Undoubtedly there will be many things contained in these notes which will seem so much like self-evident truths that you may consider them commentary on my opinion of your judgment and perception, and for that reason I want to say, at the very first, anything included in these notes will be something I have found to be helpful to me…
- Letter from John Daniel Jr. to his sister Suzanne, dated March 30, 1942
Only a handful of properties in Napa Valley can count upwards of 100 vintages. Two short, early 20th-century periods of dormancy aside, Rutherford’s Inglenook has been making wine since 1882, putting it in a class of longevity occupied by Charles Krug, Beringer, and precious few others. Like so many of the world’s lasting winegrowing estates, Inglenook has seen its fortunes dim and prosper. The winery has endured successive waves of ownership changes, and each changing of the guard brought the dawn of a new era. In one, the estate produced over half a million cases of wine; in another, 20,000.
Wherever Inglenook went, so went the valley. Through its many iterations, Inglenook has run roughly parallel to—or as a predictor of—greater forces governing the Napa Valley and the corporatization of wine. Characters filter through its story, products of their time that would indelibly influence the larger region. Many gave years, and decades, to the cause of stewardship.
Today, sitting atop the bale loam soils of western Rutherford, Inglenook has returned to form. How did it get there in the first place?
I have always considered Inglenook the first château, not Beaulieu.
- André Tchelistcheff, “Grapes, Wine, and Ecology”
Captain Gustav Ferdinand Nybom, born in Helsinki in 1842, first sailed into the San Francisco Bay on March 2, 1868, with a cargo of seal pelts worth three-quarters of a million dollars, bartered and bought from Aleut tribesman on the distant Pribilof Islands in Alaska’s Bering Sea. It was one year after Seward’s Folly, and Captain Nybom was poised to profit on the isolated new American frontier. Since the late 1850s, he had been working for the Russian-American Company, the de facto representative of imperial Russia’s authority in Alaska. He spent years exploring the cold Alaskan waters, learning the fur trade, and communicating with the indigenous people of the north. As the sale became imminent, so did the end of the Russian-American Company. Seizing his opening, Nybom transferred from his winter respite in Victoria to Sitka, Alaska, in the spring of 1867. There, he became a naturalized American citizen and bought a brig from his former boss, Russian-American Company Chief Manager Prince Dmitri Maksutov, who was preparing to oversee bulk liquidation of the company’s assets in Alaska. That autumn, Nybom set sail for St. Paul in the Pribilofs, four desolate islands of tundra halfway between the Alaskan Coast and Russia, home to the world’s largest fur seal breeding grounds. Nybom knew the islanders, and he gained access to the seal trade of the Pribilof Islands before Maksutov could unload the company’s now-vacant property on St. Paul. A legacy and lasting fortune would result.
By the end of 1867, the San Francisco-based Hutchinson, Kohl, and Co. outmaneuvered other bidders in Sitka to buy the Russian-American Company’s bulk assets and, by January of 1868, had successfully negotiated a purchase of the company’s interests in the Pribilof Islands as well. Hutchinson, Kohl recognized value in Nybom’s skills and experience in the region, and with an eye toward St. Paul and the Pribilofs, Kohl offered him membership interest in the firm. That first sealing season of 1868 produced lucrative profits, but Hutchinson, Kohl had only a jump start, not a monopoly, on the islands’ fur trade. Competing firms arrived, too. To extract real wealth from the Pribilofs, the partners hoped to eliminate competition through consolidation and secure an exclusive government lease to operate on the islands. So, in October of 1868, the firm of Hutchinson, Kohl merged with three other American sealing outfits to form the Alaska Commercial Company. In 1870, the Alaska Commercial Company secured a 20-year exclusive lease from the US Treasury Department to operate a seal fishery on the Pribilof Islands, cementing its role as the largest purveyor of fur seal pelts in the world. Nybom was one of the company’s 14 founders.
Those 20 years would generate immense wealth for the founders and investors of the Alaska Commercial Company. The US Treasury collected over $10 million in pelt taxes—that’s $250 million in today’s dollars—during the lifespan of the lease. The seal trade of the Pribilof Islands was the dominant economic activity in Alaska at the time, annually producing around 100,000 seal pelts. But public awareness of the company’s astronomical profit dovetailed with growing condemnation of inhumane practices associated with the trade. Seal population levels dwindled due to offshore poaching, which illegally targeted females and males alike. Reports suggesting abuse of Aleut islanders emerged. Several congressional inquiries and at least one official audit occurred. The company was repeatedly cleared of wrongdoing, yet years of bad publicity eroded trust. In 1890, the company’s lease was not renewed, and its fortunes rapidly declined. But for 20 years at least, Nybom made a lot of money—if the government collected $10 million in 20 years of taxing pelts, Nybom’s personal fortune surpassed that mark by 1880.
