Hippo Manchester
September 8, 2005

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Keeping it in the family

Or, how the Godfather’s father saved the vineyard

By Tim Protzman  

What do sea otters and the Mafia have to do with wine?

The answer is, they’re all intertwined in the history of one of the greatest vineyards in the world.

Gustave Niebaum was a sea captain. Born in Finland in 1842, he showed up in San Francisco in 1868 with $600,000 in otter pelts from the icy waters off Alaska. With his newfound wealth he established the Alaskan Commercial Company, which along with pelts, turned a profit by shipping ice from the Muir Glacier to California, to cool cocktails along the Barbary Coast.

In 1880 he purchased a farm and nascent vineyard near Rutherford, in Napa Valley.

A previous owner had named it “Inglenook” the Scottish word for cozy corner. For the next 85 years Inglenook was the premier winery in California, run by Niebaum, his wife and her grandniece and nephew.

Inglenook wines were awarded prizes and accolades. The first-class menu on the Southern Pacific Railroad listed Inglenook Claret for 60 cents a bottle at the turn of the last century. The vineyard survived the San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed its headquarters, and Prohibition, during which it sold table grapes. The 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon has been heralded as one of the greatest wines in the world. A two-bottle lot recently sold at auction for over $24,000.

In the 1960s, as the world took notice of Californian wines, part of the vineyard, as well as the Inglenook name, were sold to a large corporation. The wine world has long known that a well-crafted wine will always find an appreciative audience but the big money lies in the mass-marketed wines. And that’s what happened at Inglenook. Once in corporate hands, the winemakers focused on the easy drinking, commercially blended, large vat, mass production wines. They’ve been very successful at producing a nice consistent wine and turning a profit from it.

But the wine from today’s Inglenook is as different from the artisanally crafted wines of the past as an Egg McMuffin is from eggs benedict. The sad part was that the leading name in California wine was no more. Gone were the stunning cellar selections created by pioneering winemakers like Carl Bundshu and John Daniel, Gustave’s great nephew.

Then in 1975 the Mafia moved in. Well not really the Mafia, but Francis Ford Coppola, flush with cash from the Godfather movies. He purchased the 1,500-acre vineyard, the original Niebaum residence and the chateau where the wine was made. Unable to use the Inglenook name, he called his winery Niebaum-Coppola.

Niebaum-Coppola produces an everyday wine, in white and red. The Bianco (white) is a blend of pinot grigio, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. The Rosso, a full bodied red, combines cabernet sauvignon, syrah and zinfandel. They also make a 100 percent syrah, called Coppola Rosso Shiraz. These wines retail for $10.99.

The next level or “tier” of wines as they describe it is the Diamond Series. These wines are a few dollars more and are made from California grapes, although they’re not grown at the estate, but purchased from other vineyards. They make sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, zinfandel, syrah, pinot noir and a claret, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. These wines are good drinking and widely available. They account for 55 percent of the estate’s gross sales.

The top tier of wines are estate grown and bottled. They include the Coppola Cask series, the Blancaneaux, a Rhone style white blend, the Blanc de Blanc Sophia Coppola sparkling wine and the Edizione Pennino zinfandel, named after Francis’ grandfather.

These wines range from $28 to $95 for Niebaum Coppola’s flagship wine, Rubicon.

The estate vines used to produce Rubicon can be traced back to rootstock Gustave Niebaum imported from France in the 1880s.

A large potion of revenue for the vineyard comes from tourism. In 1997, the newly renovated winemaking chateau was reopened and the tourist trade really picked up.

Certain limited release wines are available at the vineyard only. A telephone call confirmed that while I couldn’t order the wines via Internet or phone and have them shipped to my home, I could visit the vineyard and ship up to 20 bottles home.

My helper went on to say that some present day liquor laws haven’t been updated since 1933, the end of Prohibition. Hopefully, it will make it easier to have wine shipped directly to the consumer, but since most people have a cash and carry mentality about wine — shop, choose, purchase, drink — these changes will mostly benefit the collectors and connoisseurs. 

As for Francis Ford Coppola, he stays away from the day-to-day operations of the vineyard, making movies and overseeing his other enterprises, like his resort in Costa Rica. But we’re eternally grateful for his wine and his diligence in resurrecting one of the seminal wine properties in America. The Coppola’s sense of history and caretaker-ship of the vineyard will provide wine drinkers with some great (and some affordable) juice for years to come.

Oh, the bidder who paid $24,625 for the two bottles of 1941 Inglenook Cabernet was Roman Coppola, so of Francis.

Editor’s note: This was an encore column, courtesy of Labor Day.