Starting A Family Winery – Living the Wine Stained Dream

When dreaming big dreams, have you wondered if the reality of living the dream would live up to the expectations of the dreamer. I am about to find out and it is a little scary. My father loved small WWII vintage aircraft. Much as he wanted to pilot, he remained always a passenger, until the day he passed in a mid-air collision of two of his beloved planes.

After the funeral I wondered aloud why my dad had never taken flying lessons so he could experience flight from the pilot’s seat. My mother responded by saying she thought it was because he was afraid the reality of being a pilot could never live up to his dream of being a pilot. He didn’t want to face that possible disappointment after a lifetime of anticipation. I don’t think my father was alone in that fear.

I’ve had a dream for much of my life that took a passenger seat to running a business, raising a family and other less engaging hobbies. My dream started in 1983 on a rainy November afternoon when my wife, Donna, I and two friends pulled into the parking lot of the then fledgling Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley.

We were met by the senior co-founder, Charlie Wagner. It was apparent on that wet chilly day that Mr. Wagner really didn’t want to do a tasting for us. But instead of just sending us on our way, he challenged my group of aspiring wine enthusiasts to tour his post-harvest leafless vineyard in the cold mud and muck. We gladly took him up on the challenge even though I knew my loafers would never recover from the assault by vineyard mud.

Roger & Charlie Wagner – circa 1983

What was supposed to be a quick tour and tasting turned into a four-hour lesson on the art, science and agriculture of winemaking. I was hooked. Still today in my office hangs a photo of a smiling Charlie Wagner in his paid shirt and me in my tweed jacket and soiled loafers, after enjoying Caymus Cabernet around the Wagner family dining room in their small farm-house that now serves as winery offices.

We left Napa and Sonoma a few days later. I, like many before and after, said to myself, if I had it to do all over again, I want to make wine and live the wine country experience. I want to be part of that century’s old tradition of making wine and putting smiles on friendly faces. I think back now and wonder what stopped me. I was only 26, married but no children, it would have been easy. But I had my young buck MBA blinders on, charging forth into the business world.

My passion for wine never faded although it took a back seat to soccer games, volleyball games, ski races and golf tournaments as our children moved through their school age years in Colorado. It seems however that my love of wine took root in them as well, albeit in different ways. Our daughter, Whitney, has gone the hospitality route and is a tour guide at the renowned Jordan Winery while our son, Conch, received his degree in viticulture and enology (winemaking). Conch spent his summer refining his Pinot palate by visiting Russian River wineries and educating Pinot enthusiasts in the C. Donatiello Tasting Room on the Healdsburg square. As of this writing is learning the fine art of Pinot Noir winemaking and production at Kosta Browne Winery.

So I’ve given you the entire back story to see how we arrived at this day when I, and we as a family, take a small step to living that dream that Charlie Wagner unknowingly sparked 31 years earlier. Together our family along with friends from Colorado will make wine under the name J. Cage Cellars in 2014 in Healdsburg, CA. I’m not totally starting over, at least not yet as I still have a business to run in Colorado. Thanks to internet technology I now operate from a little desk in a bedroom we are renting from our daughter and her boyfriend instead of my corner office. The small 1906 restored bungalow may get pretty tight with four adults and two dogs. Hopefully we won’t overstay our welcome.

We put this plan in motion just a couple of months ago and it has been a bit daunting. Just the federal and state liquor licensing to make, not even sell, commercial wine has been overwhelming but I think we are on the home stretch now. Our wine-stained dream hit the road to reality on the morning of our 35th anniversary in June when I received our first grape contract, Pinot Noir from Nunes Vineyard in Russian River Valley. That was soon followed by contracts for Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier from two vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. No turning back…we were committed. Donna’s sister was surprised by the anniversary present of grapes but we explained that Pinot Noir grapes for the 35th anniversary is the traditional gift, at least in our world.

Roger inspecting Pinot Noir grapes for J. Cage Cellars

Beyond all the legal and license BS, there was still much to be done since I will be hands-on in the winery and away from the office for six to eight weeks during harvest, when most of the winemaking is done. First, I had to take stock of my overweight desk-jockey body and get ready for the rigors of harvest. In addition, I needed the buy-in of my staff so I could follow my dream while they toiled away. Promises of much wine helped. While I like to think I know a thing or two about wine, winemaking is another subject entirely. To supplement my lack of education I’ve enrolled in online viticulture and enology classes from Washington State University. Go Cougars…

Conch, Donna and I also had to develop our working relationship. He as the winemaker for J. Cage Cellars, keeping in mind his first responsibility is to his employer, Kosta Browne Winery, with Donna and me as his cellar rats. To call this a juxtaposition of our relationship is an understatement. Do we have it all worked out? I don’t know, only time will tell if we get over all the bumps in the road. Family working relationships can be a perilous maze.

So we are here in Sonoma getting ready for our first harvest or virgin vintage, as I like to call it. I’m in the vineyards every few days checking ripeness and fruit quality, like I know what I am doing. I’m calling winemaker friends and bugging them with basic questions and to be honest, they all have been so helpful. The collegiality of winemakers is very rewarding.

If you have ever dreamed of the wine life or wondered if the realty of following your dreams could live up to the expectations…then follow along on our wine-stained adventure and we can find out together. Am I scared… yeah and it feels good!