Spotlight on Napa Valley: Inglenook

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The story of Inglenook is, in many ways, the story of Napa Valley. The winery’s journey through eras and ownership is both emblematic of the big changes California wine has confronted over the years and a story entirely unique unto itself.

Origins

Inglenook was founded by Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain who made his fortune by monopolizing the sea shipping routes into the newly acquired state of Alaska. By the 1870’s Niebaum was immensely wealthy, drank a lot of wine, and felt that he could travel to Europe to learn how to make great wine in America – not incidentally befriending Louis Pasteur in the process. Niebaum founded Inglenook in 1879 incorporating the latest discoveries by Mr. Pasteur about fermentation and microbiology and the best techniques from Bordeaux. This included building the first gravity-fed winery in North America and a magnificent chateau, complete with Napa’s very first tasting room.

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Soon Inglenook developed a reputation for making some of the best wines in the United States, along with the likes of BV and Beringer, both of which opened around the same time.

Prohibition

Niebaum passed away in 1908 and his wife Suzanne Niebaum inherited the estate. Her stewardship was short lived as prohibition was on the doorstep and resulted in the total devastation of California’s wine industry, including Napa Valley. After prohibition was nationalized in 1920, the valley declined from about two hundred wineries to a mere five. Inglenook was among the casualties.

Following prohibition, Suzanne Niebaum revived the estate and set the stage for its most important era, when John Daniel Jr. (Niebaum’s great-nephew) inherited the estate in 1939.

The John Daniel Jr. Era

John Daniel Jr. is likely the creator of Napa Valley’s greatest wines. His stewardship of Inglenook from 1939 to 1964 resulted in what many collectors and Napa Valley experts today consider the greatest wines ever made in the Valley. Daniel focused completely on quality. He declassified wines that did not meet his standard in an era where doing so was quite financially risky (even the famous André Tchelistcheff thought this practice unsustainable).

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Along with the famous Inglenook vineyards on the western side of Rutherford, Daniel was also lucky to have acquired the Napanook estate, adding that to the blend. Napanook is now the source for the wines of Dominus, run by Christian Moueix of Petrus. From these grapes Daniel fashioned vintages that still drink well today – some of the best included the over 50-year old 1941, 1952, and 1958. Reports from tastings of these vintages in the past several years is that they have the greatest longevity of any wines made in Napa from that period.

The Division and the Sale of the Estate: The Corporate Era

Selling wine in the 1930’s to 1960’s in the United States was an entirely different endeavor than today. The wine market was not mature and was only beginning to recover from prohibition. Focus on utmost quality was uncommon. Daniel’s talent and standards sadly led him to a financially precarious situation in which the winery needed significant capital improvements and did not have enough capital to effect them.

As a result, Daniel decided to divide the estate and put the Chateau and the vineyards fronting it toward HWY 29 on sale along with the Inglenook name. Allied Grape Growers purchased the estate in 1964 from Daniels for $1.2 million and soon after sold it to the large corporate group Heublein Incorporated. Despite promises to maintain quality, the estate soon devolved into large-yields to feed low quality jug wines. Inglenook became one of the best selling wine brands in the United States, but the resulting damage to the Inglebook brand name in the 1960’s through the 1980’s meant it forever became associated with jug-wine of little merit for wine drinkers in that period.

Daniel kept the original estate house and the vineyards behind the Chateau for himself. However, he never made wine again after selling in 1964 and soon spiralled into a depression. He died in 1970 and his wife decided to put the remaining land and house up for sale. It remained on the market for some time, but eventually Francis Ford Coppola, who was looking for a quiet California home for his family surrounded ‘by a few grape vines’, purchased the remaining estate land in 1975, hot off of making a ton of money from the Godfather movies.

Coppola never intended to make wine on a commercial scale at this time.

Coppola Part 1 – John Daniel Jr and Robert Mondavi

Soon after Coppola acquired the old Daniel home in 1975, he had an auspicious dinner with Robert Mondavi. Little did Coppola know that he had purchased one of the great wine estates of Napa, including its old library of wines, which were located below the Daniel home.

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Coppola originally intended to sell the estate’s fruit to make some extra income, but was surprised at how many calls he was receiving for access to the fruit. To understand this phenomenon he called up Robert Mondavi to ask him what was going on. Mondavi told him the story of Inglenook and that he was sitting on a gold mine of both vineyard land and old wines. He told Coppola he had a duty to keep the estate going and that Daniel and his wines were fundamentally influential on Mondavi entering the wine business and aspiring to greatness. Rather than continuing the conversation on the phone, Coppola invited Mondavi over for dinner at the estate.

