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Coppola Acquires Inglenook Name for Rubicon, Hires Phillipe Bascaules

Winery Profiles
Written by Fred Swan
Thursday, 14 April 2011 00:38

Francis Ford Coppola, owner of Rubicon Estate Winery, acquired the Inglenook trademark from The Wine Group this week. The purchase fulfills Coppola’s longtime dream of reuniting his historic estate winery and vineyards with their original name. For many years, the Inglenook brand has been used for inexpensive, mass-market wines. Now it will once again be associated with high-quality wine from Rutherford in Napa Valley. In a separate move this week, Coppola hired Phillipe Bascaules to serve as Estate Manager and Winemaker. Bascaules has spent the last 21 years at Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, serving as Estate Director for the last 11.

In 1975 Coppola purchased the 1,560 acres which had been the part of Inglenook estate. Included were 125 acres of vineyards, in need of replanting, and the Niebaum residence. However, he was not able to purchase the Inglenook name which was owned by a different company. So Coppola dubbed his new winery Niebaum-Coppola. He acquired an additional 70 vineyard acres, formerly part of Inglenook, in 1995 holdings. In 2006, Niebaum-Coppola became Rubicon Estate Winery to leverage the success and name-recognition of the winery’s flagship product, a Bordeaux-varietal blend called Rubicon.

Francis Ford Coppola at Rubicon Estate, July 13, 2011
Photo: Fred Swan

William C. Watson planted the original Inglenook vineyard on 78 acres in 1871. He sold the property to Clinton Hastings1 in 1879. Gustave Niebaum acquired it the following year and began building a chateau in 1881. Under Niebaum, Inglenook produced it’s first wine in 1882. Niebaum died in 1908. Prohibition forced Inglenook to cease wine production in 1919. It survived by selling fresh grapes and resumed wine production on December 6, 1933, one day after the Repeal of Prohibition. Four years later, Mrs. Niebaum died and John Daniel Jr. and Susan Daniel inherited the estate winery. Nephew and niece of Mrs. Niebaum, they had lived with her on the property since the death the children’s mother in 1914.

Gustave Niebaum, founder of Inglenook Winery

Under John Daniel Jr., Inglenook reached its pinnacle of quality and acclaim. His motto, “Pride, not Profit,” showed in his excellent Cabernet Sauvignon wines of the 1940‘s and 1950‘s, some of which still drink very well today. Also true to the motto, case production was low, around 5,000 at peak and did not generate big profits. He sold the Inglenook name and 94 acres of vineyards to Allied Grape Growers in 1964, but retained the chateau and remaining acreage. Despite Daniel staying on as a consultant and assurances from Allied Grape Growers that high-quality would be maintained, Inglenook became associated with mass-market wines under it’s new owner. These included varietally-indistinct wines made from Central Valley fruit.

John Daniel, Jr., took Inglenook Winery to new heights in the '40's and '50's.

In 1969, consumer-brands powerhouse Heublein purchased a majority stake in Allied Grape Growers/United Vintners, thus taking over Inglenook as well. Heublein had started in restaurants and hotels in the 19th century but invented A1 Steak Sauce and later purchased Grey Poupon and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Their alcoholic beverage holdings included Smirnoff Vodka and Hamm’s Brewery. They also held U.S. distribution rights for Jose Quervo, Guinness Stout, Harvey’s Bristol Cream and Lancer’s wine among others. Heublein quickly increased Inglenook’s case volume to millions. John Daniels, Jr. died in 1970, distraught over what had become of his family winery and its once-proud name. Daniel's wife sold the rest of the property, except for the 125-acre  “Napanook Vineyard” left to daughters, Robin Lail2 and Marcia Smith, in 1971. It eventually became part of Dominus Estate.)

The peregrinations of the Inglenook brand continued. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco purchased Heublein in 1982 and, after a merger with Nabisco, sold off bits and pieces of what had been Heublein’s holdings. The remaining alcoholic beverages units of Heublein, including Inglenook, went to Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo) in 1987. Canandaigua Wine Company  bought Inglenook Vineyards from them in 1994. Canandaigua changed its own name to Constellation Wines in 2000. It sold Inglenook, Almaden Vineyards and Paul Masson Winery to The Wine Group in 2008 for  $134 million.

The Wine Group, now the world's third-largest wine company, had acquired Cardinal Zin and Big House from Bonny Doon two years prior. The Wine Group also owns Franzia, Concannon, Corbett Canyon, Fish Eye, Glen Ellen wines and the Underdog Wine Group which imports and/or produces a number of other brands, including Cupcake. It was named winery of the year at the United Wine & Grape Symposium in 2005,

After all of its travels, Inglenook should be very happy to move back to the beautiful chateau nestled cozily against the Rutherford foothills. And it is good to see Coppola’s vision of fully restoring the historic Inglenook Estate Winery moving forward. David Kent, CEO of The Wine Group appears to share that feeling, saying "We are pleased to see the revered Inglenook brand reunited with its historic estate under The Coppola Family’s stewardship. This is a proud moment for the California wine industry."

