Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Rubicon 2004

Rubicon 2004

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Rubicon wine bottleLast week we learned about Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate, and the one white wine produced there, Blancaneaux. Today we’ll review the flagship wine of the estate, and the wine that gives the estate its name: Rubicon.

The 2004 vintage was one of the ripest ever seen in Napa, which means the wines of that year should be “huge”, or have a high concentration of fruit. It was the earliest harvest since 1994 due to the warmth of the season — which was a fortunate anomaly since there have been more cooler vintages than warm in the last fifteen years.

However, that warmth and ripeness did not equal abundance. In fact, 2004 was a fairly light crop, with not much fruit — it yielded 25% less cases compared to 2003. In contrast, the 2005 vintage was the largest harvest in history, but didn’t have quite the same ripeness (but it was still pretty damn ripe!).

Because of the extreme ripeness and concentration of 2004, winemaker Scott McLeod chose to age the wine in 100% French oak barrels (small ones, called “barriques”). When you have a lot of fruit, you can give it some oak to add vanilla and spice components without worrying about the wine tasting like a tree. McLeod chose French oak because it leaves less of a “stamp” on the wine; American oak barrels tend to impart more “woodiness” to a wine.

Rubicon 2004 Tasting Notes

The nose is full of violets, with blackberry and other black fruits, as well as some vanilla spice.
In the mouth you get ripe black fruit right away: black raspberry, plum, black cherry. There are equally ripe tannins and good acidity holding things together, and an incredibly silky texture. There is lots of complexity, with flavors of rum raisin, sour cherries, vanilla and other spices. Additionally, it has great length (meaning, flavors hang around in the mouth for well over a minute after swallowing), finishing with black fruit and licorice. It’s OK alone, but it’s very big and most valuable with food — I’d drink it with a braise or a stew or a hunk of cheese.

a-10 t-10 b-10 fc-9 v-7 ~ 96 Points

In addition to the 2004, I was able to get a sneak preview of the 2005 out of barrel. It’s huge, with a wide open nose of red and black berry fruits — licorice, violets, boysenberry, earth. Flavors are similar, but this wine was way too young and nowhere near ready to judge. I can tell you it’s going to be a monster. Meantime, there is the 2004 to drink (or cellar).

Winery: Rubicon Estate

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Rubicon Estate Blancaneaux

Blancaneaux 2006

Rubicon Estate Blancaneaux wine bottleNot all high-quality white wines from Napa, California, are Chardonnay.

Never one to do the same thing everyone else is doing, pioneering filmmaker and winery owner Francis Ford Coppola chose to do something unusual with a patch of land on his Rubicon Estate — grow Rhone white varietals Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier.

The vines are grown against a shady hill on Mt. St. John in western Rutherford, Napa Valley, allowing for a relatively cool, long growing season that slowly but fully ripens the grapes. According to the French, it takes at least 8-10 years for Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier vines to begin producing high quality fruit (in fact the AOC requires a minimum of ten-year-old vines). Considering that Coppola’s team began planting these varietals in 1995, we’re just now beginning to experience the best Blancaneaux.

The “old” vines combined with an ideal growing season to produce a lush, delicious, and complex white wine. The exact recipe for you wine geeks is this: 51% Marsanne, 32% Roussanne, and 17% Viognier (no, I’m not sure why winemaker Scott McLeod chose to do 51 percent Marsanne as opposed to 50 or 52 … these things are best left to the professionals!). And unlike most other whites from Napa, this wine was not bathed in oak — in fact, it saw no oak whatsoever, as it was fermented and aged in stainless steel.

Tasting Notes: Blancaneaux 2006

A distinctly floral aroma fills the nose, along with ample white fruits and exotic spices. In the mouth you get bright, tropical fruit flavors of pear, white peach, melon, and citrus (lime?). There are also hints of ginger and allspice and a firm mineral note. Lots of charm and complexity. Texture is soft and velvety, and though the acidity is fairly low, this is by no means flabby and makes for a beautiful match with simply prepared scallops, pork, and sauteed vegetables.

a-9 t-9 b-8 fc-8 v-7 ~ 91 Points

Winery: Rubicon Estate

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Winery Profile: Rubicon Estate

Photo of Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon Estate in Napa, California

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of American winemaking is the story of Inglenook.

