Jenny Wagner: A Tomboy with Wine in Her Veins
Interviewer & Writer: Uncorked Monthly Contributing Writer, Kim Brittingham
Jenny Wagner’s story is a comforting one. Comforting because it seems to make so much sense.
Living in a chaotic world with a complicated contemporary lifestyle, it’s good to know that some people’s lives unfold so naturally, almost effortlessly. That somewhere, paths unfurl exactly when and where they’re supposed to; that hearts are open and love is a beacon followed unquestioningly.
Jenny is a seventh-generation Napa Valley resident and a third-generation winemaker. Her German-American family first came to Napa in 1857 by wagon train from Missouri. They were farmers who settled on Howell Mountain. Jenny says there’s an old sepia photograph floating around the family of her second or third great-grandfather, hiking down the mountainside to the town of St. Helena, carrying a wood plank across his shoulders from which he balanced satchels like a milkmaid carrying buckets of milk. About a decade ago, Jenny and her father hiked up to the site of the old homestead. There’s a clearing where the cottage must have stood, and a small cemetery for several infants who were lost. A piece of one tiny headstone remains.
In the 1940s, Jenny’s grandparents, Charlie and Lorna Wagner, bought several acres near the old homestead, and in 1972 they started Caymus Vineyards with Jenny’s dad, Chuck. This is where Jenny grew up – idyllically, it seems, among the vines. She divided her time between her grandparents’ house and her father’s house which were both on the property.
As a girl, Jenny took long walks around the property with her beloved grandmother Lorna Belle. A favorite spot was Conn Creek, which was dry most of the year, but still yielded its fair share of treasures (rocks for young Jenny’s collection). There was a rope swing for touching the sky, and Jenny’s grandfather could be spied ambling around the property saying hello to the vineyard workers, accompanied by his pack of dogs.
A classic tomboy
Jenny tried her best to keep up with her two older brothers, Charlie and Joey, riding four-wheelers and dirt bikes around the vineyard. She tells me she wasn’t much for the indoors. She liked getting her hands dirty.
But the one indoor activity Jenny did enjoy was playing cards. At any given time one could find several well-used decks of cards around her father’s or grandparents’ houses. Favorite games included rummy and solitaire with multiple people. Even today, at the age of 28, Jenny plays cards almost daily with her dad.
“In the mornings, I’ll stop by my dad’s house and have breakfast with him,” Jenny tells me. “We’ll talk a little bit about what the plan is for the day. It’s also a good time for me to ask him any questions I might have. I always look up to him. I think he’s pretty good at winemaking and farming…Then after we eat, we’ll play a game of cards. Normally, we’ll play double solitaire. And that’s a good start to the day. Then we’ll part ways and do our own thing.”
It’s a ritual Jenny recommends. It almost sounds like a form of meditation; a way of practicing staying rooted in the moment. “Your mind is just in the card game, and that’s really all you’re thinking about at the time,” Jenny says. “(My dad and I are) pretty competitive. A lot of times, we’ll play two out of three games. Yeah, it’s fun. It’s just a lighthearted, good way to get your mind going and start the day.”
At 28, Jenny is the youngest member to join the family winemaking business
As a teen during school vacations she worked in the winery, first as a receptionist and later in the tasting room. She also tagged along into the vineyards or winery with her dad to see what his day was like.
After graduating college in 2010, Jenny unsurprisingly went right to work alongside the vineyard crews, first doing pruning, and then engaging in the other practices that came along with the growing season, like de-leafing and removing laterals. Still the tomboy at heart, Jenny says the physical side of winemaking and farming is the one she enjoys most, although these days she finds fewer reasons to work in the dirt.
Today, Jenny’s pet project is Emmolo, a wine label that was originally the product of her mother’s winemaking business. Her mother, Cheryl Emmolo, retired a couple of years ago and handed the reins over to Jenny. Jenny kept the Emmolo name, but she says, “It’s truly a whole new wine.” The label was launched in January 2014 as part of the Wagner Family of Wine (www.wagnerfamilyofwine.com).
