The Wagner Family Is Ushering in a New Era for Suisun Valley
When Charlie Wagner was seven years old, he played among wine barrels. While other kids his age were learning how to ride bikes, he was shoveling grape skins out of a tank at his family’s winery in Napa, and he loved every minute of it. As the years progressed, Wagner and his friends’ first jobs were on the bottling line for minimum wage, and they spent their adolescence in vineyards the way some of us spent it in shopping malls and coffee shops. Today, Wagner is “ultimately a farmer and winemaker,” he says, leading Mer Soleil, Conundrum and Red Schooner, which all fall under the Wagner family of wines portfolio. He spends his days split between his home in Napa and in Suisun Valley, the newest winery locale for the brand.
When asked if he ever considered doing anything other than working in the wine industry, he says, “It was just life. Work certainly didn’t feel like work … it still doesn’t.” This is a testament to his family, of which he and his siblings are the fifth generation, a legacy that began in the 1800s with the Glos, Stice and Wagner families that helped shape early wine farming and making in the Napa Valley.
And while Wagner can still remember Napa before streetlights, and long before an overnight hotel stay cost more than $1,000, his lifetime so far is a blip on the family tree that spans hundreds of years back to the generations before him, all building a pioneering wine brand that now includes eight diverse labels.
The main Caymus tasting room in Rutherford is appropriately idyllic and vast, with credibility that attracts the throngs of Napa visitors. All for legit reasons, as the deep history and the Wagner name means something in this part of the world, and beyond. Well after the late 1800s, the story continues with Lorna and Charlie Sr., who grew up a mile apart in Rutherford and ended up marrying and launching Caymus Vineyards in 1972 with 240 cases of cabernet sauvignon. At age 19, their son Chuck became a major player in the business when the family took the leap in starting a commercial winery. Today, both Chuck and Charlie, as well as sister Jenny, collaborate on the winemaking and operations for all the brands, split out between them but with crossovers. Younger brother Joe Wagner is also in the wine industry: he started his single-vineyard pinot noir label, Belle Glos, to honor his grandmother, Lorna Belle Glos Wagner.
Having farmed in this valley for many years, just a stone’s throw east of Napa and functioning as an AVA since the early 1980s, the Wagners decided to launch the Suisun Valley tasting room facility in 2019. The Suisun, the Indigenous Patwin tribe of Wintun people, originated in this part of Solano County. Their Patwin word “Suisun” translates to “‘where the west wind blows,” an elemental and powerful force still here today.
Chuck says that this area reminds him of Napa in the 1970s, those days when Charlie Jr. remembers dirt roads and when wine tasting was only a few bucks, if not free. They also recognize this region as having huge potential for great wine, sharing the same characteristics of Napa Valley but with a few differences that lend to suitability for other varietals, 23 different varieties to be specific, petite sirah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon among them.
The Wagners felt that shining a light on this area would benefit their neighbors and fellow vintners, who is a tight-knit community that’s also much smaller than the wine region over the hill, with only 10 wineries compared to more than 500 in Napa Valley. They believe in the region so much that they put the Caymus name on their new label, Caymus-Suisun, Caymus label in their family of wines that features that flagship name.
When the pandemic hit, the opportunity to recognize the slower pace of things became a silver lining for the launch of the new Suisun facility. That new timetable, overseen by Charlie, has resulted in a place that is full of intention and subtle details packed with meaning, from the astounding light installation by artist Tanya Aguiñiga, symbolic of a vineyard burn pile, to the stained-glass map of the surrounding land parcels. An espresso bar is another element that Charlie Jr. had fun incorporating, influenced by his time in Australia (one of the wines under the Red Schooner label incorporates grapes grown there) and the Aussies’ dedication to great coffee. After a tasting here at Caymus-Suisun, any visitor can sidle up for a complimentary Mr. Espresso drink for the road.
The main building features a lounge area that offers wines by the glass, including the über-popular Emmolo sparkling wine made by Jenny, to enjoy at small tables, flanked by a wide fireplace feature. In front of that room is the main tasting area, with attendants who pour flights of the various Wagner family wines. The entire building is encased in floor-to-ceiling windows, which open up to allow the Suisun wind to pass through, a temperature-controlled feature that eliminates the need for excessive dependency on fossil fuel heating and cooling. “You can feel the elements here,” explains Charlie. “It is natural air conditioning in the summer and in winter; there is a greenhouse effect. We really want to show off nature here.”
Speaking of, if you happen to visit during the summer and fall, your tasting will conclude with being handed a basket so you can go out and harvest tomatoes, corn, peppers and myriad stone fruits from the garden outside. Charlie says this is encouraged and sees how special this experience can be for folks who might be coming from areas where food is not grown nearby, let alone ripe and ready for picking.
At the end of the day, wine is an agricultural product, and the Suisun Valley is a scenic growing region that supports local farmers, ranchers and some very lucky winemakers. Perhaps it is time to go for a visit, before everyone else finds out and those tasting fees rise into the triple digits? As the locals say, “See you soon in Suisun.”
There is more to Suisun Valley than wine — here are some ideas to help plan your visit.
This main intersection of country roads is a one-stop destination, where you can enjoy a robust wedge salad and glass of Tolenas Eclipse white pinot noir at Mankas Grill (2522 Mankas Corner Road), then head across the street to Suisun Valley Filling Station (2529 Mankas Corner Road), a tasting room, bottle shop and grocery store in one, featuring only local, small-production goods. Not only wine, but also nine rotating taps of local beers are available, plus a brand-new food truck cranks out bold sandwiches and burgers.
Suisun Valley has the perfect climate for olive trees and Il Fiorello (2625 Mankas Corner Road) brings a bit of Italy’s olive oil acclaim to Wine Country. Owners Ann and Mark Sievers, longtime producers of organic olive oil, are dedicated to quality transparent olive oil production and are very hands-on.
The Suisun Valley Wine Co-op (4495 Suisun Valley Road) tasting room offers flights from three small-production wineries, including Sunset Cellars, King Andrews Vineyard and Blacksmith Cellars.
It Takes a Village
Village 360 (4949 Suisun Valley Road), another new project very close to Caymus-Suisun, is a slick event venue, yoga studio, restaurant, coffee shop, bakery (try the gigantic slab of coffee cake) and BackRoad Vines wine tasting room. There is a direct walking path from Caymus-Suisun where it takes mere minutes to go through the vineyards.