To be named estate director at any one of the world’s greatest wineries would be, for most winemakers, a lifetime achievement. But to be named director at two of the world’s great wineries is practically unheard of – especially if the positions are being simultaneously held at both wineries, involve two unrelated owners, and are located on two different continents,
but still in the same hemisphere (meaning bud breaks and harvests at both estates are just days apart). For the past half-dozen years, this has been Philippe Bascaules’ daily life. In 2011, the Bordeaux native was hired as general director at Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook Estate after serving 11 years as estate director for Château Margaux, working alongside Paul Pontallier, the managing director. In 2016, upon the death of Pontallier, Bascaules was enticed to return Margaux while retaining the title of director of winemaking at Inglenook.
Both estates are rich in history. The Margaux property, overlooking the Gironde estuary, has been making wine since the 16th Century, a time when wine was just another agricultural commodity. Margaux’s prime distinction is being one of the original Left Bank Bordeaux First Growths. By California standards, Inglenook is equally old – founded in 1871 in Rutherford at the foot of Napa Valley’s western mountains. A few years later, following its purchase by Gustave Niebaum, it began producing wine in 1882. John Daniel brought Inglenook back to life after Prohibition before selling it in 1964 to the first of a series of large corporation owners.
So, there is always plenty to talk about with Bascaules, whether it’s in a phone interview from the cellar at Margaux shortly before the 2022 harvest began or in person at an Inglenook tasting, including the 2013 and 2018 “Rubicon,” on Manhattan’s East Side while Bascaules was en route to Napa Valley, one of 10 weeks he has set aside annually for that purpose.
Before joining Inglenook, Bascaules says, he had been to Napa Valley only once briefly, for a tasting panel, and had no thoughts of coming back soon. “Headhunters consulted me, but at the time I wasn’t looking for anything,” he remembers. “So, my first answer was, ‘No.’ But people said, why don’t you just look? I finally accepted to go visit out of curiosity. When I did, I said, why not?”
The Restoration of Inglenook:
In 1975, Coppola bought the remaining part of Inglenook not sold to the corporations, then began producing “Rubicon” as part of what he called Niebaum-Coppola Estate. At the same time, the Inglenook name was gracing wine jugs produced by Heublein. Coppola reunited the two parts of the estate in 1995, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he bought back the brand name, the same year he retained Bascaules.
Newly hired, Bascaules says, “I asked Francis what the plan was. He said, ‘Philippe, I don’t know. Let’s figure it out!’ And we did. A great estate starts with the owner, and Francis has great vision.”
Bordeaux vs. California:
Bascaules prefaces any evaluation by saying his Napa experience is limited to Inglenook, and he is understandably reticent to make comparisons between his two employers. Nevertheless, he says, “In Bordeaux, there is a lot of tradition and respect for tradition. This is not the case in the US, so there is more freedom. In the US, the winemaker is considered a very important person. In Bordeaux there is the perception that the estate makes the wine.”
On Late Picking and Global Warming:
I asked Bascaules what he was doing in his vineyards in Napa Valley to combat global warming and to achieve phenolic ripeness. “The solution isn’t to pick late,” he began, “If you pick late, it’s somewhat like picking a prune. It’s not that I don’t like these wines, but I just don’t find them interesting. When you pick late, you start the oxidation of the wine in the vineyard, and the wine won’t age well.”
Okay, so what’s the solution? “The decision has to be finding how to make the grapes ripen faster,” Bascaules says. “I decided, first, to prune earlier, and, second, to have no irrigation at the beginning of the season. We only use irrigation to stop the vine from taking water from the grape. And I decided to lessen the leaf canopy. So, pick early and you control the problem of over-extraction. Starting in 2013, we decided to pick early and lower the extraction, and that was a new beginning for Rubicon.”
On Not Drinking Water with Meals:
“For a wine to be easy to drink, that means you should have high acidity and lower alcohol,” Bascaules says. “When I have good wine [at a meal], I don’t drink water. If I need to drink water, then something is wrong with the wine!”
Recipes, Flexibility and Complexity:
Unlike most winemakers, Bascaules will admit to using a recipe – sort of.
“We start with a recipe,” he says, “but we need to make it very flexible. I tell my staff, ‘I don’t always know what I want, but I know what I don’t want.’ I realize that is very frustrating for them.”
However, there is one thing Bascaules knows he wants – complexity. “To have complexity, you have to have diversity,” he says, “because in complexity, you have harmony.”
Seduced by Sauvignon Blanc:
Bascaules says that in red wine country, he was slowly seduced by a white wine – his own.
“We did first our first Sauvignon Blanc in 2012, and it was so good we planted more of it toward the road,” he says. “Sauvignon Blanc needs more vigor – what is bad for the red can be good for the white.” He continues that, although he wasn’t a fan of Semillon in Bordeaux, his mind changed in California, “At the last minute, we put in one hectare of Semillon. In Napa, it is surprisingly more acidic than Sauvignon Blanc.” He shrugs. “You have to believe what you see.”
In 2016, Inglenook then started adding oak to Sauvignon Blanc, he says, because it was too acidic – 30% oak, 10% of that new oak – to add complexity and opulence. He now considers Inglenook whites on a par with their reds.
Parting Thought on Making Wine:
“Don’t try to seduce everyone. Make wine for yourself.”