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Where’s Napa Valley’s next Great Leap Forward in the 21st century?

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I am, as many of you know, something of a student of the history of wine, and of California wine in particular. I’ve always had a hankering for history–any era, any country–although I do have my favorites: World War II is one (I have almost as many books on that as I do on wine), and I also enjoy the history of science, especially of modern physics. But my wine education began with a study of California’s wine history, and it’s still going on. That’s the thing about history: it keeps on happening.

I’m mindful of this, because I’ve been thinking about how Francis Ford Coppola is engaged in restoring the historic Inglenook name, which really had been dreadfully mauled over the years, since it passed from the hands of the great John Daniel, Jr. to a series of corporate owners, including United Vintners, Heublein, Constellation and The Wine Group. No disrespect to any of those fine companies, but that’s a pretty sad track record for a winery that had been as great as Inglenook, which was founded in 1879 and therefore has a legacy as important as any winery in California.

When I first started learning about wine, Inglenook already was in its dog days. It was mainly known for the Inglenook Navalle bottling, which hardly was great wine. Those of us who knew history appreciated and respected Inglenook for what it had been, not what it was. We hoped that, someday, the glory that was Inglenook would be restored. But that seemed impossible. Even after Francis Ford Coppola successfully repatched together the original Inglenook estate vineyard, in Rutherford, with a series of purchases, the name “Inglenook” seemed deader than a doorknob. Coppola named his brand Rubicon, not Inglenook, because he didn’t own the rights.

That’s now changed, and is why it was so exciting to hear that Coppola had bought back the Inglenook name (from The Wine Group) and plans on resurrecting it for the wines that had been Rubicon Estate.

Inglenook was one of the Big Four that kept the reputation of Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon going, post-Prohibition. The others were Louis M. Martini (now owned by Gallo), Beaulieu (Diageo) and Charles Krug, which thankfully remains in the hands of the Peter Mondavi, Sr. family. Each of these wineries is doing fine, although concerning Martini, I think the jury’s still out on precisely where the Gallos aim to take it. Beaulieu has been left marvelously intact by Diageo, who understands the truth of the old adage, If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, and Charles Krug remains an outstanding exemplar of how good Napa wine can be at relatively affordable prices. Still, I think it’s fair to say that none of those three wineries has aspired to be the very best in Napa Valley.

Which leaves Rubicon/Inglenook. Can Coppola push it back to the top? I, personally, have always thought a great deal of Rubicon, the Bordeaux blend that was the Rubicon winery’s flagship wine. The old estate vineyard, west of Highway 29 on the Rutherford Bench, is one of the glories of Napa Valley, just beautifully situated. I’ve always given very high scores to Rubicon (culminating in 95 points for the 2008, which I reviewed last October), and I’ve also always enjoyed the Cask Cabernet Sauvignon, which is consciously modeled after Daniels’ Cabs, made during Inglenook’s glory days in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. That Cask Cabernet, for my money, is pretty much right up there with Rubicon, although it’s a different kind of wine, more closed in youth and, overall, more elegant. But it’s also $100 less.

When I think back over Napa Valley’s amazing history, I’m grateful to those who came later, but advanced the cause. Robert Mondavi clearly stands out, head and shoulders above anyone else in the second half of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of André Tchelistcheff. But we don’t have to choose between them. I also give great credit to Bill Harlan. He came along at a point when pretty much everybody thought Napa Cabernet was as good as it can get, and then he made it better. Without Bill, I wonder if there would be Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Staglin, Hundred Acre, Colgin and all the rest of what we nowadays consider “cult wineries.” Bill Harlan showed that Napa could reinvent itself, even when nobody thought it needed reinventing.

Sodden thought: I wonder what Napa’s next reinvention will be, and who will lead it?

  1. What has happened to the Inglenook label is such a shame given its importance to wine and to the Valley. I really hope FFC gives this label weight again.

  2. Tom: He will.

  3. I don’t like to play devil’s advocate, but their may be some level of danger in trying to resurrect and recreate what once was. Sorry for the crude analogy, but does anyone see the comparison to a drug addict always searching for that original high? The effort may be futile. Even if works out, wine-making techniques and standards are so much different now than they were in Inglenook’s hayday and the wine will undoubtedly be different than the older vintages. Any thoughts?

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