Less than six miles away from the Pacific Ocean, along the Sonoma Coast of California, a vineyard planted with Pinot Noir struggles to obtain enough ripeness; it is a place that represents everything that has lured people from far and wide over centuries at the chance to build a new life in a paradise nicknamed The Golden State. The stunning beauty of this vineyard, called Taylor Lane, is undeniable as it is surrounded by redwood trees and, at an elevation of around 1,000 feet, it gives a great vantage point of the prominent cape Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands. But on a windy day, the brutal ocean winds can make it a challenging place for growing grapes. But like so many over time who came out West to face enormous obstacles, many of those obstacles couldn’t even be fathomed by many immigrants; California has always represented a place that is an abundance of raw beauty and opportunities… as long as one could find innovative ways around the fierce challenges. A young man, at the age of 15 years old, helped establish a Pinot Noir vineyard at Taylor Lane, previously an old apple orchard, while working with his family wine business and this plot would end up having a profound effect on establishing a great love for extreme, challenging sites as well as for a passion for the grape itself.
That young man was Joseph Wagner who first began in the wine business with his family – his family famously started Caymus Vineyards in 1972 in Napa Valley as well as making other wines from different wine regions. In the mid-1990s, Joseph started working for his family in the vineyards around the age of 12 and then a few years later he worked with one of the managers to help establish a new Pinot Noir vineyard in Sonoma Coast. “It was my dad’s first experiment with planting Pinot Noir so he sent me out there for part of the summer to tear out the old apple orchard, develop it and lay it out,” said Joseph. Despite not being sure at the time whether he would follow his family into the wine business, he still continued to visit Taylor Lane throughout his downtime during high school until he turned 19 and then he knew he wanted to carve his path in the wine world that would be rooted in his love for Pinot Noir.
After some twists and turns that took a bit of his focus away from truly following his passion to express the full potential of Taylor Lane, he is finally releasing a bottling of Belle Glos Taylor Lane Vineyard after it has been cellared in magnum in ideal conditions for many years, fully expressing its sense of place for the 2011 vintage; the first time he has done so with this vineyard.
So in 2001 at just 19 years old, Joseph Wagner, a fifth generation Napa Valley winemaker, started Belle Glos, focused on single vineyard-designated Pinot Noir along the California coastal regions with Taylor Lane being his main inspiration. Belle Glos pays homage to his grandmother, Lorna Belle Glos Wagner. Lorna was a co-founder of Caymus Vineyards, and a Pinot Noir lover who had a great influence on Joseph’s own love for the variety. But it is funny to think that when he started Belle Glos in 2001 that it was three years before the movie Sideways was released – a film that made Pinot Noir popular – and so at the time it was a “little bit against the grain” but Joseph got a lot of joy out of working with the grape, hence why he pursued it before its popularity greatly increased.
Belle Glos makes wines from single vineyards from Russian River, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County and Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara and Joseph’s commitment has always been to the expression of site, no matter the trends on the marketplace. For example, the Clark & Telephone vineyard in Santa Maria Valley has a richer, lusher style than Taylor Lane on the Sonoma Coast and it is a wine that enjoys great success among those who appreciate a generous style of Pinot Noir. But it is a mistake for one to think that the Clark & Telephone is the Belle Glos style as, again, its mission is to express specific, diverse sites in California.
It is interesting to note that many times in life the things that dominate the news do not always reflect what is at the heart of an issue, or person for that matter. Besides Joseph being part of a great American winemaking family, he is probably best known for Meiomi – a Pinot Noir wine made up of grapes from vineyards in various wine regions in California that has a fruit forward style to help introduce more consumers to Pinot Noir. It was a brand Joseph developed that quickly took on a life of its own as it was one of those rare capturing ‘lightning in a bottle’ as it was the right wine at the right time as a friendly first stepping stone into winning over wine drinkers to Pinot Noir. But the fast growing success took Joseph out of what he enjoyed doing everyday – spending time in the vineyards – and it was like having “the tiger by the tale” and so when he had the chance to sell the brand for a large amount of money, he took the opportunity as it would help to fund his passion projects of buying more vineyards as well as paying off all his debt.
Wines with Intent and Purpose
It is interesting that although the sale of Meiomi dominated many a wine news feed, it did not represent the mark that Joseph wanted to make on the wine world; yes, he wanted to introduce Pinot Noir to a wider audience but obviously, as someone who grew up in the business, he knew full well that even famous wine producers were highly leveraged and constantly battling their debt with a business model that included small margins so he did not plan on just creating a brand that would be bought out for a large sum. Actually, he intended that it would be an uphill battle like for every other conscious wine producer that wants to create demand for the undiscovered vineyards they love.
From an early age, he was frustrated that such a special vineyard like Taylor Lane was sold off by his family as there wasn’t a market for it and he knew that one had to get enough people into Pinot Noir gradually before a diverse range of single vineyard sites could be appreciated. Joseph knew that California had a range of Pinot Noir sites that did not always express themselves as lush, fruit forward reds but also were savory, subtle and elegant and they would be appreciated by those hardcore cool climate Pinot drinkers that didn’t even bother endeavoring into California Pinot Noir wines. And so after the sale of Meiomi he got back on the track to his intent and purpose in the wine industry and that was to show that diversity.
