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Tasting History, A Trip into Inglenook’s Past

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(Editor's note: These observations from a very special tasting of Inglenook wines first appeared in our electronic pages in 2002. They remain relevant today as Francis Ford Coppola, a man with an appreciation for history, has continued to acquire Napa Valley vineyards that supplied grapes to this icon of California wine. In 2011 he bought back the Inglenook trademark so that he could use it for the highest quality line in his winery operation. Readers can learn about the resurrection of the fabled Inglenook brand at Historic Inglenook Estate to Release First Wine with Classic Label)

 

By Dan Clarke

Inglenook 1941 Cab MEDThe legendary 1941 

For all the mystique about older wines, not many of us really have much first-hand experience with them. Not even wine writers.

In the modern world most wines are purchased shortly after they are released. The red wines of Bodeaux and their American counterparts (comprised mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) go on sale about three years after their grapes were crushed. Those of us who write about wine spend an awful lot of time tasting, analyzing and pontificating about these new vintages. Often we predict which ones will age well, though we may not have extensive experience with their previous editions. It is expected of us.

So while we spend most of our time tasting new wine, we love to sample older vintages. Doing so validates (or refutes) our predictions. The exercise usually involves wines five or ten years old, at times somewhat older.

Last Friday I was privileged to experience vinous history. The Niebaum-Coppola Estate occupies the property that once was home to Inglenook. Francis Ford Coppola didn’t have to inherit the mantle of greatness of the legendary Napa Valley property (interim corporate entities squandered that opportunity in the 1960s and 70s), but he chose to do so. He believes that the glory that was Inglenook’s is the heritage he continues in his Rubicon wines. Since 1974 he has been purchasing segments of the original historic Niebaum Estate, home of Inglenook wines, and after extensive restoration, winemaking returned to the original chateau with his 2002 crush for Rubicon.

John Daniel Jr. was the name associated with the glamour years of Inglenook—the decades of the 30s, 40s and 50s. He was known as a man who never stinted in the pursuit of quality. He made what must have been a difficult decision to sell the winery in 1964. Things were never the same. After a very few years the emphasis went to lower prices points and larger production. Today the name Inglenook still appears, but only on cheap jug wines.

About 70 of us participated in the Inglenook tasting and the Rubicon dinner that followed. Our host was there, of course, as were his wife Eleanor and son Roman. Others from Niebaum-Coppola tasted with us. There was a clear link to the past in the presence of Robin Lail and her husband Jon. Robin is the daughter of John Daniel and continues the legacy in her own way with the John Daniel Cuvée from Lail Vineyards. Some television people were there and I recognized fellow wine writers Dan Berger, George Starke and Alan Goldfarb, among others. We were part of a fortunate group.

The tasting included seven Cabernet Sauvignons spanning four decades. We began with the youngest wine, the last one made on John Daniel’s watch, a 1963. We concluded with the first Inglenook wine to celebrate the repeal of the Volstead Act, the 1933 vintage. Master Sommelier Larry Stone supervised the uncorking and decanting of the wines. Because of the size of our group, not all of us had samples from the same bottles, of course. Variation from bottle to bottle could mean different tasting experiences. My observations seemed to be more-or-less similar to several of my colleagues. Quantification of the experience wasn’t the point, though. You don’t count beans when you’re experiencing history.

I would have loved it if every friend who really appreciates wine could have shared the table with us at last Friday’s tasting. Since that wasn’t possible I’ll provide the harvest notes we were given for each vintage (as taken from the writings of Charles Sullivan, Stephen Brook, Michael Broadbent and James Laube), as well as my own thoughts:

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Cask, C-3,

Napa Valley 1963, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “A very wet rainy season was followed by lots of frost and a cool summer. September was cool and foggy. The early October rain hit with 50 percent of the crop unharvested. There was a race to get grapes in, and pickers were scarce. Last vintage under John Daniel family ownership. The Napa Valley Wine Library was formed. A record year for California wine production.”

 

This wine is nearly 40 years old. Thinking of it as John Daniel’s last wine brings a little sadness, which is amplified by realizing that the grapes were crushed the month before Jack Kennedy was assassinated. I wonder if I have ever tasted this wine and the 1958 and 1959 vintages that will come next. It’s certainly possible, but that would have been a long time ago. When the fraternity party invitation read B.Y.O.B., I tended to drink Almaden Mountain Burgundy, not a bad wine and, at $1.25 affordable for a college boy. But it was not Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon.