With the company’s operations fully underway, Captain Gustav Nybom took up residence in San Francisco, and in 1873, he married Susan Shingleberger and Americanized his name. Now Gustave Niebaum, the still-young captain looked for land. Inspired by the wineries of Europe and encouraged by California’s own nascent industry, Niebaum settled on a piece of land locked in the evening shadow of the Mayacamas Mountains in Rutherford, Napa Valley. And so, a Russian sailor arrived in Napa Valley, the world of Younts and Crabbs and Krugs and Lewellings, and entered the world of wine. (How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? You start with a large one…)
Captain Gustave Niebaum - Photo courtesy of Coppola/Inglenook Archives
Back then, everybody knew everybody. Everybody married everybody. Everybody bought their land from a Yount. It was a small valley. And it all started in 1836 with the Rancho Caymus land grant—more than 11,000 acres of prime valley floor land awarded to George Yount, the first American settler in Napa. Think of it like a giant Clos de Vougeot, just waiting for inevitable division after the monks are run out of town. In 1871, a Napa banker named William Watson bought a small farm west of Rutherford, nestled against Mount St. John in the Mayacamas, from a Gaspard Konig, who had originally acquired the property from Yount. For a short time, it was back in the family: Watson married Elizabeth Davis, granddaughter of George Yount and sister to John Davis. Watson founded a sanitarium on his property and planted 54 acres of Black Malvoisie grapes. (Was this Carignan?) Eventually, he produced a small makeshift cellar. In July of 1878, Watson hung a sign, dubbing his property “Nook Farm.” He sold it in 1880 to Judge Serranus Hastings, first Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, who flipped it and found a buyer in Captain Gustave Niebaum.
On November 19, 1880, the St. Helena Star reported the sale of two adjoining parcels of land in Rutherford to a member of the Alaska Commercial Company. For $48,000, Gustave Niebaum purchased Watson’s 78-acre Nook Farm from Judge Hastings and the 440-acre Ruhlwing Ranch next door. On February 4, 1881, the newspaper reported, “Capt. Niebaum has received 900 choice Sauvignon (Blanc) cuttings from San Jose,” with “several thousand” Jaquez and Mustang cuttings coming from Texas a month later. On August 26, the paper noted the Nook Farm property would henceforth be known as Inglenook. With the new name, meaning something like “cozy corner,” Niebaum added his own flourish. He hired Captain Hamden McIntyre, an associate from the Alaska Commercial Company with winemaking experience at New York’s Pleasant Valley Wine Company, to oversee operations, and in 1882, Inglenook produced its first documented vintage: 80,000 gallons of wine and a little brandy. Off to the races!
Over the next several years, the estate at Inglenook took shape. In 1882, Niebaum and McIntyre dug an experimental cellar into the hillside, taking advantage of the naturally cool ambient temperature offered underground. The following year, they began constructing a massive stone-and-iron château and winery, readying it in time for the 1887 harvest. The three-story edifice operated mostly by gravity flow, with redwood fermenters installed on the second level and Black Forest oak casks built for aging on the first. Meanwhile, the surrounding estate grew to 1,100 acres—300 acres of vines amidst white fig, walnut, chestnut, and olive trees—as the new winery provided capacity to produce over 200,000 cases a year. To promote his wares, Niebaum established what is widely credited as one of the valley’s first “sample-rooms” in 1889. The château, restored by Francis Ford Coppola in the 1990s, remains one of Napa Valley’s most historic and imposing landmarks today.
The famous Inglenook château - Courtesy of Coppola/Inglenook Archives
Niebaum believed his wines could be world-class and enacted standards to achieve that goal. In that first harvest of 1882, he sorted his grapes, to the bewilderment of friends and neighbors. He planted vineyards with densities mimicking Bordeaux rather than adopting the wider spacing common in California. Niebaum and McIntyre held winery cleanliness as sacrosanct in an era when hospital hygiene was still more or less controversial, two decades before The Jungle. Niebaum installed a sterile bottling line in 1889, when most California wine was sold in barrel and in bulk. He believed (correctly) that control of bottling would ensure greater consistency, and he affixed a Rioja-style wire cage and tamperproof lead seal to each bottle to guarantee authenticity. In retrospect, Inglenook pioneered estate-bottling in California almost four decades before Château Mouton-Rothschild took its entire production run mise en bouteille au château in 1924. Bottled wines carried vintage dates and a “Pure Wine” stamp, signifying compliance with an 1887 California law banning chaptalization and more egregious chemical additives. Niebaum strove to replace varieties like the lowly Black Malvoisie with higher quality grapes. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon; a clonal selection propagated from his original vines still thrives on the property today. By the end of the 1880s, his portfolio of wines included Zinfandel, Extra Fine Claret, Medoc type, Burgundy, Sauterne, Hock (Traminer), Burger (Chablis), Riesling (Johannisberg and Franken), and Chasselas. In Wines and Vines of California (1889), Frona E. Wait sums it up: “The reputation of Inglenook wines proves that, with perfect cultivation, a thorough knowledge of the soils, and the most rigid cleanliness in the vineyard and cellars good and drinkable wines can be produced in this state.” Well, if that isn’t the same shit wine writers have been saying for years!
With a commitment to quality in place, Niebaum endeavored to enlarge Inglenook’s audience. Historian William Heintz quotes the November 11, 1887, San Francisco Merchant: “Alfred Greenbaum & Co. have established an agency in New York for the wines of the Inglenook Vineyard, Napa county. These celebrated wines will be offered to the public in glass only.” In 1890, C. F. Oldham, a London wine merchant, visited Napa Valley and enlisted as Inglenook’s UK importer. Mexico received shipments of wine. Niebaum exported 10 barrels of wine to Japan in 1894 for transfer to a Russian naval vessel stationed offshore. Inglenook appeared in railway dining cars, and President Benjamin Harrison sampled the wines on a visit to San Francisco in 1891. Awards tumbled in from near and far, as Inglenook rose to prominence as one of the great American wineries of the 19th century.
