The Glory That Was Inglenook

Decades ago, this Napa Valley estate made California's grandest wines
Oct 17, 2001

For most wine lovers, the Inglenook that thrived under the leadership of visionary owner John Daniel Jr. is a distant and fading memory, if it registers at all. The man who dedicated his life to uncommonly high winemaking standards died years ago, broken, bitter and disillusioned after financial hard times forced him to sell this Napa Valley treasure. But those who have had the opportunity to taste Daniel's Inglenook Cabernets know that they are among the greatest red wines ever made.

The string of magnificent vintages made by Daniel and his stern and exacting winemaker, George Deuer, began in the 1930s with the repeal of Prohibition and ended in the 1960s with his sale of the winery. Despite efforts to revive the winery and restore its reputation after Daniel's death in 1970, none of the wines made after 1964 measure up to the Daniel-era classics. A last-ditch attempt in the 1980s to restore Inglenook's name and reputation resulted in superior quality wines, but ultimately failed to garner consumer interest.

Still, for that amazing 31-year stretch -- 1933 to 1964 -- Inglenook compiled a collection of Cabernets that stand up favorably to the best red wines on earth; nearly all of these Inglenook wines were made under Daniel's inspired leadership. A tasting in Los Angeles last November, hosted by collector Edward Lazarus and comprising 29 bottlings from this era, served as a vivid reminder of how successful Daniel was with Inglenook's Cask Cabernets, as they came to be called, and how brilliant and consistently fine the wines remain.

Daniel was one of the few vintners to declassify inferior wines; when the wines didn't meet his standards, no Casks were bottled, a fact that amazed André Tchelistcheff, the famous winemaker at Beaulieu, located across Highway 29 in Rutherford. Back then, Napa's winemaking conditions were abysmal. This was in a time when the most expensive wines sold for $1 or $2 a bottle; vintners could ill afford the luxury of not selling every drop they made. But Daniel didn't sell wines he didn't like.

Inglenook was founded in 1879 by Daniel's great-uncle, Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish fur-trader who had settled in Rutherford and planted vineyards. The celebratory tasting of the 29 Inglenook Cask wines in Los Angeles last November extended back to the Niebaum era -- with the 1897 and 1892 vintages. One of the challenges in judging wines this old is having enough experience to know what to expect from them. Although I have tasted Inglenooks many times before, in this respect it was educational having the two 19th century wines as reference points.

Both vintages were in excellent shape, with reddish-brown colors and faded but noticeable floral and dried fruit flavors. Neither was marred by the nutty, Sherry-like flavors you usually find in wines this old. The 1892 had a floral, dried-cherry quality that was quite appealing; the 1897 was a touch drier. (All the wines appeared to have benefited from pristine cellaring.)

There were four wines from the 1930s. The 1933, 1934 and 1936 were all very good, well-preserved wines; the 1937 (91 points) was outstanding. But the best wines came from the 1940s and 1950s and were vastly superior, showing remarkably well-preserved fruit flavors, and the kind of persistence on the finish that separates great wines from very good ones. In the flight of wines from the 1940s, the 1940 (94), 1941 (97) and 1949 (93) were dark, deep and richly flavored, seemingly capable of aging another 20 to 30 years. (In 1946, Daniel purchased the Napanook Vineyard in Yountville and added its grapes to his best wines; today it is home to Dominus Estate, owned by Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus.)

From the 1950s, the 1952 Cask J-9 (95), the 1954 Cask J-3 (93) and the 1954 Cask B-5 (92) all tasted vibrant and complex; the captivating 1958 (97) ranks with 1941 as one of the finest Inglenooks, though the two barely overshadow the brilliant trio of 1959 bottlings: 1959 Cask F-9 (95), 1959 Cask F-6 (94) and a bottle of 1959 (94) that didn't have a letter/number designation. (The Cask numbers refer to certain wines, but research has failed to uncover any links to specific vineyard sites or blends.) This was the first time I had tried the 1959 vintage wines.

The final three wines came from the 1960 vintage. All scored between 87 and 90 points, with the Cask A-12 (90) the best.

