Napa Valley generations create family of wines
February 21, 2017
In much of the old world — that would be Europe — wine families have legacies and traditions spanning both centuries and generations. Not so much here in America.
So it was interesting to have a conversation with Jenny Wagner, the winemaker of Emmolo (pronounced em-oh-low) wines, a winery project that produces merlot and sauvignon blanc in the Napa Valley, and hear about an emerging American wine family legacy.
"I am the seventh generation of my family to live here in the Napa Valley," Jenny Wagner said with obvious pride. "Members of my father's family came here from Missouri in 1857 and my mother's family came to Napa from Sicily a little later, in 1923."
It must be noted Jenny is a Wagner, the third child of Chuck Wagner, patriarch of one of the most successful and respected winemaking families in America and the co-founder of Caymus.
THE WAGNER FAMILY OF WINE
The wines of Caymus Vineyards, first introduced in the early 1970s by Charles (Charlie) and Lorna Wagner, along with their son, Chuck, are California classics. The Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Special Selection was named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year two times, with both the 1984 and 1990 vintages receiving the honor. No other wine in the 40-year history of the publication has been named twice. Caymus is the heart and soul of the Wagner Family of Wine, which has grown to include the Conundrum, Mer Soleil and Red Schooner brands, all overseen by Jenny Wagner's brother, Charlie Wagner, along with Emmolo.
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While the family heritage was built on the back of cabernet sauvignon, Jenny and Charlie Wagner are building their own legacies with different grapes sourced from different appellations. It is part of a diversification strategy which has allowed them to put their own stamp on their unique and individual winemaking careers while working together in the family business.
"Dad has always inspired us to keep trying new things," said the 29-year-old Jenny Wagner of her iconic winemaker father, Chuck Wagner. "It's always been an ongoing adventure, and this is my opportunity with Emmolo to create something new and exciting."
For Jenny Wagner, the excitement comes from making merlot and sauvignon blanc in two diverse styles.
THE WINES OF EMMOLO
Emmolo Merlot, which is grown in the Oak Knoll appellation, is ripe, rich and concentrated.
"It's just the way I like it. The wines are all about balance, with soft tannins and structure being equally important," Jenny Wagner said of her merlot, which hails from a pair of family-owned vineyard sites, one of which had its genesis on her mother's side of the family and the second of which is now owned and farmed by her father's side.
Jenny Wagner's second wine is a sauvignon blanc made in a clean and lean style which best reflects the terroir of the Emmolo vineyards in Rutherford and Oak Knoll.
"I'm not a big fan of herbaceous or green sauvignon blanc. I like a lighter style that is crisp and has firm acidity," she said when explaining the very different style she uses in approaching her white wine as opposed to the bigger merlot. Emmolo made a combined total 30,000 or so cases of the 2014 merlot and the 2015 sauvignon blanc in the most recent release — a substantial number for a relatively young winemaker.
Of course, it was inevitable Jenny Wagner would follow in the family craft.
"Yeah, it was never really a question," she said. "I always wanted to become a winemaker."
Growing up in the Napa Valley, she attended local schools before matriculating to study business at the University of San Diego. She returned to the valley and went to work learning the skills of wine production as an assistant to the assistant on the Caymus winemaking team.
A TRADITION TAKES HOLD
In 1994, Jenny's mother, Cheryl Emmolo, had introduced the Emmolo label with the intent of carrying on the family name and wine tradition dating back to 1923, when Frank Emmolo, Jenny Wagner's grandfather, first came to Napa from Italy. While the Emmolo family made wine, they were perhaps best known for creating a successful business providing grapevine rootstock to the other winemakers in the valley. To this day, wines are made from grapes grown on their stock.
When an opportunity came around four years ago for Jenny Wagner to take the reins of Emmolo, she jumped at the chance.
"The timing was right," she said. "We were pretty confident that we could make a great wine with the right site, low yields and great soils."
That she has.
As our American wine tradition is still in its relative infancy, it is exciting to see and taste the wines of emerging generations and legacies, especially when it comes from a pair of families with a rich history in the Napa Valley.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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