ANOTHER DAY, another new wine brand, or so it sometimes seems. . . .
Robin Lail is the newest start-up, with Lail Vineyards in Napa Valley, Calif., but she is not just another new face in the crowd. . . .
Lail is the daughter of the legendary Inglenook winemaker John Daniel Jr.,arguably the greatest Napa vintner of his time. . . .
Students of California wine history and connoisseurs of grand wines are well-versed in the history of Inglenook, which dates to 1879, when Finnish fur trader Gustave Niebaum founded this great estate in Rutherford. . . .
Daniel, Niebaum's grandnephew, took over winemaking at Inglenook in 1939 and created a string of truly amazing Cabernets from family-owned vineyards surrounding the winery and from Napanook, near Yountville. . . .
I'VE HAD THE good fortune to taste most of the Daniel-era Cabernets many times and they are testimony to his grape-growing and winemaking skills. Many of those wines are still deliciously complex. . . .
The 1941 is the greatest California Cabernet I've ever tasted; it has scored a perfect 100 points on several occasions. . . .
Even the late great Andre Tchelistcheff, winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard from 1936 to 1972, considered Daniel the greatest winemaker in Napa Valley, because if a wine didn't meet his strict criteria for excellence, he wouldn't sell it. . . .
Daniel sold Inglenook in 1964 and the new owners started a jug wine brand that slowly eroded Inglenook's reputation, so that many consumers naturally thought that Inglenook was nothing but a jug wine. . . .
MANY ATTEMPTS WERE made to revive Inglenook's name and reputation, but in 1994 the brand was sold again and the historic chateau acquired by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who has done a magnificent job remodeling the entire property. . . .
In 1977, Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, bought and moved into the former Daniel residence, the place where Lail grew up. . . .
The Daniels never considered holding onto the winery for their daughters, Marcia and Robin, and a frustrated Robin and her husband, Jon, moved from Napa to Marin County in the 1970s. . . .
Years later, they decided that wine was in their blood, and Jon, an architect who designs wineries, encouraged his wife to reenter the wine business. . . .
The Lails moved back to Napa and Robin went to work for Robert Mondavi, who pushed her even further, almost daring her to get back into wine. . . .
MONDAVI CONSIDERED DANIEL his mentor and took Lail under his wing, eventually introducing her to Christian Moueix of Bordeaux's Chateau Petrus. . . .
Moueix had been hunting around Napa Valley looking for a property orpartner, and in 1982 he formed a partnership with Lail and her sister, calling it Dominus Estate. . . .
The grapes came from the Napanook vineyard. . . .
That partnership lasted until 1994, when the two sisters sold their interest to Moueix. With the 1995 vintage Lail made her first wine from the 2.66-acre vineyard she retained, which lies just east of Napanook across Highway 29 and due north of Yountville. . . .
The Lails had also been partners in the Merryvale winery, but they sold their interests last year. . . .
I tried her new wine last week and it's a complex and supple blend of Merlot (52 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (48 percent) that should be released sometime early next year in the $40 range. . . .
YOUNTVILLE-GROWN CABERNET, as drinkers of Dominus well know, is marked by earthy tannins, but Lail's wine, because it has more Merlot, is kinder and gentler, with pretty currant and tobacco notes. . . .
Her winemaker is 30-year-old Philippe Melks, a Frenchman trained in grape growing and winemaking. . . .
While Lail, now 57, has struggled for nearly two decades to restake her claim to her Napa Valley wine heritage, she insists she is not bitter about her departure from Dominus and the loss of the Napanook vineyard. . . .
"I've come full circle," she says matter-of-factly. Her partnership with Moueix taught her many things, but most importantly, "drove us down thepath we're headed on today" . . . .
The Lails have also bought a second vineyard, a 20-acre parcel with 5 acres of Cabernet on Howell Mountain. This year they will make their first wine from that vineyard. . . .
THEIR TWO DAUGHTERS, Erin, 27, and Shannon, 25, are also partners in Lail Vineyards; Shannon works for Coppola's winery. . . .
In a different time or a different era, Lail might well have inherited the Inglenook chateau from her family, but her parents never thought their daughter had any business being in wine, so they sold it. . . .
It's been a long, challenging journey for Lail, but having watched her for years patiently work her way back into the mainstream of wine, I can tell it was a most rewarding and satisfying experience. . . .
For more information about Lail Vineyards, call 707-963-3329 or write, P.O. Box 249, Rutherford, Calif. 94573. . . .
ON ANOTHER NOTE, Greg Upton, former winemaker at Franciscan who is now with Robert Pepi Winery, is back in the hospital for more chemotherapy in his battle against bone cancer. . . .
He's a wonderful guy who's getting a little bored and could use a note or call. His number at the University of San Francisco Medical Center is 415-502-3460 or you can write him c/o UCSFMC, 505 Parnassus Ave., Room L1164, San Francisco, Calif. 94143. . . .
We need him back in the cellar before harvest. . . .
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions