From Fairfax mayor to award-winning winemaker

“We are a licensed and bonded winery,” says Frank Egger, pointing at the license for Cazadero Winery, hanging on his wall at his home in Fairfax. “But we don’t produce here.”

Egger is the former mayor of Fairfax, having served seven terms before being ousted in 2005. Egger also served on the Fairfax City Council for an unprecedented 39 years. After retiring as a Teamster President (in San Francisco) he decided to start a winery.

“We pay for two ABC licenses, one in Fairfax, and one in Healdsburg,” he says. “That’s where we produce, in Healdsburg.”

Technically the winery started in 2008, but the Egger family has been in Cazadero (along the Sonoma Coast) far longer.

“My grandparents went to Cazadero in 1918, and my grandfather planted a vineyard up there in 1922. The family lost the property during the Depression,” says Egger. “Sold on the courthouse steps in 1939 for $450.”

The family maintained a foothold up there and in 1990, Egger volunteered to help plant Cabernet Sauvignon at Bei Vineyards. Little did he know that those grapes ultimately would go into his own wines. His award winning wines.

“We don’t do Wine Enthusiast and Parker and all that,” says Egger. “We enter our wines in competitions.”

And they win. Cazadero Winery has now won 127 individual wine awards: double golds, gold, “best of class,” silvers, in competitions ranging from harvest fairs, to local publication events, to national magazines like Sunset.

“We are the most awarded micro-winery in Sonoma County,” he claims. And since Sonoma County has over 425 different wineries, that is quite an achievement.

Technically their home in Fairfax could do tastings, and they have done some private ones. But Egger, and his wife, Ronita, are the face of the winery.

“We do public tastings everywhere,” says Egger. “The Sonoma County Harvest Fair, the Tiburon Wine Festival, the Larkspur Wine Stroll, Mill Valley Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting, that’s how people get to taste our wines.”

Produced at Merriam Vineyard’s custom crush facility on Los Amigos Road in Healdsburg, their first vintage was 2008.

“They opened in 2009 and we were one of their first custom crush clients, and we have been there ever since,” says Egger.

Cazadero’s most award winning wine is their unctuous cabernet sauvignon which exhibits bright fruit and late developing tannins, a wine that one could easily mistake for a Napa Valley Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

“In the morning, the heat comes out of Cazadero, 90 to 95 degrees is common for the summer, and the fog cools it down at night,” says Egger. “It’s at 1600 feet, so for all practical purposes it’s mountain fruit. It’s just a little finger spot on the Sonoma Coast that is perfect for cabernet.”

Since “Cazadero” is near the famous “Cazadero Music Camp” a legendary elementary school retreat (sold by the Bohemian Club to the Berkeley School District in 1957) and not in the town of Cazadero, using the name created a bit of a problem. Two years of legal wrangling followed.

“Our first production was the 2008 cabernet, 24 to 26 months we age, extended bottle aging, so by the time we got the name, the wine was ready,” says Egger. “One of the streams that comes off the ranch actually comes out at Berkeley Camp,” Egger says.

The 7.5 acres now produces Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The Syrah is sold, and Cazadero makes the rest into 100 percent cabernets, or 100 percent chardonnays. Cazadero also sources pinot noir from nearby Parmeter Vineyards to make their Pinot Noir.

The cabernet vines are essentially “dry farmed,” with occasional use of stored rainwater, the fruit is dropped, and the grapes are grown without chemicals and are whole cluster harvested. Foot stomped, the wine contains only 25 PPM of sulfur, far below the 100 PPM threshold allowed in organic wines.

“It’s a sheep grazed vineyard,” says Egger. “We use the sheep to keep the weeds down. That way we don’t have to use Round-Up. We were sustainable before sustainable became a thing,” he adds.

Cazadero’s Chardonnays are incredibly well balanced exhibiting bright fruit, soft roundness and not too much oak, resulting from barrel fermentation and barrel aging in 100 percent French oak: one third new oak, one third once used, and one third twice used. Two different levels of malolactic fermentation differentiate between the two chardonnays.

“I just put the Fort Ross/Seaview Chardonnay out and it won a gold medal already,” says Egger proudly. “I just entered it into the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, we’ll see what Sonoma County thinks.”

Producing a little over 1,000 cases annually, their current wine maker is Ashley Herzberg (of Mauritson Wine), one of the hottest new winemakers in Sonoma County, but outside of that, Cazadero really is a “mom and pop” operation.

“We have no distributor and no wine rep,” says Egger. “We do it all ourselves, we sell just in Sonoma and Marin Counties, upper end retailers, wine bars and restaurants. These two old people are out and about selling wine: 81, and 83 years old,” he adds with a laugh. “I wish we had started when we were young. But we didn’t.”

Egger also drives the truck carrying the grapes to Healdsburg and supervises the harvest, often at 2 am. “If I don’t want to put the grapes in my mouth, they are not going into my wine,” he says.

The result is awards, lots of them.

“We win the gold medals, says Egger. “And when we do, we reopen the cases and put the corresponding gold medal right on the bottle, so there’s no confusion.”

Cazadero wines are currently carried by Mill Valley Market, Vintage Wine and Spirits, Good Earth Natural Foods in both Fairfax and Mill Valley, Woodlands Market, United Markets, Scotty’s Market and the Palace Market in Point Reyes. The wines run from $39 up to $59.

Sales have increased dramatically over the last two years, especially at retail outlets.

“Maybe the word is finally getting out about us,” says Egger.

Maybe it is.

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