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

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.

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