On first read, the 2022 breakdown of CellarTracker’s user-generated data offers little in the way of surprises. Every year, roughly 850,000 (and growing) users manage their personal wine collections using the website, collectively cataloging millions of bottles of wine (13.8 million in 2022) and generating hundreds of thousands of tasting notes (and tens of millions of data points) along the way. Taken together, those data offer a glimpse into the kinds of wines a certain kind of consumer — the kind that would use a cellar management tool like CellarTracker — is collecting, consuming, and obsessing over.
The results, for the most part, register as predictable. For instance, in 2022 CellarTracker users purchased most of their bottles from California (the entire state; CellarTracker doesn’t break U.S. data down by AVA or specific region) followed by Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Tuscany. In a development that should shock absolutely no one, red wines — specifically red Bordeaux blends — command CellarTracker’s list of most added wines AND its list of most consumed wines, suggesting consumers still enjoy collecting and drinking noteworthy red wines from prestigious European wine regions. If it weren’t for one specific Champagne label (if you already guessed it was Dom Pérignon, you guessed correctly) breaking the monotony, the reds of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Bolgheri would dominate these lists almost entirely.
And then there’s Caymus. Arguably the United States’ best-known fine wine, Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon embodies what many consumers think of as the definitive Napa Cab — fruit-forward, rich, velvety, and round. It’s also the only American wine among CellarTracker’s top 10 most added wines of 2022, ranking seventh. Among the year’s most consumed wines it ranks an undisputed No. 1 despite the fact that almost nothing about Caymus is undisputed.
The winery is in fact a magnet for hot takes within the wine industry, drawing both praise and criticism (and sometimes both at the same time) depending on who’s speaking. For many, Caymus epitomizes “special- occasion wine,” representing a sumptuous expression of California Cabernet made in a way that clearly resonates with its legion of devotees. It’s also something of a lightning rod for criticism, drawing fire — fairly or not — from a cohort of (mostly younger) wine professionals and enthusiasts for its winemaking style and ubiquity, which happen to represent two of the keys to its persistent commercial success.
America’s Favorite Fine Wine
Chuck Wagner founded Caymus Vineyards with his parents in 1972, converting the family’s grove in the Rutherford area of Napa Valley into a 73-acre vineyard and winery. Over the course of half a century, the winery has built a reputation around its luxury (but still relatively affordable) Cabernet Sauvignon. That initial 1972 vintage yielded just 250 cases of wine, and it was slow to move. “The wine didn’t sell quickly,” Wagner, now Caymus’s principal winemaker, says. “It was a very quiet period for us. Aside from Robert Mondavi Winery, I would say that all of Napa was very quiet.”
The tranquility didn’t last. Helped along by a positive write-up by pioneering California wine critic Robert Finigan and buoyed by the growing esteem of Mondavi and others in the region, Caymus’s phone soon began ringing with interested buyers. Fast-forward five decades, and Caymus regularly churns out 200,000 cases of wine annually, according to Wagner. Over time the winery has scaled to keep up with demand, growing its winemaking operations and sourcing a good deal of fruit from beyond its original estate in Rutherford.
The wine has also evolved a riper, more generous profile, keeping pace with a broader stylistic shift that took root in Napa Valley during the late 1990s. These days, Wagner describes Caymus as “supple, round, dark, rich, tannic but not bitter, and picked ripe so the acidity is not in-your-face in terms of being tart.”
“I want to believe that people want to drink good wine with a meal,” he says. “And that’s where Caymus plays.”
That profile has proved desirable to a whole lot of drinkers who eagerly shell out nearly $80 at retail (and potentially a few hundred bucks at a restaurant or wine bar) for current-vintage Caymus wines. Back vintages and “Special Select” bottlings can fetch much more. The wines have found a sweet spot between luxury and approachability, requiring little of the drinker but cash — almost no one describes Caymus as a “challenging” wine — and offering a familiar, recognizable fine-wine option for those intimidated by sprawling restaurant wine lists.
“I don’t really know where our success came from,” Wagner says. “But as a winemaker, I want to believe that our style of wine represents our success. And I think to a large degree it does.”
You can now find Caymus in the cellars of clubby Manhattan power lunch venues like Michael’s and on various Four Seasons menus in cities across the U.S. It’s a fixture on the wine lists of major restaurant groups and upmarket nationwide chains (particularly steakhouses) like Capital Grille or Ruth’s Chris. Plug “Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon” into the online database Wine-Searcher and it returns nearly 400 retail options in the U.S. alone — a lot for a luxury wine with a high double-digit price tag. It’s the rare bottle that maintains a regular presence on both fine-dining restaurant lists and grocery store shelves, breezily selling through cases in both venues.
“It makes sense why people come to that wine early,” says Brahm Callahan, master sommelier and CEO of wine-focused venture capital fund Faucet. “It’s big, it’s forward, it has a lot of generosity, it’s approachable, and also it’s everywhere. It’s not like some gray ghost/unicorn that you can only find in the storybooks sommeliers read to themselves at night. It’s an actual product consumers can buy.”
And they do buy it, enthusiastically, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of bottles per year. Caymus’s approachability and availability make it an easy wine to ask for by name, and that demand prompts beverage professionals to ensure it’s always available. “Is it my absolute favorite wine?” says Zach Kameron, beverage director for RHC, a hospitality group whose properties include Peak Restaurant in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. “No it isn’t. But I understand why it’s other peoples’ favorite wine, and I fully respect that, and that’s why I have it on the list. And to a certain degree they’re disappointed if I don’t have it.”
Why Won’t Industry Pros Talk About Caymus?
There are others who don’t count Caymus as their favorite wine. A vocal cohort of younger wine professionals in particular — especially those who have enthusiastically taken up the mantle of the natural/biodynamic wine movements — regularly hold up Caymus as an example of everything they dislike about “boomer wine.” And Caymus, with its signature rich, round, dark-fruit profile and discernible residual sugar, provides “low-intervention” wine obsessives with a very visible target at which to hurl their critiques.
Search just about any thread involving Caymus on the subreddit r/wine, for instance, and what often starts as a straightforward question about a particular vintage devolves into a pile-on of disparaging comments, many from users with “Wine Pro” badges affixed directly under their anonymous screen names. Complaints center on price, alcohol levels, residual sugar, and/or additives (and sometimes all of these things at once). To maintain its signature flavor profile harvest-to-harvest, one prominent line of criticism goes, Caymus has no choice but to manipulate its wine in various ways. The term “Mega Purple” — referring to a grape-based additive used (extremely widely) across the global wine industry to provide deeper color and additional sweetness to red wines — surfaces a lot.
Caymus doesn’t publicize its specific winemaking practices just as most wineries don’t, and many of these criticisms are speculative. It’s also important to note that the introduction of additives to wine to adjust things like sugar levels, acidity, and overall flavor is not only perfectly legal but incredibly widespread. Manipulating wine to achieve a desired profile isn’t just allowed, it’s essentially tradition for a lot of winemakers. The criticisms often leveled at America’s favorite Napa Cab could be aimed at countless other producers of fine wine, but they’re not. For whatever reason, Caymus — specifically Caymus — inspires passion in both its fans and its detractors.
Caymus occupies such a peculiar place in American wine culture that many beverage professionals refuse to even discuss it — or at least not on the record. VinePair reached out to dozens of sommeliers, beverage directors, retailers, and wine distributor reps, finding only two who agreed to talk about the wine and the winery on the record. Many refused out of caution, fearing they might damage relationships with distributors, offering off-the-record comments instead. In declining to speak, one referred to the entire subject matter as a “loaded gun.”
All that points to a certain disconnect between wine professionals and wine consumers, one that perhaps says less about Caymus and more about the state of the American wine industry. Caymus, no matter how any one person feels about big velvety California Cabernets, is a wildly successful product. And while the industry complains that younger drinkers aren’t gravitating toward wine the way previous generations did, to Callahan’s point, Caymus offers an incredibly accessible on-ramp into the category from a flavor — if not financial — perspective. Whether the industry’s gatekeepers view this as the preferred route to do so is another question entirely.
Where, then, does that leave America’s most loved and hated Cabernet as the industry stares down an uncertain future? Wagner acknowledges a generational shift underway among wine consumers, and that Caymus’s rich, fruit-forward style might not be the wine for all eras. “I think a lot millennials were primarily driven by their own sommeliers and wine critics, and they clearly wanted something different than what their parents drank,” he says of the movement toward leaner, drier styles of winemaking. But for now the wine-buying public remains large, and if younger drinkers aren’t drinking Caymus — or drinking wine generally — it has yet to dent the brand’s popularity or its sales. Consumers are buying Caymus, drinking Caymus, and going back for more. It’s all right there in the CellarTracker data.
“They deliver a product that people like,” Kameron says. “It sounds very simple, it’s something that everybody tries to do, but they deliver a product in a style that people like.”
The article It’s Time to Talk About Caymus, America’s Most Loved — and Loathed — Fine Wine appeared first on VinePair.