Francis Ford Coppola and I can date our adventures in American wine to 1975. That is the year that he and his wife, Eleanor, purchased 1560 acres of the historic Inglenook property including 1400 acres of vineyards and the Neibaum house in Rutherford in the Napa Valley. That same year I became the sommelier at Arthur’s, a Dallas restaurant with an all-American wine list. That list included wines from Inglenook, one of the oldest and, at one time, one of the most prestigious wineries in the Napa Valley.
As I set about learning all I could about the wines that had become my responsibility, Coppola set about restoring his portion of the historic Inglenook. Apparently, Robert Mondavi was one of the early visitors to Coppola’s new home. In a video produced by Canada’s LCBO Broadcast Production Group, Coppola says that Mondavi wanted him to understand that he had purchased the “Jewel of the Napa Valley.” They found a bottle of 1895 Cabernet Sauvignon in the cellar that came with the house. It was still vibrant and alive and Mondavi said, “See, I told you if you take Napa Valley and you age it, it’s as good as anything in the world.” This experience lead to Coppola’s dream to create one of the best wines in the world on this historic property. “If Mr. Mondavi says it is possible, well I thought, then it must be possible.”
Since Heublein owned the Inglenook name as well as the rest of the property, Coppola named his new property Neibaum-Coppola and called his wine Rubicon. In 1995, he and Eleanor purchased the remaining property including 90 acres of Rutherford vineyards and the Inglenook Chateau. In 2011, the Coppolas bought the Inglenook name and finally, the grand estate was restored. It was time to ensure that the wine measured up to Coppola’s vision of making Inglenook, “The finest New World estate wine produced in the Old World style.”
The person Coppola chose to realize his vision was Philippe Bascaules, who came to Inglenook after 20 years as Estate Manager at Château Margaux working with the highly esteemed Paul Pontellier. Why would someone leave one of the greatest wineries in the world to take on the challenge of crafting the best wine possible from a venerable vineyard in Napa Valley? Bacaules said he was inspired by, “The beauty of the valley, of the Inglenook estate, Francis Ford Coppola’s vision for Inglenook, and the style of the wines we should produce. We tasted Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon 1959, that was incredibly fresh, complex and refined. So, I knew that Francis’ vision was realistic.”
I met Bascaules and associate winemaker, Chris Phelps (about whom more below), very briefly this past June at the winery as all hands were preparing for the Coppola family’s role as honorary chairs of the Napa Wine Auction. Over the following couple of days, throngs of people were expected to attend the Barrel Auction in the winery caves. Hundreds of Inglenook barrels had been moved from their resting place in the underground tunnels so winery participants could set up their auction barrels. Crews of electricians were wiring the spaces for all the various devices required for presentations and bidding. We had one hour to taste three vintages, 2013, 2014 and 2015, of Cabernet Sauvignon and Rubicon, visit the caves, chat and then get out of the way. Many of the comments from Bascaules that follow are from a later email exchange.
Because of my experience at Arthur’s, I was an early avid supporter and promoter of American wine, especially those from California. However, I must admit that in the past few years I’ve stopped paying much attention to Napa Valley. The wines had gotten out of the price range I felt comfortable writing about, and I do not like wines that are only about overripe fruit, tons of oak and high alcohol. I recognize and appreciate that there are producers who have never wavered from their style, who have eschewed chasing the hottest trend or 100-point scores, but I just got tired of trying to understand the wine style that was dominating the market.
Based upon the wines I tasted with Bascaules and Phelps, Coppola is well on the way of achieving his goal (while also reviving my keen interest in renaissance wine styles from California). While each of the wines has its unique character, I found a theme of subtlety, integration of flavors, seamlessness, balance of fruit, acidity, tannins and alcohol. These are not wines that slap you in the face, but invite you in to discover and explore their nuances of flavor and character. The Rubicon wines are more intense with a longer finish than the Cabernets, but they still show a family resemblance.
While Bascaules has instituted protocol changes in the winery, such as lower temperature fermentations and fewer pump-overs for more gentle extraction for finer tannins, his main focus has been the vineyards. He believes that to achieve elegance and complexity, it is imperative to care for and protect the vines, then pick when all parameters are right.
To ensure the long-term viability of the more than 200 acres of certified organic vines, Bascaules created a 50-year plan for replanting the vineyards. Think about it. Grapevines can live a very long time, but they don’t live forever. A newly planted vineyard can take several years to become fully productive. How do you keep the grape quality you want at the quantity you need coming for your wines? Bascaules said the goal with his plan, “Is to create a vineyard well balanced with the same acreage planted each year, so that the quality and the quantity produced will not vary with time. With a projected 50-year life per vine, the plan is to replant two percent every year.”
