Inglenook Estate. While not even close to being Napa’s oldest winery, it is certainly arguably the valley’s grandest. It is what a wine estate should look and feel like – visually stunning while containing layers of history and depth of stories collected over its 130+ years.
Originally founded as Inglenook, it has been referred to by several names throughout its history including Rubicon Estate and Niebaum-Coppola. After decades of using these interim names, the property was finally changed back to Inglenook in 2011 after owner, Francis Ford Coppola was able to purchase the trademark rights to the Inglenook name. For many years the Inglenook brand was owned by a number of corporate entities and was most recently in use by Constellation Brands and the Wine Group.
Today the winery bills itself as “America’s Grand Wine Estate”; it is easy to see why this is one of Napa’s most venerable estate properties. This storied winery is among some of the most picturesque wineries in all of the Napa Valley. The estate was among the first Bordeaux-styled wineries in the USA and was created in the early 1870s by William Watson (son-in-law of George Yount – namesake of Yountville – Yount was the first one in the Napa Valley to plant grapes in the late 1830s). Watson decided on the name Inglenook – based on his heritage and feel for the property. An inglenook is a chimney corner – historically a recess set next to a chimney where people would gather seeking warmth – a ‘cozy corner’ if you will.
Watson planted the first ever grape vines on the property in the early 1870s – approximately 40 acres of vines. After several years, he sold the property to Judge S. Clinton Hastings, founder of the University of California Hastings Law School at UC Berkeley. Hastings did not own the property for very long before selling it in 1879 to Gustave Niebaum (who had previously Americanized his name from Nybom), an extremely wealthy Finnish born business man who was a partner in Alaska Commercial Co (a company that remarkably in some form is still in business today). Niebaum hired several architects to build a winery including Hamden McIntyre who was in part responsible for the Greystone building currently occupied by the Culinary Institute of America and Eschol Winery – now owned by Trefethen Family Vineyards. Hamden was the Howard Backen of the times (Howard is a well-respected contemporary architect responsible for some of Napa’s most creative and innovative wineries).
Niebaum oversaw the construction of the winery beginning in 1881; their first harvest was a year later. Over the years their wines won many prestigious wine tasting awards including gold medals at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. The winery was closed during Prohibition (like nearly all wineries in the valley), but reopened after the repeal and again became very well known in the 1940’s and 1950’s under the direction of Niebaum’s grandnephew John Daniel Jr.
Most noteworthy was the 1941 vintage which in 1999 the Wine Spectator chose as one of the 12 greatest wines from anywhere in the world made between 1900 through 1999. This wine was among heady company including wines from Château Margaux, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château d’Yquem.
Film director and Napa Valley resident, Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now fame, have owned the winery since 1975 with their first vintage under their ownership from 1978. Coppola has long enjoyed wine (his grandfather used to make home wine in the basement of his New York apartment); this is not the only winery he owns – he also operates the very popular Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville in neighboring Sonoma County (complete with a pool, cabines available for rental, a restaurant, movie memorabilia and plenty of wine for visitors).
The Chateau is elegant both inside and outside. A beautiful reflecting pool framed by stately oak trees in front attracts the attention of all visitors. Looking the opposite direction to the east – one overlooks a sea of vineyards.
Inglenook used to be open to the public; today all tastings or tours are by appointment only. As you pull into their driveway on the west side of Highway 29 (almost across from the Rutherford Cross Road and the great Beaulieu Vineyard) you will pass by two tall art ornaments – these were a gift to Francis Ford Coppola from George Lucas. Around dusk, the tops of these swivel down and turn into street lights. If you have an appointment, pull into the crushed stone parking lot to your right, check in with the concierge located in the small carriage house (this building, now the Visitor Center was originally built in 1879 for housing tanks for water storage). You may be given a one time printed bar code which you can scan on the gate reader and then proceed down the long driveway to the parking lot or the concierge may electronically open the gate for you.