The decade of the 1890s was overall a difficult period for California’s wine industry, and despite rising popularity and accolades, Inglenook suffered, too. Phylloxera had invaded Niebaum’s vineyards, requiring costly replants on riparian rootstocks. By the end of the century, Inglenook’s production dropped to about 25,000 gallons of wine. The brandy distillery closed. Amidst a national depression, bottling in glass on site was abandoned as an estate-wide practice, at a time when Niebaum’s focus may very well have been elsewhere (see: Bering Sea Arbitration of 1893). Yet Niebaum instilled in his employees a pursuit of perfection, a mantle another generation would pick up many years later, after Prohibition.
On August 5, 1908, Niebaum died without leaving any direct heirs, and his widow Susan closed the winery for three years. The man who would eventually claim Niebaum’s mantle and inherit Inglenook, his grandnephew John Daniel Jr., had only just been born.
Inglenook reopened in 1911 and maintained production until 1919. Management of the estate and winemaking responsibilities were in flux during this period, eventually landing in the lap of John Daniel Sr., an engineer from San Francisco. He was family: John Daniel Sr. married Gustave’s niece, and the couple had two children, Suzanne and John Daniel Jr. His wife died in 1914 when the younger John Daniel was just seven years old, and the family moved to Rutherford, where Susan could help raise the children. John Daniel Jr. was in line to inherit Inglenook—but not until after the winery emptied its casks and closed its doors in the hibernation of Prohibition.
Susan Niebaum and John Daniel Sr. kept the property afloat during Prohibition by selling grapes to Beaulieu for use in sacramental wines. With repeal, Susan Niebaum hired Carl Bundschu to restore the winery and the high standards her late husband maintained. The 56-year-old Bundschu, who managed Sonoma Valley’s Gundlach Bundschu with his brother Walter in the years leading up to Prohibition, brought on board an old colleague, John Gross, as winemaker. John Daniel Jr. returned to his family’s estate to learn the winemaking business after graduating from Stanford in 1933, and George Deuer, a German immigrant with experience at Christian Brothers and Beringer, arrived to assist Gross in 1935. The pieces were in place for a return to glory, and the remaining Niebaum fortune gave Bundschu—and soon, John Daniel Jr.—the license and luxury to reposition Inglenook as Napa Valley’s foremost quality wine producer.
John Daniel Jr., now in his twenties, studied the trade for three years under Bundschu. Bundschu became a mentor and faithful conduit for Niebaum’s philosophy of quality, one Daniel would later condense into three simple words: “Pride, not profit.” Despite marrying a Mormon teetotaler, Daniel discarded dreams of a career in aviation and threw himself into the wine business. In 1936, when Susan Niebaum died, John Daniel Jr. inherited the Inglenook estate and became general manager of the winery. (His sister and co-heir, Suzanne, had no interest in vineyards and moved to Lodi to raise horses instead.) Bundschu, fast approaching 60 years of age, shifted to a sales role and in 1939 left the winery entirely. John Gross retired after the 1942 vintage, and George Deuer succeeded him. A 20th-century golden age at Inglenook would span another quarter century, spurred by collaboration between John Daniel Jr. and George Deuer. In the years from 1936 to 1964, Inglenook’s focus was unparalleled in Napa Valley.
John Daniel Jr. - Photo courtesy of Coppola/Inglenook Archives
In the late 1930s, there were six premium wineries operating in Napa Valley: Inglenook, Beaulieu, Beringer Bros., Larkmead, Christian Bros., and Louis Martini. Inglenook separated from the pack with a relentless emphasis on quality, which started in the vineyard. “The miracle of Inglenook,” reflected the late UC Davis Professor Maynard Amerine after a 1935 visit to the property, “was that they maintained the Charbono, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Sylvaner vineyards through Prohibition.” This gave Inglenook an immediate advantage over Beringer, which had undergone extensive replanting and grafting to non-premium varieties during Prohibition. Beaulieu became a leader in premium varietal wine sales—particularly with the arrival of André Tchelistcheff in 1937—but altar wines and other bulk products were still a significant part of the product mix. Only Inglenook produced wines from premium grapes exclusively. To ensure only high-quality wines would bear the Inglenook name, John Daniel Jr. maintained Niebaum’s meticulousness and added his own innovations: a second label and bulk sell-offs. Less-than-perfect fruit or wine went into a second jug label, I.V.Y., launched in 1935 and sold out the winery door. Substandard juice he sold off entirely, sans the Inglenook name—a practice common among top Napa producers today but revolutionary at the time. He applied the classic Inglenook diamond label only to premium, vintage-dated, estate-bottled varietal wines, with fruit from his own vines or those of other reputable growers like J.J. Cohn and Schramsberg. Amerine sums it up: “John had the advantage that if he didn't like it, he just didn’t bottle it. It was a big advantage.”
