Charlie Wagner's fate as a Monterey winemaker was sealed when he laid eyes for the first time on the Mer Soleil Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. He was 8 years old.
That might seem young, but as the eldest in the fifth generation of Napa Valley Wagners -- they own Caymus Vineyards -- it would only be a few years before Charlie was working on the bottling line (at 10) and in the cellar and vineyards (16). Soon after, he began an apprenticeship under Conundrum winemaker Jon Bolta.
When he was 23, Wagner took over full production responsibilities for Mer Soleil. In 2005, he created Silver, a Chablis-style California chardonnay made by fermenting and aging a portion of the chardonnay in cement tanks.
Three years ago, Wagner released a new proprietary red wine blend, the off-dry Conundrum Red, based on memories of watching his grandfather and namesake, Charlie Wagner, the founder of Caymus, sitting at the family dining table in Rutherford blending wines by taste -- not tradition.
Today, at 33, Wagner is one of the most innovative young minds in Monterey County. We caught up with him recently to chat about ceramic wine bottles, chardonnay and playing hooky.
Q You ditched high school several days a month to work at the family winery. How'd you swing that?
A The school counselor at St. Helena High School knew where I was going to end up, working in the family business. It was looked at as a work-experience deal. So she let me take off a few Fridays every month to drive from Napa to Salinas to work at Mer Soleil.
Q What's the most important thing Jon Bolta taught you?
A To not be afraid to try new things. Just like me, Jon never had any former schooling when it came to winemaking or viticulture. You see a lot of overschooled winemakers, who are afraid to try things because they learned in school that it wouldn't work. The biggest thing that comes to mind is the Conundrum blend. In the traditional world, you'd never blend a chardonnay with a sauvignon blanc and a muscat. You'd be shot in France if you did that.
Q Many feel that pinot noir is the star of the Santa Lucia Highlands, and many winemakers devote their lives to making it, including your brother, Joseph, of Belle Glos, while chardonnay remains on the back burner. You feel differently. Why?
A I love making chardonnay. For me it is the opposite. I want to make the best chardonnay possible with what resources are available and focus solely on that for now. Our region has a special combination of soil, water and weather and wind that allows us all to make great chardonnay. I also enjoy drinking it. I bet bottle for bottle I taste or drink 3-to-1 chardonnay to red wine.
Q How did the idea for Silver evolve?
A In 2004, my buddy in Paso Robles had a concrete tank he was using to age his red wines for a few months. I joked with him that I'd take it off his hands the other nine or 10 months and use it to age some chardonnay. Around the same time, there was a backlash against oaky California chardonnays, so I wanted to make a chardonnay that showcased the clean, crisp flavors of Monterey.
Not long after, I ended up going to Beaune (France) to buy a tractor that they didn't sell in the United States, and the concrete tank factory was right there, so I bought three tanks. The wine started out as a blend of 70 percent concrete-fermented chardonnay and 30 percent stainless-steel fermented. Now, it's roughly 50-50.
Q What does concrete contribute to the wine? Was there a learning curve working with it?
A It gives it a little honey character, almost truffled. There was definitely a learning curve. If you leave the wine in too long, it flattens the perception of acid, even though the numerical value of acid doesn't change. So we leave the wine in there five to six months, tops. Also, the tanks are not lined, so they are porous and breathe like a barrel.
Q The wine comes in a ceramic bottle. What's the story on that?
A The bottle tells a story about the process of the wine. When I was toying with the idea of making a white wine in concrete, someone had given me a bottle of absinthe and I had it sitting on my kitchen sink. A year went by and I would keep looking at it, and I figured out, "Hey, that thing looks like a concrete tank."
I tracked down the company in Germany, who made the bottle and told them what I wanted to do. It was harder than I thought. A paper label wouldn't stick to it, so we had to silk screen it on, and the bottle kept breaking because it had to be fired a second time. Getting the gray color right wasn't easy, either.
Q You're hush-hush on what goes into Conundrum Red. Can you give us a hint?
A We'd wanted to do a sister wine to Conundrum White for 10 years. We tried blending cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah, petit sirah and zinfandel. Some of those grapes are now in the blend. I can also tell you that one of the things that makes it special is that we put muscat in it. My dad was hesitant about that, but I think it's kind of a fun addition.
Q Your son, Mickey, is 5. Are you going to let him cut school to work?
A I would not be opposed to that. He loves the vineyard and the winery, but since he's only 5, he's more interested in driving a tractor around with me.