But he makes no bones about the fact that Taylor Lane is a difficult vineyard to even get minimal ripeness and at 19 years old he remembers thinking, “Are we going to be able to make something good out of this? Or are we going to just abandon this vineyard because it has been an uphill battle?” and for him it was worth the risk because this was the reason why he was going to devote his life to the wine world. And so, even before Meiomi was sold in 2015, he placed a huge amount of time and energy into making the most out of such an extreme vineyard.
Because it is a cool climate site, he changed the trellising system of the vines from the typical Vertical Shoot Position that is commonly used to one that is called Pergola Trentina from the cooler North East wine province Trentino in Italy that has a main attribute in gaining more access to the sunlight. It is a canopy that is over five feet off the ground that had a crossbar at a 15 degree angle that allows maximum exposure to the sun and the detailed management of each Taylor Lane vine is key in its success to properly distribute the plant’s energy to the right places as well as to keep healthy fruit free of disease contributing to elegant, complex and vibrant wines. This project started in the early 2000s under Joseph’s guidance and with the influx of capital, he has been able to not only pay off debt and buy vineyards but continue a multitude of experiments, ranging from the vineyards to the winery and finally the cellar for aging, that has had more failures than successes but, in his mind, that is the only way to find what will work.
He called up his friend in Burgundy, Mounir Saouma from Lucien Le Moine, to get his ideology about the vineyards and the cellar as Mounir is a man that is obsessed with capturing the true potential of a vineyard in the bottle. Mounir not only focuses on the vineyard itself but pays close attention to the aging at the winery as wines are only released when they are ready. Joseph took Mounir’s ideas and adapted them to what his thoughts and philosophies were for Taylor Lane and incorporated it all into the 2011 vintage. All one has to do is sit with Joseph Wagner and talk about his wine process step by step to realize that there is an enormous amount of detail, thought and innovation in each stage that was placed into getting a wine that expresses the ultimate aromatics, flavors and texture of the 2011 Taylor Lane.
Just one of the many aspects that goes through a painstaking process is one of the ways he treats his French barrels. He expands the barrel with steam, giving more chance for the wine to have a greater exchange of oxygen, and then the steam condenses into water and is left for two to three months to leech out all of the harsh oak tannins and gives him a semi-neutral barrel – it is not completely neutral because it still has a slight character giving a hint of French oak aromatics and flavor profile and most importantly the ability to micro-oxygenate over the course of the wine’s aging life in that barrel.
And now, with the release of the 2011 Belle Glos Taylor Lane Vineyard, a small production wine only made in magnums – as the wine ages more evenly in magnum according to Joseph’s opinion, it is just the beginning of him extending his purpose out to the wine world.
Unorthodox Way of Handling the Market
Joseph contemplated that he wasn’t sure if the general wine public would accept a wine that was not given any firm timeline of when it would hit the market. As he noted, he will only release vintages of Taylor Lane when he feels that that vintage has reached an ideal harmony. When he tasted the 2011s in his cellar several times throughout 2018, he knew that they were getting to an ideal place and so he came up with a packing that would be reminiscent of the Belle Glos label but because Belle Glos is known for “making velvety, voluptuous, rich styles of Pinot Noir” and Taylor Lane is not like the other Belle Glos vineyards the label is also distinctively different.
There will be no set time of when each vintage will get into the hands of the customer, or a guarantee of a natural progression of vintages being released; for example, if he finds the 2013 vintage is reaching its ideal place before the 2012, then the 2013 will be released first. At the end of the day, that is what he feels is right and that the Millennial generation, Joseph himself being at the older end of it, is open to a new way of buying special occasion fine wines, such as Taylor Lane, as for many, cellaring is neither an option nor seen as practical. Joseph feels that producers should not place the onus of aging the wine on the consumer if producers have the resources to take care of the bottle aging process and as someone with the ability to age the wines, he feels a greater responsibility to do so.
There are many around the world that follow the path of an industry or sector of work that is many times rooted in a youthful dream of idealism that quickly gets disregarded to survive the unpleasant realities that all have to take on when navigating any business. That very much could have been the path for Joseph Wagner… but he was given the opportunity to live his dream that first took shape at Taylor Lane and he has not squandered it; if anything he is only getting started.
Joseph Wagner has a few different wine projects in California as well as one in Oregon under his company Copper Cane Wines & Provisions that places a focus on expressing sense of place that ranges from regional to plot specific.
2011 Belle Glos, Taylor Lane Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County: 100% Pinot Noir from Taylor Lane vineyard. Complex nose with dried thyme, forest floor and cherry blossoms that had a stunning texture with just the right amount of structure that gave a precision to the wine balanced by a small amount of fleshiness that was lifted by the crisp acidity.
Also, the 2014 and 2016 vintages were tasted with Joseph Wagner to experience the different stages of a couple of vintages still aging in his Belle Glos cellar.
2014 Belle Glos, Taylor Lane Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County: 100% Pinot Noir from Taylor Lane vineyard. This wine had a little bit more tightness that suggested to Joseph that he still needed to wait a couple more years but it displayed a nice spice quality and he remarked how he liked the combination of the juicy sweet plum flavor and a hint of a “tonic-y” bitterness that one finds in a plum pit – he notes that this is very indicative of Taylor Lane.
2016 Belle Glos, Taylor Lane Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County: 100% Pinot Noir from Taylor Lane vineyard. It has some characteristics of the 2014 yet it was a riper vintage with a lower crop yield and so there is “more fruitiness as well as more tightness”. The wine certainly had a lot of flavorful cassis notes with some dusty earth and it had an intense energy and incredible drive.
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