During the dinner, Mondavi took Coppola through the amazing collection of library wines in the cellar beneath the homestead. There, Mondavi found old vintages from the 19th century that were still in mint condition. He opened these along with several vintages from the 1940’s to drink with Coppola, who, reports go, was so amazed at the quality of the wines that he finally understood why Mondavi wanted him to make wine from the estate rather than selling off the fruit. He called the estate Niebaum-Coppola.

Coppola has since then formed one of the most successful wine companies in Sonoma, which became far more profitable than even his movie making business. The profits from that enterprise helped fund increasing improvements to the Napa winery.

Amazingly, genetic testing has also since proved that the Cabernet Sauvignon that was planted in the back vineyard lots behind the Chateau matches the original vines Gustave Niebaum brought back from France in the 1880s. Today, the clone is registered as Rubicon Estate Heritage Clone #29.

Coppola made his first vintage of wine in 1978, using the old stage house for vinification. The wine, called Rubicon became the estate’s flagship wine and debuted in 1985.

Coppola Part 2 – Inglenook

10 years after the innagural release of Rubicon, Coppola had the opportunity to purchase the Chateau and the land between it and HWY 29. The estate lands were rendered defunct by Constellation who had acquired the brand and moved production of the Inglenook wines to the central valley where they could increase volumes on a massive scale. They took the brand but sold the land back to Coppola. Constellation then sold the brand to The Wine Group in 2008. Coppola then started to restore the Chateau, which work was completed in 1997.

When you see the Chateau today, it is almost entirely all original, right down to the beautiful wood-carved tasting room (the original tasting room in the Valley). It is one of the most beautiful buildings in the California wine industry, suitable to the estate’s grand history.

Coppola, to his credit, remained tenacious in his vision to renew the estate. So much so that in 2011 he negotiated with the then-owners of the Inglenook brand to re-acquire it. Reportedly the brand cost him more than he paid for all of the land and the Chateau combined.

In the same year, after an extensive search, Coppola hired Philippe Bascaules, winemaker for Chateau Margaux, to oversee winemaking at the estate. This heralded the modern era and, in my view, the moment at which Inglenook has all the pieces in place to return to the pinnacle it once occupied.

The Wines and the Rutherford Terroir

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Seeing the restored Inglenook vineyards today is a stunning, beautiful sight. The vineyards behind the Chateau (those that remained with Daniel) nestle up against the mountains and offer a wide range of aspects and soil types. These vines provide the grapes for the Rubicon bottling. Those fronting the estate proceed for many acres toward HWY 29. These vineyards provide the grapes for the second wine, the Inglenook “Cask” bottling. The total estate is quite large and well over 1500 acres, though there are about 200 acres currently under vine.

This is Cabernet terroir – Rutherford being arguably the best place in Napa Valley to make Cabernet-focused Bordeaux Blends. So many of the wineries in this stretch of the valley have succumbed to over-ripeness and commercialization. Even vintages of Rubicon from the 2000’s do not particularly inspire. But things have changed considerably since 2011 when Bascaules joined Inglenook, and when the general trend of consumer and critical tastes shifted toward wines with greater finesse, balance, and elegance, and – yes – lower alcohol. Bascaules, for instance, implemented a regime of much later pruning and much earlier harvesting.

From the 2012 vintage forward, Inglenook is steadily back in the stable of Napa Valley first growths, and the estate’s top wine (now called Rubicon) is once again one of the very best in the Valley, and indeed in all of California.

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Rubicon 2006: Made by winemaker Scott McLeod in a big California style. Prune-like nose, suggesting the wine was picked late in a warm vintage. That stewed-fruit aroma undermines the wine somewhat as I would hope for greater clarity in the fruit profile. This will likely decline quickly. Very Good+. $250 USD.

Rubicon 2010: The last of McLeod’s wines. Big fruit and tannin here with sweet black fruits. A better vintage than 2006. Flavourful and enjoyable, but not elegant. Excellent. $250 USD.

Rubicon 2011: A cool vintage, bringing a touch of leafy-pyrazines to the wine. But the wine remains ripe and quite pleasurable. This was Bascaules first vintage, though he arrived in September so did not oversee the process from beginning to end. It is a marked difference in style from the 2010, much more focused on aromatics and finesse and less on power and voluptuousness. Excellent. $210 USD.

Rubicon 2012: Profound wine that is supremely elegant and aromatic. Pure and balanced. Drinking well now but has excellent tannic structure for another decade of aging. Excellent+. $250 USD.

Rubicon 2014: Open-knit and drinking well now, due to the drought vintage. It is a balanced, utterly delicious wine focused on the graphite-style flavours of an earlier picked Cab Sauv. Excellent to Excellent+. $210 USD.

Comments

  1. David Cooper
    March 30, 2018

    Very nice article about one of the most important stories in the history of American wine. Thanks for leaving out the horrific Heublein years.

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