Meet Joe Wagner, the man shaking up the Sonoma County wine world
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.
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.”
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.