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Cask, J-6,

Napa Valley, 1959, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “A dry year with a scorching summer. St. Helena hit 111 degrees on July 10th. The vintage started on August 28th and was rapid and fairly orderly. Hot weather cut crop, but yields were satisfactory. A huge September 17th rain frightened growers, but excellent weather followed. Very hot in Napa, but some memorable cabernets. Napa wine production was 5,752,000 gallons with an average grower price of $67.38. Vineyardists earned $201 income per bearing acre.”

 

I’m relieved to find that this wine is still vibrant. If not youthful, it certainly isn’t over the top. It was a great nose, with minty, menthol/eucalyptus aromas. This is a wine that makes you sit up and take notice.

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Cask, F-10,

Napa Valley, 1958, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “Vintage was early and orderly. Warm weather lasted into November. An extremely good vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon. The number of wineries declined from 38 to 30 since 1951. Prices went back up, with national wine consumption rising steadily.”

 

Less minty than the ’59, but fine Cabernet aroma. This wine is wonderfully balanced and has a long finish. An elegant wine. (Might I have had it before? Maybe in the early ‘60s on a special date at Restaurant Antoinina or while looking for sophistication on trips to San Francisco as a college student).

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley, 1943, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “Winemakers of the era considered 1943 only ‘good.’ Vineyardists left monumental numbers of buds on their vines, making 1943 the largest vintage here since 1888. In 1943 the wine list of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel contained twenty-eight table wines from Napa producers. A decision was made by founding fathers (Martini, Tchelistcheff, Daniel, Abruzzini, Stelling, Stralla, Forni, the Mondavis and Brother John) to meet regularly and discuss matters important to Napa wine, be they technical, financial, cultural or gastronomic. Martini was the first president and Daniel the first vice president. They were most concerned about government price controls on grape prices. Later, in 1983, the group became a formal trade organization, the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association.”

 

The 1943 is a little dimmer than the ’58, but still remarkably good. It smells and taste like an old Bordeaux. (This vintage is a year older than I am--and maybe in better shape?).

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley, 1941, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “The 1941 vintage was almost featureless, except that Napa producers made several great wines . . . the Inglenook Cabernets . . . were fifty-year wines. Some great wine, notably Inglenook Cask. Heavy spring rain, ten cold days, bloom delayed. Very warm summer. Dry autumn, late October harvest. Napa wine production was 5,288,000 gallons with an average price per ton of $24.50.”

 

The wine still has good color and composition, but not a lot of nose. It’s still an elegant wine, though, with a very long finish. (For years I’ve heard about the California vintage of 1941, but hadn’t the opportunity to taste it until now. What a treat! It would have been wonderful to track this wine all through its history, maybe tasting a bottle every year or two. I wonder if anyone has been able to do that? No matter. I have experienced this 61-year-old wonder this evening).

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley, 1934, 375 ml and 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “The vintage . . . was of good quality . . . Good quality. Independent vineyardists organized to form the first cooperative winery. Grape prices collapsed from 1933 euphoric heights.”

 

These last two wines are in very short supply tonight. Vintages poured prior to this provided a small glass for each taster. Each glass of the 1934 and the next wine must be shared by two tasters. Color is very dark, dense. The first whiff and the nose seems unusual. The aroma reminds me of knockwurst, a word I’ve never used in describing wine. The first sip reveals a taste much better than the odor might have hinted. Later sniffs reveal some floral odors—maybe a little bit like violets. It gets nicer as it goes along. Not a long finish, but what ’34 does? (At harvest time my father was running cross country during his senior year at San Mateo High School).

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley, 1933, 375 ml

 

Harvest Notes “The Napa Valley crop was very short and 5,000,000 gallons of wine were produced. The weather for harvesting grapes was ideal—reported in mid October. First harvest after prohibition.”

 

All of the 1933 tastes and some of the 1934 have been poured from ½ bottles. Accepted wisdom is that the larger the bottle, the slower and more gracefully the wine will age, but these bottles were what was available. Would the wines have tasted different/better if they had come from larger bottles? The point is moot, of course, but I can’t imagine wines this old tasting any better or more youthful. This wine is still remarkably young in appearance. There seems to be a little subtle spice in the background—not a characteristic normally attributed to this variety, but I find it pleasant. It finishes nicely and very long. (My mother was in junior high school in Medford, Oregon at harvest time. No doubt her father was pleased about the end of Prohibition, though it didn’t cramp his style too much according to most family recollections).

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of hundreds of lodging and dining options in the Napa Valley and the rest of the North Coast can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

 

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