Copper Cane’s Joe Wagner Says Just “Go With Your Palate”

Bonfort’s Editor-in-Chief, Natasha Swords talked to Joe Wagner, possibly the industry’s most trail-blazing personality, about his most recent venture, Copper Cane Wine & Provisions. After his sale of Pinot Noir brand, Meomi for $315 million, Joe quickly created Copper Cane, a luxury brand collective that focuses on decadence.

Steeped in family winemaking history, Joe is that perfect, accidental balance of depth of tradition and knowledge matched with an inherent compulsion to reconstruct how consumers experience wine, forcing the industry into rethinking how we interpret winemaking, and wine selling.

BONFORT’S: Copper Cane is more than a winery, it’s a lifestyle really. Can you explain it for our readers?

JOE: Copper Cane Wines & Provisions houses a collection of brands that are crafted to offer a touch of luxury for everyday indulgence. The philosophy of Copper Cane is to create wines and a few other products that deliver luxury at an everyday level. With wine as our primary focus, we are driven to craft wines that deliver far beyond their price point with a goal of elevating people’s everyday experience. From farming, to winemaking, to bringing our wines to the marketplace, each of our wines has a reason for being whether it is a focus on region, varietal or philosophy of winemaking. In all, our brands are: Belle Glos, Elouan, Quilt, Böen, Beran, Carne Humana, and Steorra. Copper Cane is also home to Avrae a premium line of cigars and we are working on developing a few spirits.

BONFORT’S: That’s an impressive line-up. How did you assemble your portfolio and how long did it take?

JOE: The portfolio was developed over a handful of years and was driven by a desire to have a fine wine for all settings. Whether it be food pairings or a glass on the porch, I wanted enough options to accommodate each setting, but few enough that we have extreme focus on each wine.

We are not a negociant wine business. We make each wine and farm as much of the fruit as possible to ensure control of character and class.  With that in mind, our wine style evolved into something that resonated with consumers. It is a style of wine driven by what appealed to me, my family and friends. I took the “Go with your Palate” mindset and put it to each interest I had in the world of grapes and wine.

With the US as our primary market, we rely upon our own experiences to guide us to each style.  I grew up with an American palate, as did the rest of the nation and I assume if I make wines that I like, hopefully others will like them too. There was no targeting, or market opportunity. It was a simple desire to make great wines that we liked and hopefully bring them to a price that is accessible to a large portion of the population, in turn augmenting the value to the customer.

BONFORT’S: You are renowned for Pinot Noir. How does Elouan, fit in with your journey and with what people expect from you?

JOE: As with Belle Glos and Boen, my passion for Pinot Noir begins with how it reflects the vineyard or region in which it is grown. Along the California coast, which I consider home, the Belle Glos Pinots reflect what I consider some of the world’s best winegrowing sites, in some of California’s most respected appellations, to deliver world-class California Pinot Noir.

While Boen highlights California’s best appellations in a broader sense, making them less about the individual attributes of one piece of land and more about the multiple characters that come together to express a region. For me, Boen epitomizes our lust for experimentation through new plantings and exploring areas that have not been explored before.

Moving north into Oregon, Elouan is a representation of the breadth of Pinot Noir. It thrives in Burgundy, New Zealand, California, etc., and although these areas produce different styles, each one is respectable in its own right.

We took our philosophies from growing and winemaking in California, and adapted them to maximize what Oregon’s Terroir has to offer.  The results have been tremendous and the wines speak for themselves, showcasing the coast of Oregon in all its glory. While it is a touch brighter and driven by minerality, it showcases what Oregon delivers at a higher level of intensity. All of these brands represent unique and expressive Pinot Noir.

BONFORT’S: Napa is overflowing with Cabs and Cab Blends. What makes Quilt relevant?

JOE: As a fifth generation winemaker, my Napa Valley roots run deep. I’ve made cab in “cult” style for over a decade and wanted to expose that style to a larger audience. That was the beginning of Quilt. While Pinot Noir does well with vineyard designation, Cab does not. To maintain consistency and style, we work with seven of the AVAs within Napa Valley to create a full style that is quite showy. My history and understanding of the geography have allowed me to make Napa Valley wines that uphold the highest quality and via aspirational marketing (as opposed to the typical elitist approach in Napa), I am to introduce this phenomenal region to a younger generation that may have found Napa out of their price comfort zone.

BONFORT’S: Using Beran as an example, what is the future of Zinfandel in the US?

JOE: Zinfandel is experiencing a renaissance in the US with Sonoma County as the epicenter. The region is rife with potential for world-class wines and California is the only climate in which it can be done really well and true to form. With a large amount of Old Vine Zin still under cultivation, Sonoma has a leg up on driving the quality to the market.

BONFORT’S: How is the market receiving Steorra, and how aware are customers of Pinot Noir Sparkling Wine, particularly?

JOE: The market is incredibly receptive to Steorra. While limited in availability, the wine is consistently in-demand and selling out where available. With a palatable profile comparable to the popular varietal of prosecco, the wine has the quality and pedigree of Russian River Valley fruit and the classic underpinnings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay like the great houses of Champagne. With a low dosage, it better reflects the region and is an amazing food wine. It is currently only available at restaurants as we continue to learn more about and slowly grow the brand.

BONFORT’S: With all the consolidation going on in the marketplace, at both the distributor level as well as the retail level, how has Copper Cane broken through the clutter?

JOE: Copper Cane is recognized as an innovator at both the distributor and trade level. They have recognized the unique proposition that Copper Cane has to offer. While we have our own sales team, our relationships with the other tiers is of extreme importance. We hope to come to the table with more upside, whether it’s better wines, better margins, better marketing, etc. The wines appeal to a broad base of consumers and the trade understands that the company will provide distinctive and cutting-edge support to drive sales.We’ve been fortunate to stand alone in this space where we are given the respect of a larger supplier and the attention of the trades as they understand our wines translate to higher sales.

BONFORT’S: As one winemaker to another, what is your advice for releasing wines today?

JOE: Continue to innovate, look for areas to improve and continue to get better. Consumers continue to evolve their tastes and preferences with a mix of favorite “go to” wines and new experiences in wine styles and varietals. If you stay true to yourself and everything you do is with purpose in a genuine manner, your story will travel far beyond your lips and the wines will build personal relationships with others across the land.

BONFORT’S: What do your future plans entail?

JOE: You have to stay in touch to find out! A lot of new, exciting prospects on the horizon – from spirits to cool new venues.

BONFORT’S: Do Bonfort’s readers have something to look forward to this OND?

JOE: Yes, we will be releasing a new Tri-Appellation Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Böen – highlighting the best of Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara County. The wines will feature new, state-of-the-art technology that allows the consumer to engage with the brand in a way that has never been done before. Additionally, some retailers will begin to carry 3pk wooden gift packs featuring the best-known Pinot Noirs of the Copper Cane portfolio. Finally, the much-anticipated release of the Belle Glos Taylor Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir in 1.5L bottles will become available for the first time in 6 years. It’s a rare opportunity to acquire a Pinot Noir from one of the most coveted vineyards in California.

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Natasha Swords

Natasha Swords is an accomplished editor and writer with 20+ years of creative composition, reporting and management. She hails from Dublin Ireland where she held the position of Editor at Jemma Publications. Natasha honed her editorial skills by delivering engaging content on a wide range of topics, before finally focusing on the alcohol beverage and cannabis industries. She is Editor-in-Chief at Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits Journal as well as Drink me Magazine, where she leads all editorial content from story-idea generation to commissioning freelance writers and photographers. She also heads up CannEpoch, a lifestyle publication for the newly cannabis curious. In 2018, Natasha launched Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits Journal from inception, as well as the Bonfort’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a top-tier industry event connecting leading brands with key buyers. Steeped in the alcohol industry media, she was previously editor of Off-License Magazine, California Beverage News and Patterson’s California Beverage Journal (now Tasting Panel Magazine), and ran corporate communications for a number of alcohol supplier companies including TGIC (now Guarachi Wine Partners) and distributor, TITAN Wine and Spirits.