There are many good and some great wine producers in the United States. But there are very few American winemakers whose wine is of such consistent quality, from top to bottom, that I’d plunk down my money without hesitation for their wines. That is, wines that I know will be superb before I ever open the bottle: “money-in-the-bank” wines. I can think of only a handful of winemakers in whom I have that kind of faith and trust. Helen Turley. Bonny Doon’s Randall Graham. Susie Selby. Maybe a few others.
Chuck Wagner is one of those others. He’s the principle winemaker for Caymus and the son of Caymus founders Charlie and Lorna Wagner. Located on 60 acres in the Rutherford District of Napa Valley, since 1972 Caymus Vineyards has produced wines that are world class, particularly their Cabernet Sauvignon.
During a most enjoyable dinner recently at Eric DeBonis’ Paris Bistro, I had the opportunity to sip Caymus wines during each course. The first course was butternut squash soup sprinkled with toasted pumpkinseeds (a nice touch), sipping Mer Soleil Chardonnay Central Coast 2000 ($35.60). This is Caymus’ bombastic Chardonnay—which is to say it’s full-blown and phat in that way that only California Chardonnay ever is.
Mer Soleil is to California Chard what Skippy’s is to peanut butter. Thanks to malolactic fermentation, it has a big, full-bodied mouthfeel with lots of toasty oak balanced with hints of pear, apple, honey and tropical fruit flavors.
This is a Chardonnay with oomph! and it damn near overpowered the soup. It’s a wine so creamy you could swear someone added milk. Almost a meal in itself, if you like big, bold Chardonnay from California, Mer Soleil is the wine for you.
The obvious wine pairing for The Paris’ duck confit with lentils is Pinot Noir. I was thinking French, but a dining partner pulled out a bottle of Caymus’ Belle Glos Pinot Noir 2001. Slam dunk. Frankly, I would have never pegged the Belle Glos Pinot as American. French Burgundy snobs will love it. It’s brimming with ripe fruit and silky smooth on the tongue. But what Burgundy lovers will like best about Belle Glos is the price: $29.95. It tastes better than most Pinot Noir at double or triple the price.
The Belle Glos served as an excellent bridge as we slid into The Paris’ Morgan Valley lamb. But hey, lamb and Cabernet go together like Michael Jackson and young boys. So why not open a bottle of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 1999?
OK, this one’s not cheap. But sometimes you do get what you pay for. And at $122.30, the Caymus Special Selection Cabernet is anything but overpriced. This wine is Chuck Wagner’s pride and joy. And why not be proud about a wine that can hold its own with France’s best Bordeaux?
The 1999 vintage is uncommonly ripe. What that means is that while the 1999 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon will be even better in a couple of decades, it’s wonderful to drink right now. So instant gratification freaks like me will love this wine.
The initial impression is of a fruit bomb detonating on your tongue, with lots of classic Cabernet cassis and plum flavors. The ripe tannins are so soft, it’s like eating plum pudding. But the aging in new oak barrels also imparts a touch of vanilla. In fact, the complex interlacing of anise, plum, vanilla and ripe cherry flavors is so refined you might be tempted to skip dessert and to enjoy a glass of 1999 Special Selection Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon instead. You wouldn’t go wrong in doing so.