Labels from the 1930s and 1940s - Courtesy of Coppola/Inglenook Archives
In the heart of Rutherford, Cabernet Sauvignon is Inglenook’s most important grape, and it forms the core of John Daniel Jr.’s legacy. By 1940, it was Inglenook’s principal variety, predating its ascendance in the larger valley by 50 years. The early Daniel-Deuer era Cabernet wines were typically blended with 8 to 12% Gamay, but from 1938 onward, they were single varietal wines whenever possible, always aged in large casks rather than barriques. Napa Valley, Then & Now author (and GuildSomm Senior Staff Writer) Kelli White reports on the wine’s evolution in bottle some 75 years later: “Though difficult to find and monumentally expensive, Inglenook Cabernet from the early 1940s, especially the 1941, are worth the hype. They are gorgeous, dense, and impossibly youthful and profound.” While the difficult years of 1945 and 1947 prompted Daniel’s refusal to bottle Cabernet under the Inglenook label, the 1950s and early 1960s produced strings of successful vintages. White notes 1958 to 1962 as an especially good run, with 1959 as the pinnacle. These are some of the greatest and longest-lived wines Napa Valley has delivered to date, documenting over two decades of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon before the first Robert Mondavi wine rolled off the bottling line.
A 1974 George Deuer interview conducted by Bernard Skouda and a 1942 letter from John Daniel Jr. to his sister provide important insights into Inglenook’s winemaking approach. “Cabernets we usually picked the first week of October,” said Deuer, with the western hillside harvests occurring first. “The closer I went to the highway, the more acid I had and the less sugar.” Brix levels on the hillside could reach 25 to 26°, but the roadside vineyards rarely exceeded 20 to 21° by harvest. Fruit came in around three or four tons to the acre, a standard yield for dry-farmed vines at the time. Cabernet, inoculated with Burgundy yeast, fermented in redwood tanks and rarely stayed on the skins for longer than five or six days. Punchdowns occurred daily. Once rudimentary cooling arrived at Inglenook in 1941, Deuer set 85° F as the temperature ceiling for red wine fermentations. Inglenook Cabernet wines were almost wholly produced from free-run juice. The wines were sulfured, aged in large oak casks of 2,500 to 10,000 gallons for two or three years, topped off intermittently with small amounts of a more neutral red like Gamay or Carignan, bottled at the estate, and hand-corked. Daniel recognized the value of further aging in bottle: “Bear in mind that the Cabernets, Red Pinots, and Charbonos should be given the greatest amount of storage in glass in our bins, since they will benefit most from it.” Following Niebaum’s original standard, Daniel and Deuer held their Cabernet wines for four total years before release to the public. Beginning in 1949, Daniel bottled the best individual lots of Cabernet separately. These “Cask” wines, labeled by each lot’s specific cask number, constitute one of the early examples of a reserve line in Napa Valley.
Inglenook earned its reputation with varietal Cabernet but continued to present a diverse portfolio of other wines. Immediately after Prohibition, the winery produced varietal wines like Zinfandel, Traminer, Sylvaner, and Riesling, but still offered some generic wines too: Sauternes, Haut-Sauterne, Claret, and the fortified Angelica, Ruby and Tawny Port, and Sweet Sherry. There was an Inglenook White made from Schramsberg’s Green Hungarian and a red made from the property’s Gamay. These fell out of the book over Daniel’s tenure, but new varietal wines emerged. The red grape Charbono, first differentiated from Barbera in 1941 by UC Davis Professor Albert Winkler, made its debut on an Inglenook label in that same year. As an age-worthy red, Charbono maintained an enthusiastic, if limited, set of fans until the winery finally ripped it out in 1985. There was Red Pinot, made from Négrette (Pinot St. George) and a smattering of Black Chasselas and Abouriou (“Early Burgundy”). Grenache arrived at some point and made its way into “Navalle Rosé” wines by the late 1940s. Gamay appeared on red and rosé labels in the 1940s and 1905s. By 1954, Pinot Noir and Pinot Chardonnay were Inglenook’s most expensive bottlings, and in 1960, Daniel extended the Cask line to include the latter of these.
Frank Schoonmaker, one of the most influential American wine writers of the post-Prohibition era, toured California’s recovering wine regions in 1939 and selected only five producers—Wente Brothers, Fountain Grove, Paul Masson, Larkmead, and Inglenook—for inclusion in his otherwise French-dominated portfolio. What happened to them? Larkmead ceased to exist as an estate winery for several decades. (Its fruit went exclusively to Inglenook for much of the 1950s through 1970s!) Fountain Grove ended its run in the 1940s. Paul Masson is best known for kitchen brandy and drunk Orson Welles. Livermore Valley’s Wente remains family owned but churns out more than half a million cases a year for the supermarket shelf. Those that survived as brands underwent transformations, rendering them unrecognizable to an early fan. Inglenook was not an exception.
