As the next generation of winemakers takes over Napa Valley, Joe Wagner is at the forefront of the movement.
He is keenly aware that Napa Valley currently is fighting an "image problem" because many of the region's wines are considered over-priced. In addition, as the one of the world's greatest wine regions, Napa has had its share of legacy issues.
Wagner, a fifth-generation winemaker, wants to change all that, he said last week during a private tasting at Capital Grille in Midtown Manhattan.
So he's making reasonably priced wines and created an empire for his six - yes six - kids.
All at the ripe age of 34.
History Repeats Itself
Wagner's father, Chuck, founded Caymus Vineyards with his grandparents more than 40 years ago. Those wines have been top-rated and have received critical acclaim over the years. And Chuck has become one of the most important people coming out of Napa in our lifetime.
But with success comes worry. Chuck watched his friends, the Mondavis, who put Napa Valley on the wine-world map, destroy the family legacy because of internal family feuds.
Chuck didn't want that to happen to his family business. He wanted his kids to take ownership. So he gave each kid a grape. His oldest son, Charlie, got Chardonnay, his daughter, Jenny. took Merlot; and Joe wanted Pinot Noir.
But Joe didn't just take ownership of the family's Pinot Noir, he blew it out of the water.
In 2001, he started with a single vineyard Pinot Noir, that they called Belle Glos, after his grandmother. It is still one of the most respected high-end Pinot Noirs available today.
But Joe wanted something for the masses. He created Meiomi [may-OH-mee], a $20 bottle that he first took to restaurants. The wine worked great with food and he believed that if you enjoyed a glass at a restaurant, you would then seek out the bottle for home.
He was dead on. "At one point, we were making 2.3 million gallons [of Meiomi] on the property and its numbers alone equaled the entire production of all the family's other wines," says Joe.
So he knew they had to make a decision. It was getting too hard and too costly to produce that much wine on their property.
And while his dad was worried about dismantling the family brands, Joe knew it was time. In 2014, Joe took Meiomi from the family umbrella and created his own company, Copper Cane Wines & Provisions. While he also wanted to explore other wines, he wanted to begin to create that legacy for his kids (even though his oldest twins today are only 11).
But the success of Meiomi had piqued a ton of interest, because it had become one of the U. S. wine market's hottest brands ever. So when Constellation Brands (STZ) came knocking, their final offer of $315 million was one he couldn't refuse.
Part of Joe's legacy goal is to own the properties he grew his grapes on and this deal could allow him to do that. "It's nice to not have to deal with the banks anymore," he said at our tasting.
Joe hopes to amass 2,000 to 3,000 acres of California vineyards over the next five years.
But he also is making easy-drinking affordable wines. He let us taste his Quilt Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which -- true to form -- is great with food and, at around $40, is much cheaper than many of the Cabernets coming out of Napa these days.
Wine, Spirits and Bathing Suits?
Joe and his Copper Cane wine portfolio continue to grow as he explores regions outside the Napa Valley, including Oregon and Sonoma County, Calif.
His heart is still with Pinot Noir, and his portfolio now has a few.
But he has expanded his interests outside of wine. He has a premium line of cigars called Avrae, and believe it or not, a luxurious swimwear collection Mia Marcelle, which was started by his ex-wife. Most recently Christie Brinkley wore one of his Mia Marcelle suits in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.
He is also dabbling in spirits. The brown liquors -- bourbons, scotch, rye - are so hot right now that he said they had to dive in. And while they are not available yet, he has a whiskey and Cognac-style brandy coming down the pike.
The Legacy Evolves
He thinks Zinfandel is going to make a big comeback and is currently making a wine from Zinfandel vines that were planted back in 1865.
He understands his generation and wants to be able to offer more hands-on experiences year-round. So he is experimenting with "cryo-extraction," which basically allows him to freeze the grapes so that he can make wine all year round. "Then people can visit throughout the year and get the full experience, as opposed to just during harvest [when the wine is typically made, around October]," he says.
While he clearly doesn't need the money, Joe still is motivated to keep making great, accessible wines -- for us to drink today and for his kids to benefit from in the future.
Editors' pick: Originally published March 13.