Have you ever heard of the historic Ingelnook wine estate? Have you ever tried Ingelnook’s premium wine? Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper shares the history behind the Napa Valley region and recommends a few wines to try.

The Place

Having amassed a fortune in sea ferrying, in 1879 Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum purchased a vast estate in Rutherford, California named Inglenook, with a goal of producing wine on an estate that could rival its European counterparts. The word ‘Inglenook’ is a Scottish expression meaning “cozy corner”, but in this case it should denote a copious cozy corner, as the estate, which includes a brilliant European-style château, would eventually encompass more than 1,500 acres.

From north to south, the Napa Valley is about 30 miles in length, which is not nearly as big as most people think. The region’s width tops out at five miles and goes down to a single mile at its narrowest point. Mountains surround the valley on both sides: The Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the east.

The History

Inglenook’s first vintage was produced 1882, and the picturesque château was completed in 1887. In 1891, Inglenook wine was revered enough to be served in the White House for President Grover Cleveland. It may seem hard to believe, but in 1901 you could enjoy a bottle of Inglenook Claret for less than a dollar.

Lamentably, wine making at the estate ceased in 1908 for three years following the death of Gustave Niebaum at the age of 66, until his widow subsequently resumed the estate’s production and its critical acclaim. In 1914, John Daniel Jr., the grandnephew of Gustave Niebaum, and his sister Suzanne moved to the estate after their mother died to be reared by the widow Niebaum.

From 1919 to 1933 the ludicrous happens: prohibition declares the production of wine illegal, leaving the great estate to continue producing grapes but not wine. After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, John Daniel Jr. took leadership of Inglenook, eventually becoming its owner in 1939. Daniel was the first vintner to use Napa Valley on his label, thus emphasizing the importance of the wine making region. It is during this time that John Daniel Jr. made truly one of the greatest wines ever produced in California: the famous 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon.

With the motto “Pride Not Proft” firmly in place, Inglenook’s obsession with quality as opposed to financial security ultimately led to its downfall, compelling Daniel to sell the name Inglenook along with the great château and some of the vineyards in 1964. The new owner was a large national company that eventually evolved into the company named Heublein. Tis company did no favors to the name or the wine, making inexpensive wine of mediocre quality, although they did make some very nice Cabernet Sauvignons as part of its Reserve Cask series.

Daniel continued to maintain a sizeable share of the land as well as the Niebaum mansion where he and his family lived until his death in 1970. In 1975, his wife sold the portion of the estate her family had maintained to Francis and Eleanor Coppola, who renamed the estate Niebaum-Coppola. They produced the first vintage of their flagship wine Rubicon in 1978, but not in the great château, as it was still owned by the large national company. In 1995 Coppola bought the château and the vineyards Daniel sold in 1964, thereby reuniting the great property and restoring the glory of the Inglenook château. Finally and gratefully the Coppola’s acquired the Inglenook trademark in 2011, and once again the property is named Inglenook.

I have had the great fortune to visit the estate on numerous occasions, watching the evolution before and after Coppola purchased the final elements of estate and the château. The culmination of my appreciation of the estate occurred at the legendary Aspen tasting in 1991, where we tasted a selection of wines from 1941 to 1986. I was in astonishment of how well the 1941, 1946 and 1959 showed truly incredible wines.

Precious few estates in California or in Napa Valley have a history and legacy like Inglenook. Perhaps Buena Vista, Gundlach Bundschu, Charles Krug or Beringer could rival it, but today there are few historic estates in California under the ownership of individuals or families as opposed to multinational conglomerates. Inglenook has been through both and survived with its renewed grandeur thanks to Francis Ford Coppola.

The Wine

1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, California)
On my list as one of the best wines I have ever had. I tasted this classic Napa Valley Cabernet at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic in 1991; Robert Parker was the moderator and it was a most memorable occasion. At the time of the tasting its auction value was $1800.00 a bottle; a taste of Napa Valley history.
Intense nose of currant and anise, it is amazingly long, rich and concentrated. A seductive bouquet of caramelized fruits remains in the glass even after the wine was gone, ethereal and multidimensional.

2009 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Rubicon (Napa Valley, California)
Rubicon is the famed river in Northern Italy that Caesar crossed with his troops, irrevocably committing himself to his destination. Rubicon signifies Coppola’s own commitment to wine making at the great Inglenook estate. This is the first year Rubicon and Inglenook share a label. Blackberries, currants, violets, baking spices, and toasty oak round out this full-bodied and rich wine that has plenty of tannins for ageing.