The John Daniel Jr. era ended in 1964, when he sold Inglenook to United Vintners. There were cracks in the foundation: by the early 1960s, Inglenook was aging—the equipment, the people, everything. Rumor was the winery hadn’t turned a profit since it reopened in 1933, and a once-vast Niebaum fortune was depleted. George Deuer was nearing retirement, and Daniel himself was almost 60, with two adult, married daughters—Marcia and Robin (Lail)—but no clear interested heir. His wife Elizabeth, a devout Mormon, despised the wine business. Speculation that Daniel was looking to sell buzzed through the valley. He found his buyer in United Vintners, the marketing arm of a growers’ cooperative called Allied Grape Growers. Founded by Modesto and Madera growers in 1951, Allied had steadily expanded its reach into the North Coast in a series of joint acquisitions with Louis Petri’s Petri Wine Company, including the Italian Swiss Colony and Napa’s own Larkmead. Petri Wine Company became United Vintners as it shifted focus to wine sales, and Allied bought United outright in 1959. Louis Petri stayed on as chief executive and picked Larkmead owner Larry Solari, who had been supplying fruit to Daniel for almost a decade, as his president. Reassuring Daniel that the reputation of Inglenook would be honored, the two men hastily negotiated a deal. United Vintners bought the Inglenook brand, Niebaum’s château, and 94 acres of vineyards between the château and the road for $1.2 million.
When Daniel inherited Inglenook, the Rutherford property comprised 1,654 total acres. This included Niebaum’s core holdings accumulated in the 1880s and an additional 330 acres next door, with vineyards, acquired from the estate of Charles Beerstecher sometime around the turn of the century. In 1946, Daniel purchased the 124-acre Napanook vineyard in Yountville, expanding the domain of Inglenook to its largest historical size. Once Daniel sold the brand to United Vintners, the saga of the Niebaum family diverged from that of the Inglenook brand and estate. United bought the name, the winery, and some of the land, but Daniel kept 1,560 acres on the back of the property and the Napanook vineyard until his death in 1970. His widow sold the remaining Rutherford land, including Niebaum’s original manor house, to a developer with golf courses on the brain, donating her profits to the Mormon Church, a last comeuppance against an industry she despised. Only the Napanook parcel remained for Daniel’s two daughters. In partnership with Christian Moueix, the sisters founded Dominus in 1982 with Napanook as its estate vineyard. Today, there are competing stories told by Inglenook’s current stewards and the lineage of John Daniel Jr. as to the source of his best Cask Cabernet—Rutherford or Yountville?
A reputation for quality is very difficult to build up, and once lost sometimes takes generations in the wine business to reclaim.
The sale sent shockwaves through Napa Valley, but the drop in wine quality was gradual at first. John Daniel Jr. and George Deuer both remained as active consultants through the 1965 vintage. After the sale, Larry Solari announced that Inglenook would continue the four policies that established its reputation: estate bottling, vintage labeling, displaying the Napa Valley designation of origin, and producing only varietal wines. The new owners planted more Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and other red varieties immediately. But bottling estate-grown grapes meant something entirely different when the estate owner was a massive grape-growing collective. Inglenook wines suddenly became a repository for the growers of United Vintners, and while some provided quality fruit (Charlie Wagner, Joe Cohn, Solari’s own vineyard on Larkmead Lane, Inglenook itself), others did not. Either way, Inglenook had to take the fruit because the growers ran the show. By the 1965 harvest, United Vintners dismantled the old redwood tanks and moved crush and fermentation to a facility in Oakville, although aging and bottling continued at the old château. New winemakers arrived: Philip Togni oversaw the 1966 vintage and Robert Stemmler followed in 1967. Deuer’s assistant, John O’Connell, was the only steady hand throughout the turnover. In 1967, Inglenook abandoned Solari’s promise to focus exclusively on premium varietal wines and introduced a new “Vintage Generic” line, including bottlings like Burgundy, Chablis, and Rhine. It was a move out of Gallo’s playbook. By the end of the 1960s, the slow decline became a rapid descent.
In March of 1969, the Connecticut-based Heublein Spirits purchased United Vintners. (This was the company that introduced America to the vodka category and made a household name out of Smirnoff.) Heublein’s sales and marketing team immediately delivered new marching orders for massive growth to the management at Inglenook. In 1969, the winery blended every varietal wine down to 51%—the minimum then required by law—so the variety could remain on the label while production expanded significantly. Tom Ferrell, who succeeded Stemmler as winemaker in 1970, looks back to 1969 as a watershed year:
Any pretext for quality wine disappeared when they blended everything down to 51%. They never believed in fine wine—they thought the wine we were making was “fine.” They had this San Joaquin attitude. I didn’t realize that until later. They wanted growth, they wanted good press, and they kept the cask-bottling and the estate-bottled line—but they didn’t really believe in quality winemaking. They didn’t understand that grape quality was key. They only understood formulaic winemaking.
The Heublein era brought winemakers in hardhats and a “big valley” mentality from Fresno and Bakersfield. Ferrell, a young winemaker in his first industry job, fresh out of UC Davis, battled the hegemony of United Vintners/Allied growers, who called the shots. “The day after Labor Day, they would start to show up. None of the growers checked sugar. And you had to take the fruit—I got a lot of Cabernet that first year at 19 or 20° Brix.” He crushed assortments of random grapes, some under-ripe and others likely mislabeled. “They said we need Charbono to the growers; well, suddenly a lot of Charbono appeared.” But growers weren’t the only problem: Ferrell’s battles for quality extended up the command chain, too. Heublein standards at the time demanded shelf-stable, sterilized wines. For a winemaker attempting to retain a semblance of the old Inglenook, these were the dictates of liquid-handlers. The chairman of Heublein once roused Ferrell on vacation, barking through the phone, “Your Chardonnay is sub-standard, and we are pulling it from the marketplace.” Ferrell, who had barrel-fermented the wine and bottled it without cold stabilization, sensed impending doom, but luck and good press interfered: “One week after I returned, [Los Angeles Times Wine Critic] Robert Balzer said it had broken new ground for California Chardonnay. He saved my job!”
