StyleBlueprint was invited to meet with Joe Wagner, one of California’s most impressive winemakers, on his recent visit to Nashville. Under the Wagner Family of Wine umbrella are these notable labels: Caymus, Conundrum, Meiomi and Belle Glos Pinot Noir. Not only are these each favorites of mine, each stands on its own, having been judged some of the best wine in America and they continue to be bestsellers in Nashville as well. For five generations, the Wagner family has garnered an intimate knowledge of the land and the fruits of their labor are obvious.
Let’s admit it, being a winemaker has a certain je ne sais quois. You get to grow and create a product in one of the most beautiful regions of the country; you produce wines that reflect your personal taste; you continue to find new avenues to market to an eager consumer ready to swirl and sip. With the tech boom in Silicon Valley and the commercialization of wine, the true family owned vineyards are fewer and far between. The onslaught of “gentleman farmers” (think Eddie Albert of Green Acres) infiltrated the region, but most didn’t have the knowledge or even the passion for what truly makes a great wines. While there is a certain style to their wine, the key to great wine is this: the soil. Understanding the composition of the soil with regard to the grape harvest is one of the Wagner families’ impressive talents.
When you hear the story of the Wagner Family, it’s worthy–Joe’s grandmother was the salt of the earth and wore many hats: everything from taster of the wines to the cook for the workers in the field. His grandfather was known to sit at the kitchen table and blend wines, not focusing on the varietals, but rather the magical alchemy of the end result.
Following in the family tradition started by his grandparents, are his father, brother and sister. If you read their wine notes, you’ll find each is confident in the quality of the wine they oversee.
From my interview with Joe, here are some insights into what’s going on with California wine right now:
Your family has been making wine for five generations, what changes have you noted in the California wine industry?
There has been an amazing across-the-board increase in quality of wines throughout California’s Coast. Partly it’s due to know-how in the cellar, but more importantly, our predecessors, who took a leap of faith to try different varieties in new areas, paved the way for growing the right grapes in the right places. Cab on the Sonoma Coast would be too green, light and harsh, while Pinot Noir in Napa gets overripe and hot. We have such an immense knowledge of where to plant what, using the soil and climate as our compass, we can rely on great grapes … and without great grapes, there is no way to make great wine.
Wine sales in the US have increased to an all-time high. Why do you think that’s the case?
Wine is a genuine, salt of the earth type of beverage, and people seem to appreciate that. US producers are making better and better wines. The buying public realizes that and appreciates the value of purchasing a great tasting wine produced in the country they live in, and they are proud to support those companies. When you open that bottle of wine, it is an experience–typically, with family, friends and food. It complements the food and the gathering of people, and so it becomes a staple of enjoying life. At its core, that is probably why people are quick to adopt it … you simply live a better (and possibly longer) life with wine.
We all know that the movie Sideways created a huge surge in Pinot Noir sales when it came out. Are there any other factors that create a wine trend?
If I knew, I would be doing it! I was taught to grow grapes and make wine that I want to drink. At the end of the day, I’m a consumer like everyone else, so if I like it, hopefully others will, too. It really seems to be the nuts and bolts that leads to wine trends. Make a wine that tastes great and goes with food and it could be the next big thing. We saw that with Pinot Noir, although it was launched to new heights with Sideways. We are also seeing it now with red blends like our Conundrum Red. I think things will continue as wine drinkers are more open minded to new varieties, new food pairings even new packages. It’s a very interesting time in this business.
In the restaurant business, chef owned and operated restaurants are invaluable to cities. How does being both winemaker and owner make your wine better?
Being the winemaker and owner means I don’t answer to accountants or shareholders! I know it sounds funny, but that is what typically kills the quality. When I need something and I know it will help make better wine, or grow better grapes, I don’t need to justify the value to someone who may not see it. Like a chef, there is an artisanal aspect to winemaking that, if too heavily scrutinized by a corporate mind-set, would then sacrifice quality. If a wine is not up to par to make a blend, I will not hesitate to sell it off in bulk. The integrity of the brand is on the line and that’s not something that can be easily earned back. I expect to keep that focus on quality. Additionally, being able to farm our own vineyards is like a chef who runs a garden. Having full control from vine to wine gives us an amazing opportunity to craft the wines just as we envision them.
Are there any threats to the California wine industry?
It seems that every year, there are new pests that find their way into California, or a problem with nursery stock and a new virus threatening new plantings. Each time, we have gotten through it. So for now, the biggest threat to the wine and grape industry in California is government regulation. Each year something new comes down on the industry. Water rights are a big one right now, and it seems California is catering to population growth rather than agriculture. The list of government regulations is long, but to make it a discussion topic, the length would only be beat by the subjects’ sheer boredom! In either case, we will continue within the confines currently set, and do our best to not let it interfere with our goals.
One of our favorite wine stores in Nashville told us Belle Glos and Meiomi are their top sellers; what is the secret to their popularity?
It makes me so happy to hear that! It is really an honor that people are enjoying our Pinot Noirs. As a winemaker, I am a firm believer in making what you like to drink. I love good food and good wine, but don’t have my nose in the air about it all. I think Nashville has that same understanding. Everyone I met in Nashville enjoyed great food and wine, but they wouldn’t hesitate to grab some hot chicken on Friday night … I say put some chill on a bottle of Pinot Noir, grab a basket of hot chicken and have your way with the two of them!
If you were going to serve Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman a four course meal, tell us what food you would serve with what wine pairing?
After talking about Nashville, Hot Chicken and a slightly chilled Pinot Noir, I would say lay a few side dishes out and you’ve got a memory waiting to happen.
Speaking of food, here is a quick video of Joe showing us how to BBQ with wine as the pairing. YUM!
Photo credits: Tyler Jacobsen