Park in the shaded parking lot – from here it is a short walk to the grand old Chateau – passing one of the oldest structures still standing in all of Napa Valley, the Chiles House which dates from 1856. It was built by Joseph Chiles a participant in the 1846 California Bear Flag Revolt in the town of Sonoma. The home wasn’t always in this location but was moved here many years ago; today it houses the offices of Inglenook’s Human Resources department.
Before the appointment only policy was implemented – this used to be one of Napa’s most well-loved wineries – often with crowds of people milling about on the grounds and inside the winery ‘museum’. It is a different experience these days – one can walk the grounds in a much calmer and quieter setting. Several tasting/tour options are offered – including the Heritage Tasting, the Inglenook Experience (a tour + tasting) and a few select private experiences including a coveted tasting of select vintages of their Rubicon wines (these are wines are all distinctive – during a recent flight of various Rubicon vintages, none of the wines tasted alike).
Visits to the tasting salon are like walking back to another era – the interior feels masculine – surrounded by stone walls, dark wood paneling, somber lighting and hosts well-dressed in suits – a gentleman’s opulence if you will. With that said, the mood is welcoming; during our several visits and tastings in this space, we have noticed groups always having a good time.
Highly recommended is the 90 minute estate tour and tasting which provides an excellent overview of the property’s storied history. The tour typically starts with a splash of Sauvignon Blanc in the ‘bar’ room next to the reception followed by a visit to some of the displays on the first floor highlighting Gustave Niebaum and some of the early history of the property. Tours proceed to the courtyard and then up the hill to an overlook above rows of vines extending all the way up to the edges of the Mayacamas Mountains. The prominent profile of Mount Saint John is also seen directly to the west as are Francis and Eleanor’s homes – barely seen in the distance through the trees.
Over 400 olive trees grow on the property including numerous ones along the sides of this hilltop overlook. Inglenook produces their own Extra Virgin Olive Oil pressed from olives growing on the property. A very unique olive clone is their Redding Picholine – Inglenook is one of only two properties in the world to cultivate this clone. Olive trees originally planted by Gustave Niebaum have been restored and are again producing olives. And the estate has planted additional varietals (used in their own estate blend).
Tours stop in the old cask room – German oak was brought over to the winery in the 1930s and assembled on site. These casks have not been used for decades but are a reminder of the type of wine making that helped produce some of the valley’s top wines for many years. Tours also make a brief stop in the caves followed by a private group tasting in one of the small rooms between the reception and The Bistro.
All estate wines come from their organically farmed vineyards on site. Inglenook farms some approximately 250 acres of vines many of which are completely hidden from view of visitors to the winery. Approximately half their acreage is behind the winery to the west with the other half in front of the winery extending all the way to the highway. Their vineyards are sectioned into numerous small blocks – a surprising number of varietals grow on the property (both reds and whites).
Approximately 20,000 cases of wine are produced each year under the Inglenook label – diversified among only 6 wines. The production here is not to be confused with the Copolla labels which are produced in quantities of upwards of 2 million cases a year. Unlike some of the other grand historical estates in the Napa Valley, other then a small experimental cellar dug into the hillside in 1883, Inglenook never built caves. This changed in 2003 when Copolla oversaw the drilling of what is now 16,000 square feet of caves into the hillside directly behind the Chateau. These tunnels are now referred to as the Infinity cave. Inglenook’s flagship wine is the Rubicon (first vintage 1978), a Bordeaux-style red blend named after the Rubicon River in northeastern Italy (made famous by Julius Caesar who crossed in 49 BC).
The 2005 Rubicon (tasted 12 years after it’s vintage) shows what this wine will become with some age. The bouquet shows a wonderful depth of character – that evolves into a number of aromas as it opens. Shows notes of plum, mocha and cedar spices. It is savory at times. A very balanced wine that seems to be hitting it’s stride. It is supple on the palate – very pleasing. Hints of toffee, mocha and darker fruit lingers for some time. Sweet fine grained tannins hang delicately. A delicious wine.