In the 1970s, Inglenook ballooned into a seven million-case brand. A low-price “Navalle” line, named for a stream on the property but produced at the Asti plant in Sonoma County, debuted in 1971 to the tune of six million cases a year. Ferrell managed annual production for 600,000 cases of vintage wines and 75,000 cases of the premium estate wines. By 1973, the original winery bottled almost 20 different varietal wines, plus the Vintage Generic wines. The Inglenook name became a commodity, divorced from its original meaning, and most of the grapes that went into bottles bearing the name now came from fields nearer to Fresno or Bakersfield than the heart of Napa Valley.
For the Inglenook brand, the 1970s were a bleak period. Respect for the storied property and its historic buildings diminished. In 1975, Heublein erected a massive storage facility between the château and Highway 29, obscuring its view from the road and covering up some of Napa Valley’s most prized Cabernet Sauvignon ground with concrete. To locals, it was a symbol of blatant disregard for Inglenook’s legacy. Someone tagged it, spray-painting “K-Mart” in massive letters over the front of the ugly edifice. But Ferrell made the best wines he could, while shielding the estate-bottled line from the worst depredations of Inglenook’s new masters. After the blending fiasco of 1969, Ferrell convinced management to allow him to bottle pure varietal wines the following year. He hired vineyard managers to advise some 69 growers to sample for sugar and achieve better ripeness in their grapes. And he fought for—and finally got—hand-harvested fruit for the top wines. He set up one of the first winery labs in Napa Valley and replaced the ancient, tartrate-crusted oak aging containers installed back in Niebaum’s day with smaller barriques made of French and American wood. With the help of Darrell Corti, he introduced in-house tastings of competing French and American wines; uninspiring results gave him the leverage to push for more control over the top of the line. Personally, I’ve had good bottles of Charbono and Cabernet from the mid-1970s. Ferrell defends his time there: “Inglenook wasn’t the worst winery in the valley—some of the wines were right up there with the better wines in the valley.” In fact, he thinks his wines improved over the decade, even as the image of Inglenook continued to deteriorate. Ferrell left in 1981.
In the 1980s, under the management of Dennis Fife and winemaker John Richburg, there was cause for a little hope. Both men rose through the corporate ranks at Heublein before arriving at Inglenook, where they focused solely on Napa Valley operations, as the Inglenook Navalle brand was by now under totally separate management. Estate vineyards replanted in the 1970s were entering maturity. In a 1984 speech to the Vintners Club in San Francisco, Fife declared: “Today, our vineyards are closer to what they were at their peak in the 1940s than in any of the 1970s.” The team introduced a new wine, “Reunion,” which drew from all three Daniel-era fruit sources—the two Rutherford sectors and the Napanook vineyard—for the first time since the sale. They re-launched the Cask series in 1983. In the end, however, Inglenook’s long run as a Napa Valley wine came to an end, undermined by corporate apathy. The tobacco company R.J. Reynolds bought Heublein in 1982, and unloaded it five years later to Grand Metropolitan, a massive British conglomerate. Inglenook production in Napa Valley ceased by the end of the decade, and Fife was the company’s last president. Heublein eventually sold the brand in 1994 to Canandaigua Wine Company (now Constellation), completing its transformation into a jug wine brand totally independent of its Napa Valley origins.
The golf course people’s development plans ran afoul of Napa County’s new Agricultural Preserve, and they never got their fairway. In 1975, they liquidated it, selling the 1,560-acre property to the young Hollywood talent Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor for $2.2 million. Coppola acquired the lion’s share of the Daniel property and the old Niebaum mansion—but not the château—and he set out to restore the original vision of Inglenook even as Heublein wringed its name dry next door. The Coppolas threaded a connection to the past by appending their name to that of the founder, establishing Niebaum-Coppola and opening a new, parenthetical chapter in the story of Inglenook. In 1976, Coppola hired Rafael Rodriguez, who had worked Daniel’s vines at Inglenook since 1952, to maintain his parcels and provide continuity to the original property. And in 1978, the Coppolas produced their first wine, a Cabernet-based blend called “Rubicon,” with winemaker Russ Turner. It was aged in a combination of large casks and barrels and released to the public in 1985.
Throughout the 1980s, Niebaum-Coppola and Inglenook operated in parallel. Coppola’s visions of a grand wine and a great estate took solid form on the hillsides and vineyards behind Heublein’s Inglenook at the front of the property. Coppola hired André Tchelistcheff in 1980 to consult and brought in new winemaker Steve Beresini in 1983. Vineyards were replanted and organic farming practices adopted. While Inglenook’s portfolio ballooned, Niebaum-Coppola kept a tight roster of wines: in addition to Rubicon, the estate added a Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon in 1980, and with the 1988 vintage, a Merlot and the “Edizione Pennino” Zinfandel appeared. The 1980s-era Rubicon wines looked backward for inspiration; Tchelistcheff led the style more toward Bordeaux than Napa, with an emphasis on structure over fruit, aged for at least six years before release. But they are also a mixed bag, with some vintages remaining green, hard, and charmless. Scott Brenner of St. Helena’s Press Restaurant suggests the 1980, 1982, and 1984—they are fairly easy to find and relatively cheap on secondary markets today. (The wine was not made in 1983, and the late decade vintages of 1988 and 1989 were as disastrous here as elsewhere on the Napa Valley floor.)