In deciding which vines to replant, Bascaules looks for, “plots that have low yield with poor quality, because of virus disease, wrong rootstock or wrong varietal.” Vineyard orientation is another reason. “We do not like the rows oriented south-north, and we plant the new vines with an orientation approximately east-west.”
When an existing vineyard is slated for replanting, it is important to wait one or two years before planting new vines to improve the soil health. As with any agricultural crop, grapes deplete certain nutrients and attract certain pests in the soil. Bascaules’ plan is to leave a plot fallow for, “three years minimum to eliminate as many parasites as possible. We consider this time as an investment because it will increase the life of the vines.”
They are experimenting with different densities and pruning system in an experimental plot planted in 2016. “We may have some results in 10 years. The main goal is to know the best quantity of vines per acre for Cabernet Sauvignon in a certain type of soil,” said Bascaules.
They started pruning vines earlier in the growing season, to encourage vine activity sooner for a longer growing season, so grapes can fully ripen. To dial back the alcohol levels, he increased yields going against the orthodox notion that lower yields result in higher quality. To him lower yields mean more power. He’s looking for balance, not power. He changed vineyard workers’ pay structure from being based on weight to by-the-hour, to encourage them to pick for quality rather than quantity. His goal was for them to pick more slowly, be gentler with the fruit, and pre-sort the fruit by selecting higher quality clusters.
So, just as Bascaules was getting the vineyards moving in the direction he wants to produce the wine that Coppola envisions, he has been given, “an offer he can’t refuse.” He has accepted the job of Managing Director of Château Margaux, to replace his former boss, Paul Pontellier, who died in March of 2016. He has an agreement with Coppola to retain the title of director of winemaking and spend six weeks annually at Inglenook. Clearly Bascaules feels that he will be able to continue to influence the style of Inglenook wines, even though he is returning to Château Margaux in a very visible and demanding position. He explained, “I have worked full time with the crew at Inglenook for more than 5 years and we made 6 vintages together. I will spend 6 weeks a year with the Inglenook team to keep the orientations we have taken.”
Chris Phelps, who started working as associate winemaker at Inglenook in the second half of last year, has the credentials, experience and understanding required to produce Old World style wines in Napa Valley. After completing a degree in enology at U.C. Davis, he studied viticulture and enology at the University of Bordeaux.
In 1982, Christian Moueix and enologist Jean-Claude Berrouet, of Château Pétrus and Ets. Jean-Pierre Moueix offered Phelps the opportunity to direct winemaking at Château des Laurets in Puisseguin-St. Emilion. After that harvest, he trained at Château Pétrus and other Moueix properties on the Right Bank. The experience lead to the position of founding winemaker at Dominus, the Napa Valley property owned by Moueix. He held that position for 12 years.
Phelps also worked for Caymus Vineyards and Swanson Vineyards before joining Inglenook. He and his son, Josh, produce a Cabernet Sauvignon called Ad Vivum from the Sleeping Lady Vineyard owned by Larry Bettinelli.
“Philippe feels strongly, as do I, that elegance is our primary objective,” said Phelps. “We value balance in everything throughout the threads of viticulture and winemaking. We avoid extremes -- in terms of ripeness, extraction, alcohol and oak. We want to channel the various expressions of place found throughout our 235 acres directly into our wines, and this cannot be accomplished unless we avoid extremes. We aren’t in touch with Philippe every day, but he’s looking over our shoulder a bit as he also manages his winemaking at Margaux,” said Phelps. He noted that, “He was with us just a few weeks ago and we looked extensively at our fruit in the field as we developed our strategy for this winemaking season.”
“I’d say he remains our Philosopher-In-Residence, if anything. He continues to inspire us to continue to raise the quality bar for Rubicon, Cabernet Sauvignon and all of our wines at Inglenook.”
Bascaules has returned to Bordeaux for what must be a great honor and recognition for him. He applied his extensive knowledge and experience to move an historic wine estate closer to its full potential. He leaves behind a team that he has trained to implement his 50-year vineyard-replanting plan. He seems quite confident that his annual six weeks will keep everyone moving in the right direction. I hope that the master plan continues as scheduled, and that the Coppola family’s investment and faith in this beautiful place remains steadfast. This domain has certainly experienced dark times, but today it shines. The vineyards are thriving and the wines are brilliant. Everyone involved at Inglenook deserves congratulations.