Sitting recently at a wine bar in Calistoga, I overheard a woman exclaim, “You have to taste this. It’s the real deal!”
She thrust a glass of dense purply wine into the hand of her partner. The man, serious and intense, took first a long sniff of the wine and then a small sip. A huge grin cracked his dour expression “Holy moly,” he said. “This is outstanding.”
I turned to the bartender.
“I’d like to have what they’re having,” I said, gesturing to the couple.
“You’re going to love it,” she said. “This wine comes from the Wagner family, and it is a stunning example of what the merlot grape can become here in the valley.”
“Merlot?” I said in disbelief.
My confusion was that I knew the Wagners made exceptional cabernets (Caymus), but I had no idea they made a merlot. Merlot is probably one of my favorite wines, especially many of the exceptional ones from the valley: the old Duckhorn Three Palms, Paloma, Pride — but Caymus?
The bartender seemed to anticipate my reaction.
“I know,” she said, “But this is made by a girl. And she obviously rocks.”
Emmolo Merlot, one of the wines within the Wagner Family portfolio, is a stunning example of what has recently become a maligned varietal. Made by Jenny Wagner, this wine was originally launched by her mother, Cheryl Emmolo, 20 years ago as a way to keep her family’s name alive while also celebrating what she considered exceptional grapes that grew on her family’s vineyard in Rutherford.
“Chuck (Wagner, owner of Caymus, Cheryl’s former husband) had always encouraged me to create something special from my parents’ vineyard,” Emmolo said. “My father didn’t have any sons, and I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents’ name disappearing. Plus the grapes were always so good. When Jenny decided to take over the brand I could not have been prouder. She is continuing both the Emmolo and Wagner legacies by creating something that is really wonderful and also uniquely highlights the vineyard. I could not be happier.”
Jenny is a seventh-generation Napa Valley resident and a fifth-generation winemaker with deep ties to the land. Her first ancestors traveled to the Napa Valley by wagon train from Missouri in 1857 They were soon followed by the other side of her family, the Wagners, in the 1880s, and they homesteaded on Howell Mountain. By the 1940s, Jenny’s grandparents, Charlie and Lorna Wagner, had purchased several acres near the old homestead, and in 1972 they started Caymus Vineyards with Jenny’s father, Chuck. Jenny grew up on the vineyard with her two brothers, Charlie and Joe, and she often spent time at her grandparents’ house, which was on the same property.
“Growing up I spent a lot of time in the vineyard and winery,” Jenny said. “When I was younger I thought I might end up teaching, but then I gradually fell in love with the idea of making wine. I like the physicalness of working in the winery, and the link to our past is something that I very much value.”
After graduating from Napa’s Justin-Siena High School in 2006, Jenny attended the University of San Diego. She graduated with a major in business administration and a minor in Spanish and started full time at the winery in 2010. By 2014, she’d taken over the Emmolo wine label under her father’s tutelage.
“I oversee Emmolo, but I also work closely with my dad and brother, Charlie, My dad still runs Caymus, and Charlie leads other wines in our portfolio, including Conundrum, Mer Soleil and Red Schooner,” Jenny said. “Together, we support each other’s projects and strategize about everything from the creation of new wines to the development of vineyard sites in diverse parts of California.”
The Emmolo wines include merlot and sauvignon blanc.
My first experience with the Emmolo Merlot was tasting the jaw-dropping 2014 vintage ($60). Black-purple in color, the aromas pour from the glass with waves of anise, sun-dried plums, black summer truffle, dried lavender and a meatiness similar to roasted duck. This mouth-coating wine leaves no taste bud underwhelmed, with flavors that mirror the aromatics and also include soft, pretty tannins that round out this opulent and expressive wine. (Note: I did taste the 2015, which is to be released soon. This wine had been newly bottled, and although it was good and reminded me of the 2014 with its hints of anise and plum, it also showed a Welch’s Grape Jam flavor that reminded me of many California Malbecs.
Granted, the 2014 vintage was exceptional and the 2015 more challenging. However, I am expecting, and hoping, the 2015 evolves over the next few months to become more similar to the 2014.)
I also tasted the 2015 Emmolo Sauvignon Blanc ($22), and it was delicious, too. The wine is bright with aromas of kiwi, white peach, and candied orange and lime rinds. In the mouth kaffir lime and minerality dominate, with refreshing low alcohol and modest acid, making me think instantly of how well this would pair with citrus- and mint-infused ceviche.
I am looking forward to what Jenny has in store for future vintages of Emmolo, but I am also hoping she can stay as focused and as consistently exceptional as her family’s legacy would suggest. After meeting her for only a short time, I have little doubt that she will, and that she and her like are the hope and future of the Napa Valley.
“I plan to remain focused on making merlot and sauvignon blanc and will continue sourcing fruit mostly from my Emmolo grandparents’ land,” Jenny said. “In terms of new varietals, I’m not planning to introduce anything right now – I’m working on one fun, small project, but I don’t anticipate that it will become a primary focus for Emmolo. We’ve always got some new ideas up our sleeve but nothing I can get into detail about just yet.”