Keeping it in the family
how the Godfather’s father saved the vineyard
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
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.
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
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
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
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.