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Having emerged as one of the most ambitious vintners of a new generation, Joe Wagner is out to prove he’s ready for his second act.

Wagner, 35, owner of Copper Cane Wine & Provisions wine company in St. Helena, wants to show he’s not finished just because one of the biggest deals in the business is now complete. Less than two years ago, Constellation Brands Inc. bought his Meiomi brand for a whopping $315 million, a figure that jolted analysts because it included no hard assets such as vineyards or a winery.

“What he did with Meiomi, that was Mount Everest type of stuff,” said Brian Clements, a partner at Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato-based grape broker. Clements has worked with Wagner for years.

Dairyman Vineyard

Wagner’s goal now is to build his seven- brand business in Oregon, primarily with his Elouan label, as well as in the North Coast, where his Belle Glos pinot noir label is a focal point in the premium market, retailing for as much as $55 a bottle.

But part of his master plan is stalled. He wants to turn his Dairyman Vineyard — located just south of Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol — into a large winery and distillery. The proposed facility would serve as a showcase for Belle Glos wines, produce up to 500,000 cases of wine annually and include an event center to host up to 600 guests.

The plan, though, has run into a buzz saw from opponents and triggered one of the biggest winery development battles in Sonoma County. Community activists see it as the ultimate example of an industry run amok, threatening the rural quality of life and posing traffic nightmares.

“This is the poster child for the most egregious, inappropriate project,” said Padi Selwyn, co-chair of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, a group that was formed to protest the Dairyman project.

The county’s Permit and Resource Management Department has halted plans for development for over a year because it contends the application was incomplete, said Maggie Fleming, spokeswoman for the department. Copper Cane has recently submitted further information that it hopes will finally move the project forward toward an environmental impact report, said Kevin Alfaro, chief operating officer for company.

A main sticking point is the determination by Sonoma County Regional Parks that Wagner has no legal right to access his 68-acre property by crossing the popular Joe Rodota Trail, and that he instead needs to enter into an existing use agreement. It also found any changes to the path “would not provide any benefit to the trail or the public.”

Wagner’s side argues that the parks department’s interpretation is contrary to state law that provides for access to a right of way for private property owners.

Wagner said he is in for the long haul despite the obstacles, and has offered to build an underpass that would allow pedestrians and cyclists to pass beneath a driveway that would lead to his property. He also contends his battle reflects how the North Coast is becoming less friendly to its leading industry.

“Napa is broken for one reason. I think Sonoma is broken for another. I think here (in Napa) it is more about traffic and keeping it small. Over there (in Sonoma), it’s partly traffic, but it’s more about environmental issues,” Wagner, who lives in St. Helena, said. “Anybody who has any reason to stop it, they will come up with any argument … We’re ready and willing to make it right.”

2016 Sonoma County annual median sales prices

Type: Single-family home

Amount: $580,000

Increase: 9%

Type: Condominium

Amount: $328,000

Increase: 11%

Five communities now exceed their 2005 peak prices

Community: Healdsburg

2016 single-family median home price: $858,975

Yearly increase: 7%

Community: Sebastopol

2016 single-family median home price: $805,000

Yearly increase: 14%

Community: Sonoma

2016 single-family median home price: $759,500

Yearly increase: 9%

Community: West Petaluma

2016 single-family median home price: $758,750

Yearly increase: 12%

Community: Oakmont

2016 single-family median home price: $617,000

Yearly increase: 14%

Source: Rick Laws, Pacific Union International

Expanding the brand

While the dispute drags on, Wagner charges forward. He has focused on Oregon to grow his brand, as the state’s coastal range has become a popular region for pinot noir. He has not bought any land there yet, instead contracting with local growers to source his grapes. Overall, Wagner currently owns about 900 planted acres, including the 40 acres at Dairyman.

Wagner is not alone in Oregon. Vintners such as Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa and Healdsburg-based Foley Family Wines have made purchases there, attracted by lower land costs and fewer regulatory burdens.

“Consumers still haven’t ventured out a lot in Oregon,” said Wagner, a divorced father of six children who range in age from 3 to 11. “Moving out of California is a jump for a lot of (wine) people.”