In this past year, I've had the opportunity to taste most of the great vintages from BV, and even the best wines of the same period from that esteemed winery do not match the Inglenooks in quality. Even if you took the top 25 bottlings of wines such as Heitz Martha's Vineyard, Phelps Eisele or Insignia, Ridge Monte Bello, Beringer Private Reserve, Chateau Montelena, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars or any of Diamond Creek vineyard bottlings, and tasted them 20 or 30 years hence, I'm not sure they would rival Inglenook's.

Each of the aforementioned wineries has proven it can make distinctive, long-lived wines. But none of their older wines, still young by Inglenook standards, have the elegant fruit purity of the great Inglenooks. Of the new cult stars, well, there are many impressive young wines -- bottlings from Bryant Family Vineyard, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Shafer (Hillside Select), Colgin, Screaming Eagle and David Arthur. But whether their 1997s will still inspire awe in 2047 won't be known for years. I wouldn't count on it. The trend in today's winemaking is toward wines of immediate gratification, with ripe, rich, plush flavors and textures and jazzy oak. If they age anywhere near as well as the Inglenooks, it will be the result of pure grape quality more than any stylistic intent.

In 1964, the toll of meager monetary returns and the daunting financial prospects of retooling the winery caught up with Daniel. The wine business was not profitable for most wineries then, and given Daniel's high standards and no-shortcuts approach to winemaking, Inglenook's outlook didn't look bright. For years, Daniel had debated Inglenook's future, and in the end, decided to sell.

In a move that stunned most of his friends and colleagues in the valley, he sold Inglenook and much of its vineyard for $1.2 million to a unit of United Vintners. Despite its promises to keep Inglenook as the Tiffany of the California wine industry and to let Daniel oversee winemaking, circumstances quickly changed. In a few years, Inglenook became part of Heublein, a global drinks conglomerate, and after renewed pledges from the new owners to focus on quality and control, Heublein revved up production of a line of jug wines labeled Inglenook Navalle, named after the creek that ran by the winery. They became some of the most successful mass-produced wines in the country.

With the large-volume success, quality at Inglenook sagged appreciably and the winery's image became blurred. Those who knew the old Inglenook were disappointed in the new wines. And the times had changed; slowly, new producers captured the limelight and imagination of Cabernet drinkers. By the late 1970s, Inglenook was known not for its great Cabernets of the Daniel era, but as a jug wine factory with only a distant, symbolic link to Napa Valley.

In the 1980s, Heublein attempted to restore Inglenook's reputation. For a brief period, under the leadership of Dennis Fife, quality did improve. The damage had been done, however, as the winery's name and image suffered irreparably from the association with Inglenook Navalle. A final effort to revive the brand by calling it Inglenook Napa Valley, to distinguish it from Inglenook Navalle, failed, and eventually the name Inglenook was sold off.

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola bought the old Daniel residence in 1975 and started his own winery, Niebaum-Coppola Estate. Eventually, he bought many of the old vineyards and now owns nearly 200 acres of grapes. Finally, in 1995, he purchased the old Inglenook winery, reuniting it with the Daniel home and vineyards and restoring it magnificently. But the stone chateau is no longer used for winemaking as it was in the Daniel era. Today, it serves principally as a visitors' center and retail shop, housing not only many old Inglenook artifacts but also some of Coppola's prized possessions from his filmmaking career.

"What was different between then and now? I've kicked that around many times," McLeod says. He believes that the vineyards must have been immaculate. The weather might have been a shade cooler, with frequent spring frosts and mostly October harvests. The grapes were definitely harvested very ripe; McLeod knows that Deuer became fanatical about letting the grapes hang a few extra days while the vineyard crews pushed to harvest. "It's amazing how much [ripeness] you get waiting an extra week," McLeod explains. The young wines had to be good-tasting, not too tannic or acidic. "We know that people enjoyed drinking the wines young."

Thanks to the great wines he created, Daniel's legacy is secure. For 31 years, during one of the region's most difficult periods, Inglenook was the standard-bearer for Napa Valley Cabernet. Inglenook's quality has inspired some of today's winemakers to create great Cabernets for a new generation. The secrets contained in those dusty old bottles, all that remain of Inglenook's magnificent achievement, tantalize and challenge even now.