Ron Wagner: A Vintner Who Drinks to His Heritage

Ron Wagner contemplates Viriditas by Valisno Vintners (Photo courtesy of  Cherie Querol Moreno)

California's wine country is blossoming with Filipino American producers, all pioneers in the field. One label stands out as an ode to its purveyor's cultural roots.

With his fair skin and hair from his father's German heritage, Ron Wagner is not the typical Filipino. Wagner, who identifies with both sides of his parentage, chose to honor his maternal origins with his brand.

Valisno Vintners is his tribute to his mother, Adela Valisno, who hails from Nueva Ecija.

''I’m a Filipino German American, husband, technology and business consultant, foodie and wine aficionado, and sometime winemaker and aspiring epicurean entrepreneur," Wagner tells Positively Filipino.  

''I did grow up around more Filipinos—having so many relatives on that side—so I can understand the language, but I only speak it a little.''

The 44-year-old, who has embraced his Filipinoness in other ways, is more proficient in the oenological lexicon.

A 17-year technology consultant with Deloitte &Touche in San Francisco, Wagner looks up to a brother in the discipline, Bill Gates, as a role model for giving back to the community with his philanthropic programs.  He is as quick to cite Mona Lisa Yuchengco, whom he has never met but whose foundation to educate underprivileged and abused children he has supported.  Last year he gifted all-volunteer nonprofit ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment with his 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon as an incentive to continue with their advocacy against family violence.

Among wine connoisseurs, he looks up to another Northern Californian, Reggie Narito, who happens to be the lone known Filipino in the world to earn the title of master sommelier.

Wine is a shared passion with Wagner's wife, Susan Shen Wagner, a Deloitte co-worker, who matches his interest in epicuriae. Together they explore the region's gastronomic enclaves and have invested in a noodle restaurant in Oakland.  

She enabled his purchase of 2000 Bordeaux to lay down for the perfect time. When he heard about a local company that enables oenophiles to make their own wines, she was like esters volatizing in a fine bubbly.

Wagner makes his own wine for his own label but does not grow his grapes. Crushpad, a San Francisco company, gave this lover of the vine a taste of the gratification minus the ground labor of winemaking.

''What attracted me was the first rate production they promised—the best grapes from the best vineyards made using the same commercial winery equipment as the big guys—not to mention a first rate winemaking team they had poached from the best Napa wineries,'' Wagner says. ''After attending an open house and tasting their wine I was hooked and decided to make a barrel.''

The woman whose name identifies the product? She drinks less than occasionally but is thrilled her son has so honored her, says Wagner.

He chose Cabernet Sauvignon for its popularity and availability in the Napa Valley, rhapsodizing over its qualities in a language shared by foodies and vintners.

''Being mountain fruit promised a more nuanced and refined Cabernet than valley floor fruit," he critiques.  "Crushpad picked the fruit and rushed it to their facility in the Dogpatch neighborhood, where I sorted it and watched it being fed into the de-stemming machine.  Fermentation as well as aging took place in the facility, which allowed me to come visit and observe and even participate in the whole process.''  

Like a surrogate dad, he savored the joy of the experience vicariously at first.

''Eighteen months later, after many visits to taste the wine while it was changing in the barrel, I participated in running the bottling line myself.''  

He named his wine “Viriditas,” Latin for ''vitality, freshness, spiritual and physical health and can also refer to the greening force of life.'' He produced a second vintage of the same wine combined with an Oregon Pinot Noir with his father Norm Wagner, who had introduced his son to the perfect pairing of wine with food.

''Drinking wine is something that has always been part of my family dinner.  My father often drank wine with meals, and I learned to appreciate the combination of wine and food from him,'' Wagner explains.

The woman whose name identifies the product?  She drinks less than occasionally but is thrilled her son has so honored her, says Wagner.

''My father loves to tell a funny story about how excited he was upon hearing I would use my family name for the wine label, but then when he showed up at the first bottling party he saw that I used Valisno instead of Wagner and was quite disappointed," Wagner relates.  

A yearlong sojourn in vine-rich Australia in 1997 stirred a passion that deepened Wagner's involvement from consumer and student to purveyor eight years later.  

Winemaking is a commitment even after the harvest, he learned.

He raves about the results, spouting industry adjectives to laud 300 bottles aging in a barrel of his vintages:

''Both exceeded my expectations, and although from the same vineyard they are different enough to make it interesting.  The 2006 is a more earthy and brooding cab, while the 2007 vintage was more fruit forward and of ripe intensity, so much so that I had to blend in a little bit of Malbec and Petite Verdot to temper some of that.  Both were aged in French oak, have a nice balance of tannins and go great with all kinds of foods—and are even great sipping wines.''

The personal vintner (third from left) learned the perfect pairing of wine and food from his father Norm Wagner (from left) but named his hobby after his mother, the former Adela Valisno. At right is wife-enabler Susan Shen-Wagner. (Photo courtesy of Cherie Querol Moreno)

Woe to those who crave a sip of Wagner's personal pour that is unavailable elsewhere.  But Wagner offers helpful hints for buying a bottle.

''It’s good to remember that price and quality are rarely correlated, so although I splurge on an occasional expensive bottle of wine, I don't think you really need to ever spend more than $20-30 for a really good bottle,'' he says.  

He urges aficionados to ask themselves what they intend to do with the wine:  Sip in front of a fire?  Drink with sea bass?  With steak?  

''I don’t adhere to hard-and-fast food and wine rules, but I think you do need to be reasonable,'' he advises.  

Another consideration is the company with whom to share the drink.

''If it’s a large group of people, then there are certain wines that are crowd-pleasers to stick to.  If it’s for a group of wine savvy connoisseurs at a tasting, then try something more original or unusual.  Beyond that it’s just what you like to drink, and everyone has their own tastes.''  

Wagner has high enough regard for his product to consider selling at retail one day, but he is realistic about the price tag of such enterprise.

''For now I’d like to continue my winemaking hobby, especially since my wine stocks are running low,'' he says.  ''Money is the biggest obstacle as each barrel costs around $8,500 minimum—a lot of up-front money to spend on wine that only I am drinking, even after sharing some and selling some.”

He adds:  “Time commitment is really minor most of the time, just some work during harvest and fermentation but you can be as absent as you’d like if you trust the people that are helping you to make the wine.  So it really is just a labor of love.''

Hobbyists will drink to that.  

Cherie M. Querol Moreno

Cherie M. Querol Moreno

Cherie M. Querol Moreno is a Commissioner with the San Mateo County on Aging, executive director of ALLICE Kumares & Kumpares and executive editor of Philippine News.