The state offers a lot of different pinot noir styles, he said. The Rogue Valley offers up a more brawny wine than those from the popular Willamette Valley, which is noted for its higher acidity. Wagner’s goal is to not tinker much when getting the flavor and color out of the skins.

“We are riding that line between under-extraction and over-extraction to get what Mother Nature has given us for that vintage,” said Wagner.

The one downside is that the Oregon yields are typically less than from local areas such as the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast.

Crafting pinot noir

Wagner’s winemaking style attracted considerable attention with Meiomi and was a hit in the marketplace with younger consumers. The last bottling he oversaw was on pace to produce 840,000 cases for the year.

“Everybody guesses what the consumer wants,” Clements said. “He had a good foresight.”

Some, however, found the style too jammy for a pinot. One critic described a bottle he sampled from the 2015 vintage as “candied red fruit” and “slightly sweet but easily enjoyable.”

Winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri Wines in Santa Rosa, a pinot noir specialist who also sources fruit from Oregon, said that Meiomi’s style “may not be the way I would make wine.” But he complimented Wagner for increasing the popularity of the varietal even beyond the boom it experienced after the release of the 2004 movie “Sideways.”

“If more people are drinking wine because of that, then I’m more than in favor. I think that is a fantastic, fantastic thing,” Lee said.

Wagner said he prefers to allow the region to dictate the wine style, an approach that may rankle some traditionalists.

“Rather than taking this Burgundian mentality and say we are trying to emulate Burgundy, we’re now making Russian River pinot noir, we’re making Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir,” he said.

Meiomi’s beginning

Growing up in a Napa Valley winemaking family in Rutherford, Wagner had a career advantage right out of the gate. Caymus Vineyards was founded by his father, Chuck, and his grandfather, Charlie, in 1971. He and his siblings also joined the business and were allowed to build up their own brands. Having completed the Wine Executive Program at UC Davis, Joe started his first brand with Belle Glos and then ventured into Meiomi under the Wagner Family of Wines portfolio.

Building Meiomi, though, was like hitching a ride on a rocket. Wagner, who has a stout physique and a demeanor that comes across as more earnestness than bravado, focused on reaching out to sommeliers with the brand rather than trying to grow through retail outlets.

“I want to make sure we have a place on the menu with our wines by the glass because I feel that is a good place for exposure,” he said. “If people like the wines, they will continue to buy them.”

He then made one pivotal decision during the recession — to drop the bottle price from $28 to $20. Sales soared.

“That price point became the new luxury price point,” he said.

Meiomi grew to overshadow his other brands and stretch his capacity to keep up, especially as he was still in debt and making the wine at a facility he did not own. He made the decision to sell to Constellation Brands even though his father was opposed.

“He understood it. He didn’t like it. He was concerned about a number of things. How is it going to affect the Wagner name in the marketplace?” Wagner said. “He was generally concerned for me and what the perception of me would be going forward in the industry. Am I a brand builder or seller?”

The sale, however, allowed Wagner to break away from his family’s shadow. It also provided him the space to grow Copper Cane in a more manageable way as well as use estate planning to bequeath 60 percent of the company to his children. He declined to reveal Copper Cane’s annual case production, but said it is well below Meiomi’s level.

Given that pinot noir is a difficult grape to grow, Wagner said he doesn’t anticipate a glut of the varietal in the marketplace. Instead, he contends, it will be slow, steady growth.

“I don’t think it’s a variety that lends itself to being something that you can overproduce and make a billion dollars,” he said.

Looking ahead

Wagner is exploring other projects, too, including a possible winery project on Vallejo’s Mare Island as well as more experimental winemaking, such as yearlong fermentation through freezing grapes.

But Dairyman remains at the top of his agenda, come what may.

The Sebastopol City Council has already voted to urge Sonoma County officials to deny the Dairyman application.

“I don’t know (if) without the public pressure this (project) would have been stalled,” Selwyn said.

And the project has so galvanized opponents that Preserve Rural Sonoma County is now focusing on other winery projects as well, such as those in the traffic-clogged Sonoma Valley.

But Wagner won’t let the controversy thwart his ambition.

“There needs to be a fair and due process. And that’s something we are not getting out of Sonoma,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.