Francis Ford Coppola wants to go further than just bringing back the name and it’s association with top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon though. A complete, and expensive, restoration of the chateau was completed in 1997. In 2002, Coppola bought an adjacent property, J. J. Cohn. With that, winemaking facilities were on-site at the former Inglenook Estate for the first time since 1966. The following year, Rubicon began work on a cave for the aging and storage of the estate wines. They have also elevated the consumer experience at the winery with VIP tours and tasting areas, a Coppola museum, a wine/espresso/cigar bar called Mammarella, plus what is probably Napa Valley’s best and most extensive gift shop.

However, last year brought challenges. These included the departure of several key employees. Scott McLeod was one of the first to go. Rubicon winemaker since 1991, he left in May, having been named Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine just six months prior. Highly-respected managing director Larry Stone MS departed in August to become general manager of Evening Land.

Now, Coppola has filled both openings with one bold move. The hiring of Phillipe Bascaules brings Inglenook experienced estate leadership and signals how serious Coppola is about raising the profile of the winery to the highest level. It is unlikely that Bascaules would have taken the role if he did not see both commitment from Coppola and the potential to make Inglenook one of the top estates in the country.

Phillipe Bascaules (center) with Fred Swan & Eva Swan, Chateau Margaux, June 2008

Chateau Margaux is one of the most highly-regarded estates in Bordeaux. As one of the original five First Growths, its wine has long been among the very best and most collected. Likewise, visits to Chateau Margaux are prized and taken very seriously. Wineries in the United States, even in Napa Valley, need to have a less formal air about them. Yet, while Rubicon Estate Winery already has a special and exclusive atmosphere, Bascaules will probably be able to turn that up a notch or two without alienating key customers and club members.

Chateau Margaux, a First Growth Bordeaux Chateau, in June 2008

Bascaules’ arrival may also bring greater credibility and status for Inglenook with the increasingly important Asian collectors and investors. The prices of new-release Bordeaux reds have soared recently, especially for the First Growths. Much of this has been driven by the prestige associated with those wines and their value as gifts and showpieces to the wealthy in Hong Kong and China. California wines, no matter how good or exclusive, have largely been left behind. The clearer association of Rubicon wine with a famed winery, established 130 years ago, will also help. And even a small uptick in interest from Asia will bolster profits for Inglenook at the high-end of their product line.

It will be interesting to see how the wines will change, if at all, under Bascaules. Scott McLeod left in 2010, but Stéphane Derenoncourt joined on as consulting winemaker in 2008 and remains in that role. Derenoncourt was winemaker at Chateau Pavie-Macquin and then Chateau Canon-la-Gaffeliere and La Mondotte before starting his consulting business in 1997. Since then, he has continued to assist at the aforementioned wineries as well as Chateau Smith Haut-Lafitte, Clos de l’Oratoire, Chateau Petit Village, Clos Fourtet and many other estates in Bordeax as well as numerous wineries around the world. In 2006, he launched his own project in Napa Valley called Derenoncourt California. The first release was in 2009.

Stéphane Derenoncourt, consulting winemaker at Rubicon since 2008.

Bascaules indicates that refinement may be in the cards though, saying “I understand Francis Ford Coppola’s desire to bring the quality of the wines to their fullest potential and I’m excited to explore new methods to reach this goal.” There have been stylistic changes in Rubicon over the past 20 years. These include movement from a a fairly hard, tannic wine requiring bottle age to one that remains structured and age-worthy but which can be consumed with pleasure when young. Though always predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, the exact blend changes from year to year. There was a time just a few years ago when the strategy was to put more emphasis on Merlot. This peaked in 2001 at 5%, a small but certainly noticeable amount. This has changed of late though and neither the 2005 nor 2006 vintage of Rubicon included any Merlot whatsoever.

1 Clinton Hastings was a lawyer and politician who served as both the first Chief Justice of California's Supreme Court and the state's Attorney General. He parlayed money made as a lawyer into a massive real estate empire. In 1878, he contributed $100,000 to the University of California thus founding the Hastings School of Law. He died in 1893 and is buried in the St. Helena Public Cemetary.

2 In 1982, Robin Lail and Marcia Smith co-founded Dominus Estate with Christian Moueix, in part with the aim to make great wine from the Napanook Vineyard. In 1983, Lail and her husband Jon founded Merryvale Winery with a number of partners. She served as that winery's president for 10 years. Robin and Jon Lail sold their remaining holdings in both Dominus and Merryvale. Together with their daughters, they then founded Lail Vineyards and began buying vineyard land on Howell Mt.

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