Inglenook – an epic journey continues

In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “The Godfather” had been a resounding hit at the box office, bringing with it worldwide notoriety and the resources to fulfill Coppola’s dream of continuing to make films the way he saw fit and also to make wine.

When he was growing up, his family made wine, and he and his wife, Eleanor, imagined tending a few acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley and making a barrel or two. But more than four decades later the two preside over one of the most storied and highly prized wine estates in the New World, Rutherford’s famed Inglenook.

The Inglenook winery was the original brainchild of Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain who founded the winery in 1879 after making his fortune in the seal-fur trade.

The story goes that Niebaum had dreamed of owning a chateau in France, but his wife, a German-American, Susan Shingleberger, had no interest in leaving her home state of California.

So the sea captain went about re-creating a French-influenced wine estate in the heart of the Napa Valley, designing a gravity-flow winery, using innovative viticultural techniques and insisting on rarely used winemaking practices at the time, such as removing stems and leaves prior to fermentation. The wine was also bottled under an estate label.

Niebaum’s efforts and attention in the vineyard and winery soon paid off, with Inglenook wines winning gold medals at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, bringing newfound attention to the Napa Valley as being a wine region to rival the Old World.

After Niebaum’s death in 1908, Inglenook carried on under the stewardship of his wife until her death and Prohibition brought the winery to near ruin. Years later, in 1939, Niebaum’s great-nephew, John Daniels Jr., took the reins of the estate in an attempt to bring back its former glory. In 1964, the winery was sold to corporate interests and for years seemed rudderless. The journey started years earlier seemed to have run out of steam.

That was until the Coppolas’ real estate agent encouraged them to visit Inglenook. The property was going to be the highlight of an auction since such a historic winery might only be available once in a lifetime.

“When we first saw Inglenook it seemed unreal, it looked like a movie set,” said Eleanor Coppola. “Neither of us had ever even visited such a place.”

Francis surprised both Eleanor and the agent when he offered a $1 million bid for the property, eventually losing to a consortium of 12 land developers who had plans to build 60 homes on the hills behind the winery.

But the Coppolas had fallen in love with Inglenook, with its stunning stone winery and meticulous vineyards and gardens.

“We kept looking but never found anything as beautiful as this,” she said.

As it turned out, the creation of the Agricultural Preserve in Napa County, “meant the developers could not build as planned,” she explained, “so they offered the land to Francis for what they had in it.”

By 1975, the Coppolas had purchased the estate.

“When we first purchased the property Francis invited Robert Mondavi over to tour the site,” said Eleanor. “During that visit, the two of them found an old wine in the cellar. It must have been from the late 1800s. They decanted it in an old Mason jar, and after tasting the wine Bob said, ‘Smell this aroma! See, see, you can make wines here that last 100 years!’”

By 2011, the Coppolas had methodically acquired the remaining estate lands and the naming rights to use Inglenook on the label, completing a saga that reunited the winery and vineyards. They had also been working to create a healthy place to live and grow grapes.

“When I first moved here I missed the city, but within no time I became enthralled with nature, finding that nature has a beauty and drama that rivaled anything I’d known,” said Eleanor.

“It didn’t take long for me to conclude that we must become conservators of this place that has supported human life for thousands of years, starting with the Native American tribe, the Wappo. As a part of that, I’d been friends with Alice Waters for years, and by the late 1980s she’d encouraged me that growing grapes organically was something that was possible. Since then we’ve been organic.”

Beyond reunification and being stewards of the estate, Francis, Eleanor and crew have been steadily working to create wines worthy of Inglenook’s storied history, often looking to the Old World for inspiration.

“Inglenook will try to express its own intensity despite the pressure from a very few critics who favor big, jammy higher-alcohol wine,” wrote Francis in an email. “I guess Old World style is meant to signify balancing the tannins that come naturally from California sunshine and working to find a way to have lower alcohol levels.”

As a part of the work, in 2011, the Coppolas hired Philippe Bascaules to take over as estate manager and winemaker. Prior to Inglenook, Bascules had spent 20 years in Bordeaux, France, working at what is often considered one of the finest wineries in the world, Château Margaux.

“His [Bascaules] education and background in search for elegance and freshness in wine; a learn-as-you-go mentality in trying to discover the best way to express our Rutherford, Napa terroir,” Francis wrote.

“When I met Francis and heard his vision, I felt we were completely in sync,” said Bascaules. “We are embarking on creating elegant wines that are fresh and balanced and represent this place.”

To achieve this, Bascaules has started what he refers to as the “50-year plan,” which at its heart will replant the entire vineyard, 2 percent at a time, while experimenting with different viticultural techniques.

“Why are many zinfandel vines grown using head-trained techniques, whereas cabernet is not?” Bascaules asked. “When I taste many of the wines from head-trained zinfandel I find elegance, depth and a level of sophistication that is often lacking in the zinfandel wines made from trellised vines. So we’ll be trying this with cabernet, along with many other different options, trying to find what works best in each part of the vineyard to allow the grapes to ripen perfectly.”

Since coming to Inglenook, Bascaules has been exploring ways to refine the entire process, including when the vines are pruned.

“We prune earlier in the season than most,” said Bascaules. “We do this to get another week or two of ripening when the temperatures remain optimal, late in the season. Of course, this carries the risks associated with frost damage, but Francis is willing to take such risks because the outcome can make the wines better, longer-lived, more elegant at lower alcohols.”

Why does alcohol level matter?

“Alcohol is a solvent,” Bascaules said. “When it becomes too high too quickly, the extraction of tannins becomes out of control. But having alcohol levels that are lower allows the wine to develop slowly, producing an elegance that can be missing in higher-alcohol wines.”

During our tasting, two wines stood out: the 2012 and yet-to-be-released 2013 Rubicon cabernet sauvignon. Both wines are $210 per bottle. The 2012 shimmered in the glass, with a dark center and garnet-colored edge, along with aromas of Chambord, light-roasted coffee bean and earth. In the mouth, the wine was fresh with dried blueberry, vanilla and smoke, finishing with sun-dried raspberries and sage.

The 2013 (the first vintage Bascules oversaw from start to finish) was entirely different and reminded me somewhat of the 1974 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve in its earthy and floral characters that included elements of dried rose petals, violet and black tea. In the mouth the wine had a wonderful fine-talcum-powder texture, with a sweet cedar and tobacco backbone that was accompanied with a subtle but creamy red cassis and savory-herb finish.

Creating elegant, low-alcohol wines from the heart of Napa Valley’s “big-cab” country will take consumers a while to get their minds around, but like Gustave Niebaum, the Coppolas, Bascaules and their entire crew are on a quest to make the finest wines in the world, believing their plan and persistence will win the day.

“This place has a grounding and centering effect on our family, friends and guests,” said Eleanor. “Our decision to make such wines might not be the most popular at the moment, but we love this place and believe in what it has to offer. We aspire to inspire.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, August 2016