Joseph Wagner shifts focus from Meiomi to Dairyman winery project

NAPA - Fresh off selling his Meiomi brand for $315 million to Constellation Brands Inc., Joe Wagner is planning his next steps as the 33-year-old wine entrepreneur has emerged as one of the of biggest players to watch in the North Coast wine industry.

At the top of his list is a desire to complete the controversial Dairyman winery project near Sebastopol, which has run into opposition from community activists. Critics contend the plan, which would turn the 68-acre property into a large-scale winery, will snarl traffic along the Highway 12 corridor, degrade their quality of life and use up scarce water during a drought.

“We’re having this (conducted) as a very thorough process that doesn’t leave any stone unturned. We feel pretty confident. I like the project, still,” Wagner said Wednesday after speaking at a conference sponsored by the industry publication Wines & Vines. “People see it for the positives. Obviously, some people think it’s not the right place and the right size or anything.”

Wagner has agreed to submit the project - which calls for a facility that can produce up to 500,000 cases of wine and 250,000 gallons of distilled spirits annually, an administration building and hospitality center - for a full environmental impact report to assuage local concerns.

The biggest hurdle, Wagner contends, will be finding a way for vehicles to enter the proposed winery from Highway 12 through an access road that would cross the popular Joe Rodota Trail, used by bicyclists and runners. A tunnel might be one option, he said.

“We’re pretty confident we will come up with something,” said Wagner, who hopes the winery could be functioning within two years.

The Dairyman project would produce wines for the Belle Glos label that is under his family’s Caymus Vineyards, which was started in 1972 by Joe’s grandfather and is now overseen by his father, Chuck Wagner. Joe Wagner is the founder and winemaker for Belle Glos, a pinot noir brand that does more than 100,000 cases annually. That business, however, is separate from Joe Wagner’s own Copper Cane Wine and Provisions business, which housed Meiomi and other labels. Following the Meiomi sale, Copper Cane now produces about 300,000 cases annually among its three labels, he said.

After selling Meiomi for such a startling amount - a price that did not include any land and facilities - Wagner is concentrating on growing his Elouan brand, a pinot noir that is derived from grapes along Oregon’s coastal regions. He believes Elouan can grow into “hundreds of thousands of cases” and could eventually rival Meiomi or Jackson Family Wines’ La Crema in the premium pinot noir space.

“It’s got a lot of growth potential in the market. It’s a pinot noir and I do believe it’s going to be a big one,” Wagner said.

In the aftermath of the sale, Wagner said he has been looking to garner additional production space beyond what Caymus may do with the Dairyman project. He said he believes he can eventually do 1 million cases annually for his business.

For instance, Wagner tried to purchase the Asti winery and vineyards near Cloverdale when owner Treasury Wine Estates placed it on the market. He lost out to E&J Gallo, which acquired the facility and the Souverain brand.

“I felt we should have had it,” Wagner said. “It was perfect. It was absolutely perfect.”

Within the next three to five years, he expects to purchase more vineyards and is eying property in Sonoma County, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. He believes if you control the land, you will control your own destiny as a winemaker.

“Napa may be a little difficult because it’s so expensive,” Wagner said of the area where premium vineyards can fetch up to $300,000 per acre. “It’s immediately priced out of reality. It’s insane. Sonoma is still reasonable.”

Wagner said he also would be looking for retail space in downtown Napa or St. Helena.

The sale of Meiomi has freed up Wagner and his staff to catch their collective breath. They had been primarily focused on keeping up with the tremendous growth of the brand, which reached 830,000 cases annually when he sold. Wagner found himself concentrating on ensuring quality and building production and distribution, as opposed to the creative side of winemaking.

“These are the fun things. This is all the creative stuff,” Wagner said of his new ventures, such as testing production of apple brandy that he would like to do full scale at Dairyman. “I love creating things and that’s the fun.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@? On Twitter @billswindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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