Most of today’s casual wine drinkers know Inglenook as “one of those jug wines”. However, the “old school” wine folks, and anyone who has did a bit of research on American wine history, knows that the “real” Inglenook is quite the opposite: one of the most respected labels California has ever produced.

But don’t take it from me — pick up a copy of James Conaway’s novel-like book Napa: The Story of an American Eden to read about the Inglenook that once was, or the brief history written by James Laube.

Before the Inglenook winery was sold to liquor giant Heublein, it was owned by the Daniel family, and directed by John Daniel, Jr. Daniel was a visionary and a pioneer in California winemaking, and literally created history in Napa Valley. As Laube wrote,

“…for that amazing 31-year stretch — 1933 to 1964 — Inglenook compiled a collection of Cabernets that stand up favorably to the best red wines on earth; nearly all of these Inglenook wines were made under Daniel’s inspired leadership. . . . it’s arguable that Daniel’s Inglenook Cabernets are singularly the greatest group of wines ever made in California.”

Pretty bold statements, eh? None of what Laube states is aggrandizing, either, which makes the current perception of Inglenook such bitter irony.

However, more than 40 years later, and after over 30 years of effort and investment by another visionary — Francis Ford Coppola — the winery has been rescued, and is once again making extraordinary wines.

Since the Inglenook name has been all but destroyed by insipid, mass-produced plonk that bears its label, Coppola brands the wines as “Rubicon” — in honor of the winery’s flagship bottling. The name Rubicon comes from Caesar’s march on Rome, a.k.a., “The crossing of the Rubicon” — or, the point of no return. Indeed, Coppola’s epic journey to reinstate the Inglenook property to its glory days has been something of a war.

Coppola bought a piece of the old Inglenook property back in 1975, beginning a tireless mission to reunite the estate. Through the years he bought back fragments of land and vineyards that previously comprised the original Niebaum / Daniel holdings, painstakingly reconstructing the historic puzzle. The final piece was laid — actually, removed — earlier this year, when the “concrete box” was demolished.

The “concrete box” was a winemaking factory built by Heublein in 1973 on top the estate’s most prestigious vineyard plot. Amidst the beautiful hills and rolling slopes of Napa Valley, this industrial eyesore was a painful reminder of Inglenook’s demise, and an ugly, misplaced symbol of capitalistic greed. When Coppola knocked down the “concrete box”, the original builder was in attendance to see it; he’d been racked with guilt for his part in the atrocity since the blocks went up.

Like a Coppola-produced movie, the demolition was a fitting final scene — the climax or “falling action” that marked the completion of Coppola’s vision. The denouement, therefore, is the replanting of grapes and eventually, magical wines.

Magical wines, in fact, are the goal at Rubicon. The Daniel family lost money on Inglenook for 84 years in a row, as John Daniel held up original owner Gustave Niebaum’s credo of “pride, not profits”. Absolutely nothing got in the way of making the most fantastic wines possible for those 84 years, and today, Coppola is sparing no expense in creating mystical juice from the Rubicon fruits.

Coppola’s mission with the Rubicon brand is to re-create the vision and standards set forth by John Daniel all those years ago. Coppola went so far as to hire the “dean” of California winemaking, Andre Tchelistcheff, as a consultant back in the early 1990s, and has since enlisted winemaker Scott McLeod with the duty of nurturing the Inglenook vines and wines back to their historic levels. For assistance and guidance to what once was, McLeod has a unique and immeasurable asset with a link to the old days: Rafael Rodriguez. For those who read the aforementioned Napa, you should remember Rodriguez. He and his family moved into a house on the Inglenook estate in 1952, “working from home” as a vineyard worker, before eventually becoming the manager of all the vineyards (as well as those of Beaulieu). Now over 80 years old, Rodriguez continues to put in three days a week at Rubicon Estate.

Meanwhile, McLeod works full-time — and overtime — in his obsession with re-creating the past. He’s been given free reign to do pretty much whatever is necessary to make world-class wines — and he’s consistently succeeded. How many California wineries declassify an entire harvest — in other words, not bottle a wine in a particular year — because the grapes didn’t match the winemaker’s standard level of quality? McLeod did just that in 1998, and will do it again if future grapes don’t pass muster. He’d rather make no wine at all than make one that might lower the image and quality that is Rubicon.

Check back tomorrow for reviews of Rubicon wines.