindenlaub, who was hired to spearhead Canadian sales six years ago and has already built Canada into 42,000 cases or 5% of total sales, conducted a tasting at the Toronto Hunt Club in July.
The Wagner winemaking legacy has been going for eight generations spanning 150 years. The first generation came to the Napa Valley from Alsace in the 1980s to grow grapes, prunes and walnuts. Several generations later, Carl and Catherine Wagner bought property in the Rutherford region of the Valley, focusing on grape growing for bulk wine sales. Their son Charlie, who married Lorna Belle Glos, bought a neighbouring site near his parents’ vineyard. Charlie and Lorna contemplated selling and moving to Australia to take advantage of land grants being given to farmers. But their son Chuck, still in high school, persuaded them to stay and launch their own label and so they enlisted him to help at the winery. Through Chuck’s leadership and dedication to quality, they built Caymus into one of the iconic Cabernet Sauvignon brands in the Napa Valley. Because the price of vineyards in the Napa Valley has soared to over US$300,000 per acre, they have necessarily diversified their fruit supply. They use equal amounts of estate, leased and purchased grapes from vineyards in eight of the 16 AVAs (American Viticultural Area) in the Napa Valley. Total production stands at 100,000 bottles/year – 80% under their Napa Valley and 20% under their premium Special Selection label.
Chuck has three children from his first marriage to Cheryl Emmolo — Charles II (34), Joe (31) and Jenny (27). Each has become a winemaker in their own right, encouraged to do so by Chuck who felt they should establish themselves without reliance on Caymus. They each focused on a different varietal –Chardonnay for Charles II (Mer de Soleil), Pinot Noir for Joe (Belle Glos and Meiomi) and Sauvignon Blanc plus Merlot for Jenny (Emmolo).
Charles II has been the winemaker at Mer Soleil, overseeing the operations since 2001. Mer Soleil was actually started in the late 1980s by Chuck who saw the potential for cool climate Chardonnay in the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. The first version, an oaked, California-style Chardonnay, was produced at the Caymus Winery in 1992. In 2005, they added Mer Soleil Silver — a leaner Chardonnay fermented in concrete and stainless steel — after discovering concrete fermenters on a trip to Chablis, France. They have also added a Burgundian version, now in its third vintage, using Santa Barbara grapes.
Joe went from being heavily indebted to a multi-millionaire in just over a decade. He initially borrowed heavily to buy premium grapes for a high end Pinot Noir he named Belle Glos, in honour of his grandmother. As elegant as this wine was, his real breakthrough came when consumers switched off Merlot because of the movie “Sideways”. This prompted him to launch a more affordable Pinot Noir – “Meiomi” – in 2006, building it into a megabrand at 10 million bottles per year. This endeared him to the trade because they could count on a continuous supply, but it was a challenging pace to maintain for a custom crush operation. So he sold the Meiomi label to Constellation Brands in 2015 for US$315 million – an astonishing price for a label with no vineyards. He has used the proceeds to open the Copper Cane Winery, where he still produces Belle Glos.
Jenny trained for two years under Caymus winemaker Harvest Duhig, who oversees the Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel vineyards in Atlas Mountain. She is now the winemaker at the Emmolo Winery. This winery was launched by her mother Cheryl Emmolo on the site of her family’s vineyards. The Emmolo family came to the Napa Valley in the 1920s, for decades growing rootstock for export when grafting onto American rootstock proved the cure for phylloxera-infested vineyards around the world. Jenny is a fan of (the late) Didier Dagueneau, the famed Sancerre producer in the Loire Valley known for oaking his Sauvignon Blanc wines. As a result, she partially ferments her whites in neutral oak. Her Merlots are made in the Caymus style, focusing on the purity of the ripe Rutherford and Oak Knoll fruit, avoiding any herbaceous aspect.
Mer Soleil Santa Barbara Reserve Chardonnay 2013 (14.6%) undergoes 20% malolactic fermentation and 20% ageing in new oak. Burgundian in style, flavours of lemon are accented with a core of vanilla, spice and cloves in the lingering finish.
Emmolo Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (12.5%) is a beautifully refined wine made from 15 year old vines. A medley of citrus flavours is underpinned by restrained minerality and a solid backbone of acidity, softened with neutral oak.
Margot Ritchie is a Toronto-based journalist, whose articles focus on wine and culinary trends. A member of the Wine Writers’ Circle since 1997, she has travelled throughout many of the major wine growing regions of Europe and North America. These include Austria, France, Italy, and Portugal, as well as California, New York State and Ontario. Spirits, sake and beer are also highlighted in her writings, where her travels have extended to Scotland, Japan and the Czech Republic.Margot’s wine columns have appeared in Del Condominium Lifestyle, Elite Wine, Food and Travel, Modesty Magazine, International Women’s Forum (IWF) – Toronto Chapter Newsletter and the Portuguese Post . Margot also advises on private wine cellar management.