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Caymus Vineyards’ Chuck Wagner Speaks Out On Napa Valley’s Future

September 28, 2016

Caymus Vineyards has had a fraught relationship with Napa County officials in recent years, with long-running tensions centering on allegations that Caymus violated local Napa ordinances and bottled more wine than permitted. Caymus settled the dispute by paying a $1 million fine to Napa County in 2013, and this May, the company received approval for a modified use permit, the first phase of which mandates that Caymus limit production at its Rutherford-based facility to 110,000 gallons. The winery plans to reduce to that level by 2018. Phase two of the permit allows for an increase to 660,000 gallons following improvements to the facility’s wastewater system. Meanwhile, Caymus will transition much of its production to Solano County’s Suisun Valley, where its new facility is slated to be up and running by 2017. SND associate editor Christina Jelski recently caught up with Caymus owner and winemaker Chuck Wagner to discuss the implications of the Napa dispute.

SND: What precedent does the Caymus-Napa County dispute set for the Napa Valley?

Wagner: Our situation is a cautionary tale. We felt that our best option was to move much of our production and workforce out of the very place we call home. The problem is not just one of over-regulation, but of how regulations are implemented. We reached an agreement with the county back in 2013 and have been going through the use permit process since then. While there’s a long way to go, we’re seeing signs that some of our county leaders are starting to listen. We’ve joined other vintners in providing much-needed perspective on the realities we face and what it will take for Napa Valley to thrive in the future. We need to create real solutions to problems like traffic, rather than incorrectly blaming wineries and imposing restrictions that only hurt our local economy. And we need to understand that a threat to the wine business is a threat to agriculture. If wineries fail, ultimately the valley will turn to more profitable endeavors, including development.

SND: How is the move to Solano County going?

Wagner: We commenced work on our new winery in Solano County several months ago. Once loaded, grape trucks will leave Napa Valley for the new winery and not return, except for the few cases we sell directly from our Rutherford tasting room. As we shift our production to Suisun, we will continue to maintain some offices, a small amount of Cabernet barrel aging and production, as well as our tasting room, in Rutherford.

SND: Napa has seen investment groups and other large corporate players expand their presence over the last 10 years or so. How does this impact family-owned wineries like yours?

Wagner: A few forces over the past decade have impacted our industry, including a dramatic increase in so-called lifestyle wineries, created by people coming into the valley with money made elsewhere. While it’s great that our land is coveted and is still seen as a blue-chip investment, land values have doubled in the last seven years, in turn driving up the cost of doing business. My concern is with preserving our ability to compete with world producers and other wine communities where the cost of land is not so high. The corporate/investment presence in the valley can also hurt our industry. Some large players in the valley are consolidating production in their largest facilities, while leasing out others to wineries that can take advantage of their pre-WDO (Winery Definition Ordinance) permits. This will likely cause enormous increases in worker traffic, and it raises questions about how permits could be manipulated. It’s an issue that everyone in the valley should be aware of and our county leaders should be addressing.

SND: Some traditional wine regions have seen uneven progress in recent years, particularly with younger consumers. Yet Napa seems to be doing just fine, even with the Millennial demographic. What are the key reasons for that, in your view?

Wagner: Our wines are very likable and not over-priced—you can find many wines in Napa Valley that provide great value. We also offer an experience that appeals to younger wine drinkers. While I don’t love generational labels, Millennials have made it clear that they value experiences over “stuff.” People can feel our commitment to farming, preserving agriculture and building a unique way of life that goes along with making and enjoying great wine.

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