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Niebaum-Coppola underwent a tone shift. New consulting winemaker Tony Soter arrived for the 1991 vintage to replace Tchelistcheff, and he brought Scott McLeod on as his assistant. Soter and McLeod added immediate fruit to the style of Rubicon with their first vintage and removed any remaining casks from the Rubicon cellar in favor of barriques. McLeod took full control in 1997, and he pushed the wine even further toward the prevailing style of the day—later harvests, riper fruit, showier oak, and softer tannin. During the McLeod era, Niebaum-Coppola added Cabernet Franc and Syrah to the portfolio of varietal wines, and in 1999, McLeod produced the estate’s first white wine, “Blancaneaux,” a luxurious and oak-driven, if sometimes uneven, blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne. (Both Chardonnay and oak disappeared from the blend by the late 2000s.) McLeod resuscitated Daniel’s Cask program with the 1995 vintage, producing a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon alternative to Rubicon, aged in large American oak casks. Despite paying homage with his Cask wines, the Rubicon wines McLeod produced by the early 2000s were a clear departure from the days of Daniel and Deuer: alcohol levels hovered around 14.5 to 15%, the wines were aged in 100% new French barriques, and pH levels sunk to the 3.7 to 3.85 range. They felt more immediately impressive but less like Inglenook.
Coppola’s greatest achievement at the Inglenook property in the 1990s was to restore ownership of the divided estate to a single owner—himself. In 1995, Canandaigua Wine Company put the remainder of Inglenook’s Rutherford vineyards and its famous château up for sale, and for $10 million, Coppola united the estate for the first time in three decades. The entire vineyard landscape between the château and the highway was replanted from 1996 to 2000. In 2002, Coppola expanded the estate, purchasing the neighboring J.J. Cohn ranch, a source from which John Daniel Jr. and United Vintners routinely purchased fruit for Inglenook. (Coppola immediately resold a small corner of the old Cohn vineyard to Bret Lopez; now it’s known as Scarecrow.) Also in 2002, winemaking returned to the château, and a new cave was excavated in 2003. In 2007, to much fanfare, Coppola knocked Heublein’s eyesore of a barrel-aging cellar down, restoring the grand château building’s visibility from the road.
Coppola self-financed all his films—profits from The Godfather allowed him to make the original purchase in 1975, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula afforded him the opportunity to take back the château in 1995. He likewise expected his wine business to be self-sufficient, hoping to balance pride and profit. To ensure quality remained paramount at the top, Coppola widened the range at the bottom: “Francis Coppola Presents” and “Diamond Collection” wines, produced from grapes sourced throughout California, flooded grocery stores in the late 1990s. Ironically, Niebaum-Coppola applied Inglenook’s famous diamond logo to some of its cheapest non-estate wines, echoing Heublein. Coppola earned his reputation in the world of 1970s American cinema for producing uncompromising films, but his name on a bottle came to indicate a more mass-market, generic appeal. Coppola wines were for the multiplex, not the art house. By 2000, Niebaum-Coppola was releasing 200,000 cases of wine per year under its various brands. The Coppola wine brand diluted, just as Mondavi’s premium image cooled with expansion into Mondavi Coastal and Woodbridge series labels.
By the early 2000s, Coppola’s efforts to create a grand wine suffered as his lower-tier brands gained recognition. Rubicon seemed lost amongst an increasingly crowded field of stylized cult Napa wines. In response, he separated the two tiers of his wine business in 2006, rebranding Rutherford’s Niebaum-Coppola as Rubicon Estate and moving the other Coppola brands to a new home in Alexander Valley. Personnel changes followed: Rodriguez departed and McLeod finished his tenure at Rubicon in 2010. Coppola brought on famed Bordeaux enologist Stéphane Derenoncourt to consult in 2008, and in 2011, he hired Philippe Bascaules to replace McLeod. With two decades of experience under Paul Pontallier at Château Margaux, Bascaules brought a mandate to retrench the style of Rubicon, to restore the terroir of Inglenook in the face of the last generation’s Napa bombast. And he would be able to do it under its original moniker: in 2011, Coppola finally acquired the rights to the Inglenook name, and Rubicon Estate became Inglenook, again.
Terroir does not exist. You must invent it.
-Philippe Bascaules, speaking at a Napa Valley Vintners symposium at Inglenook, October 11, 2016
Philippe Bascaules, head winemaker at Inglenook from 2011 until early 2017, presided over another sea change in quality and style at the estate. He arrived in October, amid a difficult harvest—a cool, rainy year that terrorized valley growers but would have been comfortably average for a Bordeaux vigneron. Bascaules did not yet understand Napa Valley, but he knew that over-ripeness and high alcohol were not the best recipe for a sense of place. In that first vintage, Rubicon’s alcohol content dropped under 14% for the first time in almost 20 years, a sign of the vintage—and of the changing guard. Bascaules hoped, through better farming and winery practices, to restore freshness to the property’s wines. He moved pick dates up, added late-season irrigation, and raised yields to slow down ripening. To improve the overall quality of fruit, he paid harvesters hourly rather than by the ton—rewarding rather than penalizing sorting decisions in the field—and decreased the size of harvest bins. Ultimately, he aimed to achieve ripeness at lower Brix levels (24.5 to 25°) and lessened the focus on over-concentration and fully ripe, soft tannins—the end products of the phenological ripeness concept that drove his predecessor.
