Why does Inglenook winery matter so much to Francis Ford Coppola that he's gone to great lengths over the decades to reunite the historic estate, finally culminating in this week's purchase of the name? After Prohibition, the owner of Inglenook, John Daniel Jr., set the highest winemaking standards in Napa Valley. André Tchelistcheff, who worked at Beaulieu, across the highway in Rutherford, said Daniel’s motto was “pride not profits.” Daniel went so far as to declassify, unheard of then. The 1945 and 1947 vintages were sold in bulk. Eventually, Daniel himself went bankrupt.
One wine in particular, the 1941 Cask Cabernet, came to define what was possible with Napa Cabernet. The wine was amazingly complex and long-lived, one that changed the lives of many people. Robert Mondavi prized it. So did Christian Moueix; years later, Moueix bought one of Inglenook’s historic vineyards, Napanook, in the early 1980s. It is now home to his Dominus. Francis & Eleanor Coppola have most of what remains of the Inglenook cellar. Trying to make another ’41 became one of Coppola’s obsessions.
At the height of Daniel’s career, few paid attention to Napa Cabernet, which sold for $1 to $2 a bottle. Daniel’s best Cabernets were labeled under the “Cask” designation because they were aged in upright casks, not small oak barrels.
Less is known about Inglenook’s winemaking than one might expect, given Daniel’s attention to detail. Daniel’s winemaker, George Deuer, was highly secretive about his techniques and destroyed most of the records in a fit of anger, leaving gaps in information about sugar and alcohol levels and details about how the wines were made. But the vineyards were well-groomed, the grapes picked at optimal ripeness, probably in the 23 to 24 degrees Brix range, and fermented in open-top tanks, which allowed the alcohol to blow off, according to Scott McLeod, the winemaker for the past two decades. He tested the old wines and found most were 12.5 to 13 percent alcohol; it’s unclear if they ever exceeded 14.
There were three key vineyards that Daniel used for his best wines, including one at the winery (the Home Ranch), the J.J. Cohn Ranch, now Scarecrow, and Napanook, in Yountville, acquired in 1946. Inglenook's neighborhood in Rutherford is home to vineyards owned today by Staglin and Dana Estate, among others; for many years grapes from this area also went into the great Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve bottlings.
Inglenook-Napa Valley, as it became known in the 1980s, attempted to recreate the great Cask bottlings, with a wine called Reunion. It reunited the three key vineyards that Daniel had used.
Film director Francis Ford Coppola purchased the home vineyard and the 19th century Gustave-Niebaum mansion in the late 1970s for a little over $2 million. Coppola's top meritage cuvées have been known as Rubicon ever since, but he's recently gained the rights to the Inglenook label.
About the time Coppola bought the vineyard, he was slowly running deeply in to debt, eventually ending up in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. There was no money for the winery. The winemaking strategy at Niebaum-Coppola—so named since he didn't own the Inglenook brand, and later renamed Rubicon Estate after the top cuvée—was offbeat from the start. Coppola aged his wines for seven years in oak and bottle before releasing them. When wineries were selling their 1983 or 1984 vintages, Coppola had his 1978. The cellar conditions were rustic. Winemaking equipment outdated.
The wines improved significantly under McLeod. The winery and equipment were updated and the wines were fresher and cleaner, often outstanding, though also inconsistent.
Now that Coppola has a new winemaking team, including Chateau Margaux's former winemaker, they can pick up from where McLeod left off. But if they need a new winemaking model to reflect the property's change back to the Inglenook name, it makes sense to focus on how Scarecrow is achieving its success rather than looking back to the 1941 Inglenook.
Ryan Schmied — Miami, FL. USA — April 16, 2011 9:02am ET
Jim Gallagher — San Francisco — April 18, 2011 5:01pm ET
Greg Flanagan — Bethel CT — April 19, 2011 9:27am ET
Randy Steed — West Linn, OR — July 13, 2011 12:14pm ET
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