Event Report: Wagner Family of Wines at the Boston Wine Festival

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Boston Wine Festival at the Boston Harbor Hotel featured the Wagner Family of Wines this past week. A seminar with six Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignons from 1990-2009 proceeded a paired dinner featuring other Wagner Family wines.

Representing the winery was Joseph Wagner, son of Chuck Wagner of Caymus fame. Along with his three siblings, Joe represents the next generation of Wagner winemakers and is responsible for the current direction of their Pinot Noirs (Belle Glos and Meiomi) and the future direction of their red wines.

Unlike Mondavi, which chooses to market all of their wines under lines bearing the family name, the Wagner Family of Wines contains a fleet of individual brands: Caymus (Cabernet), Belle Glos (single vineyard Pinot Noir) and Meiomi (appellation Pinot Noir), Mer Soleil (Chardonnay), and Conundrum (entry level white and recently red blends).

Recent campaigns seek to tie these brands together. For me, having enjoyed their wines over the years and after this tasting, the common thread is delicious fruit forward wine that delivers value and enjoyment at each price point they compete at.

I'd never been to an event at the Boston Wine Festival before. This is not to be confused with the Boston Wine Expo which is (primarily) a large tasting that occurs in January. The Wine Festival is a series of paired wine dinners at the five-star Boston Harbor Hotel prepared by chef Daniel Bruce.

The evening started off with a sit-down seminar moderated by Joe Wagner featuring six vintages of Caymus Special Selection from 1990-2009. Two Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignons have been named Wine Spectator Wine of the Year: The 1990 ($75 release price) and the 1984 ($38 release price - doesn't that sound nice?).

Wagner described a style shift in Napa Cab in the late '80s/early '90s where many producers stopped trying to emulate Bordeaux in California - Caymus included. Perhaps the most notable difference between Caymus and Bordeaux is how enjoyable Caymus is immediately upon release. A question from attendees along these lines asked what the optimal age for enjoying Caymus Special Selection is. Joe said it was a matter of personal preference. Their wines are meant to be enjoyable on release and to evolve and develop over time. His preference is to enjoy Special Selection at 7 years after vintage.

Caymus has been one of the most reliably outstanding producers of Napa Cab over the past twenty years. Here is a chart showing the ratings Wine Spectator gave their Napa Valley and Special Selection bottlings since 1990 (click to enlarge):

These days the Special Selection carries a retail price of $130 (29,000 cases produced) and the Napa Valley retails for $68 (71,000 cases produced). With these higher production levels they're definitely available at retail outlets - including your favorite deep discounters. The Special Selection seems to bottom out around $99 and the Napa Valley around $59. If you can find them for less, buy 'em!

According to Wagner, the difference between the Napa Valley and Special Selection is that the special selection comes from the best lots, has a more substantial oak regiment, and is intended to be a classier wine.

At the seminar we tasted through six Caymus Special Selection Cabernets from 1990-2009. Here are my notes on the wines:

1990 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine Spectator Wine of the Year 1994

Perfume, florals, caramel, toasty oak, super-well integrated. Slightly skunky - strange. Reminds me of the smell of oak in a cellar. Aged in 100% French Oak 2-3 years.

90/100 WWP: Outstanding

1994 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon

Sour cherry, plum. Easy drinking. Cellar oak. Lots of sediment.

90/100 WWP: Outstanding

1997 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon

Huge jump in style here from the 1994. "A stellar year in Napa." Cinnamon. Pleasant. Right in the middle of the age spectrum.

92/100 WWP: Outstanding

2002 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon

Nice initially but falls off a bit on the mid-palate. Pretty nose, but I don't know if I like it enough to see how it's a $100 wine. Substantial sediment.

90/100 WWP: Outstanding

2005 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon

Cola, black currant, vanilla, and dark fruit. Really nice stuff. Like this one a lot. This is at the 7 year mark Wagner mentioned and I love it. 

94/100 WWP: Outstanding

2009 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon

Fresh and inviting. Lively young primary fruit. Cream soda. Quite sweet. Absolutely delicious but this is pushing it even for me. Wow - it's tasty though. This is so utterly different from the 1990 it's almost hard to compare. 

92/100 WWP: Outstanding

The trend here for me is similar to what I've experienced as I've tasted other aged Napa Cabs: There are diminishing returns after 10 years. I agreed with Joe Wagner's preference that the wine was showing at its best 7 years post-vintage. The wines are good upon release. They change substantially in the next couple years. Then they begin a slow progression into a very soft and less substantial presence than they had on release.

I discovered something interested as I was pulling the Spectator ratings for the plot above. I found that James Laube had re-tasted these wines with regularity as part of retrospective tastings.

Notice in the plot below how all of the re-tastings were lower than the wines were rated on release. It makes me think twice before saving this style of wine for special occasions in the distant future in hopes that the wines improve significantly with age.
Conclusions and Next Steps

It was a treat to taste through these wines and get a feel for how they've evolved stylistically and aged. They're reliably delicious special occasion wines. I brought a bottle of 2008 Special Selection on a recent Disney Cruise we went on. It was gorgeous. Couldn't believe how quickly that bottle was drained. (Full review of the cruise here if you're interested)

The Caymus brand is a staple at nicer restaurants, regularly featured alongside Cakebread and Silver Oak. See how it fared in this Steakhouse Cab Blind Tasting.

Further Reading: The second half of this evening where we tasted the rest of the Wagner Family of Wines paired with dishes from Chef Daniel Bruce.

I'd love it if you subscribed to the Wellesley Wine Press to keep in touch.

Disclosure: I attended the event on a complimentary blogger pass.

Question of the Day: What do you think of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon? What's your rule of thumb in terms of aging Napa Cab for maximum enjoyment?


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