Francis Ford Coppola has a story to tell. The 73-year-old Oscar-winning director has completed a decades-long effort to restore the historic Napa Valley winery, and he’s using it not only to showcase the history of California wine but to steer the modern-day industry back to its roots.
Coppola has renamed his winery, most recently called Rubicon Estate, as Inglenook, the original name given it by Gustave Niebaum, who founded the estate in 1879. Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain who became one of the richest men in post-gold rush California by trading along the West Coast from San Francisco to Alaska, helped establish the Napa Valley’s reputation for fine cabernet sauvignon. Inglenook remained the region’s premier winery after Niebaum’s death in 1908 under two generations of his wife’s family. Then in the 1960s, just as Napa Valley’s modern resurgence was beginning, Inglenook was sold to corporate owners interested mostly in the brand name.
Niebaum’s heirs held on to his mansion and some surrounding vineyards, which Coppola purchased at auction in 1976. Two decades later, the drinks conglomerate Heublein sold the winery building and remaining vineyards to another drinks conglomerate, Canandaigua, which then sold the winery and vineyards — but not its name or image — to Coppola. By that time, the Inglenook name had been given to cheap jug wines; the winery’s grandeur was a fading memory.
But that’s a memory Coppola now hopes to revive. Last year, he purchased rights to the Inglenook name and the winery image from Constellation Brands (the successor company to Canandaigua). Last month, he released the 2009 Cask Cabernet Sauvignon under the Inglenook name with a throwback label that brings to mind the legendary Inglenook wines of the 1940s.
At a time when once-venerable California wineries such as Robert Mondavi and Beringer have become mere brands under corporate ownership, Coppola is elevating Inglenook as an archetype of family-owned, estate-grown and bottled wine. It’s as though he’s fighting the consolidation of the California wine industry in favor of an historical, more romantic model.
“When we purchased the house, I was filled by sadness that things like this are not preserved in our society. So step by step, I found myself seduced by the Inglenook story and the desire to reunite the property,” Coppola said in a recent telephone interview. “The hardest part was obtaining the original trademark and the iconography. Now that we have that, we can make use of the classic labels. We want to use the heritage.”
Coppola’s restoration of Inglenook involved more than just the property and the image. He also set out to remake the wine. Niebaum-Coppola’s flagship wine, Rubicon, followed Napa’s ripeness trend over the past 15 years toward bigger, fruitier wines with higher alcohol levels. Coppola began to scale back the wine toward a more classic European style in 2008, when he hired famed Bordeaux consultant Stephane Derenencourt (who also consults at Virginia’s Boxwood Winery). And last fall he lured Philippe Bascaules, a 21-year winemaking veteran at Bordeaux first-growth Chateau Margaux, to California as the first winemaker for the new Inglenook.
“The direction is toward a softer, more elegant wine,” Coppola says. “I drink wine with food. I don’t sit around tasting a bunch of wines and trying to guess which is which. You don’t want a fruit bomb.”
While he’s reluctant to say he was unhappy with the way Rubicon developed over the years, he acknowledges that the alcohol level crept up and says he wants to recapture the grace of the classic Inglenook cabernets and even some earlier vintages of Rubicon. “There was a characteristic flavor through the wines we made in the ’80s that says Rutherford,” he says, referring to the district of Napa Valley where Inglenook is located.
It’s that flavor, and the story behind it, that Coppola is trying to recapture in the new, but old, Inglenook.