The 2010 Rubicon is very dark in the glass; it shows minerality notes on the bouquet along with a dusty component – tends towards darker fruit aromas rather then red fruits. Somewhat savory with aromas of sage more in the background. We tasted this 7 years after the vintage date – still shows as a very young wine. Somewhat tight with astringent tannins. Flavors of spicy plum on the finish.
The 2013 is the first ever vintage of the Rubicon that was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The bouquet is dominated by secondary characteristics including cigar smoke, sweaty leather, tar and baking spices. The fruit is there on the bouquet, albeit hidden at times – showing mostly darker fruit aromas. Reveals excellent depth of flavor on the palate with noticeable mouth watering acidity. Flavors of blackberry and black currant along with various spices show on the finish. Features earthy long lasting tannins. No doubt, this wine will age for some time.
The RC Reserve Syrah is a wine created by the wine making team with the stylistic direction provided by Francis and Eleanor’s son, Roman Coppola who has long enjoyed Syrahs. The 2015 Syrah is very distinctive compared to their other wines we described – based both on its varietal characteristics and style. A savory wine with very perceptible notes of tobacco leaf on the bouquet along with aromas of frying bacon fat. Meaty, dark, deep and brooding on the palate, nevertheless it drinks well young and is full of flavor. Perhaps a good pairing would be a cigar – one of the custom branded Inglenook cigars available for purchase at the winery. This wine is available at a reasonable price point as well.
The Sample Room
In what may very well be Napa Valley’s first formal tasting room, the small Sample Room dates from 1889 and is where visitors used to enjoy Inglenook wines (closed down sometime in the 1960s). The room was designed to look and feel like being on one of Captain Niebaum’s ships – it feels historically elegant – stained-glass windows from the Netherlands were imported with oak-paneled walls wrapping around the room providing a feel of luxury.
A German made light covering (can be turned on directly outside the room with the light-switch) hangs from the ceiling. This was added to the room later and contains an inscription in German which translates to English as, “Give me a glass of very old wine, so happy can be this heart of mine”.
A small memorabilia museum located upstairs highlights both the estate’s history as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s film history. Numerous displays highlight Coppola’s awards, movie props and other interesting movie memorabilia. Some of these exhibits will rotate occasionally. A highlight of this space is the Tucker 48, a gorgeous vehicle produced in Chicago in 1948. Only 51 of these prized beauties were ever created – and were featured in Coppola’s 1988 film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Incidentally, one of these vehicles is also on display at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Alexander Valley (neighboring Sonoma County).
Another highlight is Copolla’s extensive collection of magic lanterns. He purchased this private collection from another collector – essentially each lantern contains a candle with a transparent colorful image in front of the lens which is then projected on the wall. The flickering candle provides a sense of movement. Several displays contain many different sizes and shapes of the lanterns. This technology dates back to the 17th century and some of the specimens on display are obviously quite old.
A rare bottle of 1910 vintage Inglenook Riesling is also on display, presumably with its original somewhat tattered label mostly intact – and from close examination, most of the bottle still seems to be filled with the wine.
The grand staircase on the first floor leads up to the museum and provides a backdrop for any epic Instagram ready photograph. Think Jack & Rose at the base of the staircase in the movie Titanic as you pose smartly for a cell phone camera.
Guests of The Bistro do not need a reservation to visit and often locals stop by in the mornings for some snacks and or coffee (after checking in at the Visitor Center at the entrance to their long driveway). The Bistro is located on the southern side of the Chateau, The Bistro features a cozy space with limited seating – reminiscent perhaps of European cafe. If weather is not miserable, a number of tables are located on the courtyard outside under the shade of the nearby Sycamore trees – an ideal place to relax and soak in the history of the property.
A number of small bites are served including cheeses, salamis and select bakery items. Current release wines by the glass or bottle are featured – along with a variety of cafe drinks (various coffees). Cigars branded especially for Inglenook Estate are also for sale. And what is a nice touch, colorful wooden sailboats are available for children (or adults young at heart) to carry over to the courtyard fountain for some ‘sailing’.
For more information, to join one of their wine clubs and or to book an appointment, visit: www.inglenook.com