With new vineyard manager Enrique Herrero, Bascaules also embarked on a decades-long reshaping of the Inglenook vineyard—he needed 50 years to sustainably replant the entirety of Inglenook’s 235 acres of vines. To date, Bascaules has replanted about 20 acres of the Cohn Ranch with a massale sélection of Niebaum clone Cabernet Sauvignon—a clone of the original Cabernet Sauvignon planted by Niebaum in the 1880s, isolated by Foundation Plant Services in 1989—and other specimens. In 2011, he budded over 13 acres along the highway, where Deuer always had trouble achieving ripeness in Cabernet, with Sauvignon Blanc and a splash of Semillon. A few older plantings remain, including almost seven acres of head-trained Zinfandel, planted in 1973 and 1978 on St. George rootstock. (A Bordeaux winemaker with zero Zinfandel experience considered it a challenge and a potentially great wine.) While Bascaules embraced irrigation as a tool, he lowered vine canopies and limited shoots and leaves to make better use of groundwater left by winter rains. Over time, he hoped to decrease density. Organic farming practices, certified by C.C.O.F. since 1994, continued. In the beginning, Bascaules adjusted the picking date to limit over-ripeness, but by the end he concluded, “Pick date is a consequence of other changes; it is not the change. First you have to change the vineyard, and then it will ripen differently.”
In the winery, Bascaules made immediate adjustments. Under McLeod, half of Inglenook’s estate production was sold off in bulk, echoing Daniel, but Bascaules chose to incorporate more of the estate fruit by adding a third Cabernet-based wine in 2012, his first full vintage. Rubicon, Cask, and “1882” were released for the 2012 vintage. In 2013, the Cask moniker was dropped, and the lineup became Inglenook Rubicon, Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon, and Inglenook 1882. For Bascaules, 1882 and the Cabernet became second labels, essentially, ordered in a hierarchy like the three tiers of Château Margaux rouge wines. He shortened the lengthy macerations McLeod employed and reduced the amount of new oak in Rubicon from 100% to about 75%. (The Cabernet sees 30 to 40% new oak each vintage.) The Bascaules style of Rubicon is still a generous wine, but it shaves off some of the density and weight of previous years in favor of more understated complexity. The mid-tier Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon has suddenly become a standout for its price in Napa, encasing its core of fruit in a refreshing, slightly gruff tannic edge. It’s not really elegant—that’s not the hope for Rutherford, anyway—but there is freshness and an appealing herbal note in the wine. His Sauvignon Blanc, which debuted with the 2013 vintage, is graceful and taut. Rounding out the current Inglenook range are the “RC” (Roman Coppola) Syrah, the Blancaneaux white blend, and the Edizione Pennino Zinfandel, finished in French and American oak. The estate’s annual production is around 20,000 cases today—one-tenth of the winery’s output at the turn of the millennium.
Philippe Bascaules arrived at Inglenook as an outsider to Napa Valley but steered the style of Inglenook’s wines closer in line with legends of the past than anyone since 1964. The wines also reflect modern sensibilities and incorporate modern winemaking demands. They are generally free of Brettanomyces and the large old casks are gone. They are finishing at 13.8 to 14.5% alcohol instead of 11.5 to 12%. Yet a spirit is restored. And Inglenook seems, once again, to be driving a trend rather than chasing it. The name of Inglenook under the Bascaules regime should exist in the upper echelon of Napa Valley producers.
So, what happens now?
In late 2016, with the passing of Paul Pontallier, Philippe Bascaules accepted the position of managing director of Château Margaux. In a press release, Inglenook maintained that he would concurrently remain as director of winemaking. Coppola and the Inglenook staff remain committed to Bascaules’ 50-year plan to deliver the grand vin Coppola has been chasing since his first vintage of Rubicon in 1978. But realistically, the first growth will absorb most, if not all, his energy. When Bascaules departed from the valley in March of 2017, it was not hard to feel pessimism. Over 30 years of Rubicon were not the product of the same single-minded vision that John Daniel Jr. brought to bear; on the contrary, its focus changed with each new winemaking regime. How much of each shift in style resulted from changing desires at the top? In the years from 1964 to 2011, Napa Valley grew up; its landscape now teems with high-quality, world-class wines. Recognition, awards, scores, adoration—more and more voices and wines compete for finite attention. Pressure for stylistic changes may mount again if trends and tastes curve the other way. Or burdensome financial realities may sink their teeth in. In the meantime, a new generation of the Coppola family will inherit a treasure, Napa Valley’s first château, a wine dynasty returned to greatness.
Special thanks to the following individuals for their time, support, and research assistance: Kelli White, Tom Ferrell, Scott Brenner, Philippe Bascaules, Pierre Ribeiro da Costa, Courtney Garcia, and the entire team at Inglenook.
The frontier spirit of California was always something I loved in our history. Maybe I'll move back someday.