So let’s say you’re a winemaker. You have a winery in Napa. You’ve been making Cabernet for maybe 50 years. You’ve made a lot of it. You’ve won a lot of awards. You made more Cabernet. You’ve made so much Cabernet, in fact, for so many years that your name is nearly synonymous with Napa Cabernet. What happens, then, when one day you decide that you want to make Pinot Noir? In 2001 Chuck Wagner, proprietor of Caymus Vineyards faced this precise problem. Caymus Pinot just doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like Caymus Cab, now does it?
To be honest, Wagner has always had a secret thing for Pinot Noir. He even grew Pinot in Rutherford (of all places) for several years, and made small batches of it under other labels, as well as several prominent bottlings under the Caymus label in the 1960’s, all the while selling most of the fruit off to other wineries. During the last 20 years apparently he also acquired about 150 acres near Santa Barbara as well as some recent contracts for grapes in the Sonoma Coast. In 2001 he got serious about Pinot and started the Belle Glos label, named after his mother Lorna Belle Glos-Wagner.
Wagner, and his son Joseph Wagner, who has been the winemaker and viticulturalist for the label since 2002, make wine from three distinct vineyard sites. The first and oldest is the vineyard that sits at the intersection of Clark Avenue and Telephone Road in the Santa Maria Valley. This vineyard, which Wagner owns, contains some of the oldest plantings of the Martini clone of Pinot Noir in the state, some stretching back to 1970, and many acres are own-rooted (as opposed to grafted onto other rootstock). The yields produced by these phylloxera-vulnerable vines are naturally low, and they are further reduced by careful pruning and training. In some years they yield just over one ton per acre.
The family also farms part of a vineyard called Taylor Lane, six miles from the Pacific Ocean on the Sonoma Coast. This chilly site sits on a hillside that the Wagners have chosen to farm using a traditional Italian trellis system that keeps the grapes high above the ground, in both an attempt to control sun exposure, air circulation, as well as to allow sheep to graze freely between the rows without risk to the fruit. The third site, known as Las Alturas Vineyard, is 15 acres at some of the highest planted elevations in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and is planted to various Dijon clones.
One of the distinctive features of the Belle Glos wines are their dramatic wax covered bottle tops, a la Maker’s Mark Whiskey. This sexy little feature makes for quite a striking profile on the shelf or on the table. In earlier vintages this wax top proved to be the bane of many wine lovers’ existences, as it was so thick, hard, and rounded as to make opening the bottle a somewhat daunting task, even for someone skilled with a corkscrew. These days, however, the bottles come with a little rip cord that neatly cuts the top off the wax seal. The wax top doesn’t always come off, but once the rip cord has been pulled, a corkscrew driven down into the wax top will pull the cork through it easily.
All three wines are made from rigorously selected grapes and go through a long cold soak before fermentation, and occasionally an extended maceration, depending on the nature of the fruit. The wines are aged in approximately 60% new French oak for 12 months before bottling.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2005 Belle Glos “Las Alturas Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a nose of spicy cranberry, red apple skin, and candied cherry aromas. In the mouth it is smooth with tart cherry and earthy components that lean towards a light bitterness as the wine moves across the palate. The wine feels big in the mouth and finishes that way, with a bit of heat as it goes down. 8.5/9. Cost: $50. Where to buy?.
2005 Belle Glos “Taylor Lane Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a sweet nose of candied grape and plum aromas. In the mouth it is equally plummy with additional flavors of cranberry, and as the wine lingers through the finish, hints of damp earth. Nicely balanced with good acidity, the wine has a nice presence on the tongue and promises to gain elegance with age. 9. Cost: $55. Where to buy?.
2005 Belle Glos “Clark & Telephone Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a rich nose of dark plum and wet dirt aromas. In the mouth it has excellent a seductively smooth feel to it, and a nice complex mix of plum, cherry, cranberry, and earth flavors riddled with hints of mulling spices. It arcs nicely across the palate ending in a delicate and prolonged finish. Excellent. 9/9.5 Cost: $38. Where to buy?.