Under the Emmolo label, Jenny produces a Merlot and a Sauvignon Blanc – the same two varietals that her mother produced. And like her mother, Jenny sources her fruit from the property of her maternal grandparents, Frank and Annie Emmolo. She’s confident in the grapes’ quality.
But Jenny is putting her own stamp on the new Emmolo wines. In speaking of her Sauvignon Blanc, Jenny says, “I’m not a big fan of herbaceous characteristics in wines. I like firm acidity, low alcohol. That’s a wine that can be easy to drink, even on its own.” The Emmolo Merlot, on the other hand, “is something that’s a little more rich.”
Mending Merlot’s reputation
Merlot fell out of favor with a lot of wine enthusiasts after a character in the 2004 film Sideways expressed that it wasn’t worth drinking. But Jenny would like to mend the varietal’s bad reputation.
“I think a lot of boring, mediocre Merlots have been produced out of California, and it’s just cheapened the variety,” says Jenny. “And in the vineyards, a lot of Merlots have been overly cropped. There’s been high yields that, in turn, are producing a lackluster wine.”
Jenny argues that Merlot, “can make a great wine on its own. It just needs to be farmed correctly. I think that’s number one, but also, the winemaking and processing of the fruit (has to be done correctly) as well.”
Jenny has a plan. “I’ve learned different wine-making techniques from my dad by working on his Caymus Cabernet team. I’ve taken a lot of those different winemaking techniques and applied that to Merlot. In the end, (I’m) producing a Merlot that’s very rich, has nice tannin structure, ripe fruit.”
“I like the challenge of enticing people to try Merlot with a style that is not what they typically expect. My goal is to create a wonderfully rich, dark and well-balanced wine that can more than hold its own against cabernet sauvignon.”
– Jenny Wagner / Winemaker
It occurs to me that over time, people ripen just as fruit does. Their characteristics deepen, grow richer. It makes me wonder how Jenny Wagner would like to improve with age – say, over the next 20 years. I decide to ask her. She tells me she’d like to become more of a risk-taker, like her dad.
“I think my dad is a little more aggressive than me, and he takes on challenges and goes with his gut feelings,” says Jenny about her father’s approach to both business and winemaking. “I’m a little more reserved, although I am trying to learn from him.”
More curious and open
She’s also learning to be more curious and open. “Generally speaking, my dad has always been big on experimenting and trying different things, rather than just sticking to one practice that someone told (him) works. That’s something that I can take to heart, really, in anything. Especially on the vineyard side and in winemaking, he’s always been big on trying a new technique. Not something that you read out of a book, but rather something that you’ve thought of on your own, and it may work, it may fail. But that’s the key to making something unique. He’s very open-minded when it comes to that. There’s no one way to farm or one way to make wine. We’re always constantly trying different techniques.”
Portrait of a girl who grew into a woman her dad can be proud of
Jenny is following a path that’s taken her from the banks of Conn Creek to overseeing her own wine label under her father’s tutelage. It’s a portrait of a girl who grew into a woman her dad can be proud of. However, a part of me feels a little wistful for the tomboy Jenny left behind on that rope swing, pocketing dusty rocks. So I’m relieved when I hear that the scruffy urchin is still lurking around the Wagners’ acres. “I enjoy mountain biking,” Jenny says.
“That’s something I’ve gotten into over the past few years,” thanks to her influential brothers and an assistant winemaker named Harvest from her dad’s Cabernet team. “We’ll all go as a group once in a while, and it’s just something that you can do for a couple of hours and get a great work-out. And it’s a ton of fun, too.”
So here’s to a healthy dose of dirt, to the intrepid spirit and high energy of the world’s forever-tomboys, and to the treasures the soil can yield under their love and care. Salut, Jenny, to you, Emmolo and the entire Wagner Family of Wine. Learn more at www.wagnerfamilyofwine.com.
THE NEW BOTTLE EXPERIENCE REVIEW & RATING
WAGNER FAMILY OF WINES
Intense appearance, with full aromas of butter, black currant and blackberry. A full-bodied red. The finish is layered. An overall excellent Merlot from United States. This wine was created with a well-balanced Merlot with superbly rich fruit, soft tannins and dark color.