Filmmaker and vintner Francis Ford Coppola presides over a formidable wine empire these days: his eponymous Sonoma County winery/restaurant/movie museum complex, which attracts about 200,000 visitors every year; the Virginia Dare Winery, also in Sonoma County; and the historic Inglenook estate in the Napa Valley. But it all began with a piece of property in Rutherford that Coppola had planned to use as a family getaway.
In 1975, riding the success of the first two installments of “The Godfather,” Coppola paid $2.5 million for a Victorian home and roughly 100 acres of grapes. The house had been built by Gustave Niebaum, founder of the Inglenook winery, and the vines, part of the original Inglenook estate, had once been a source for some of the state’s most important wines.
Gradually, Coppola began to understand the historic importance of the property. It was reinforced one day when famed vintner Robert Mondavi stopped by. They shared a bottle of Inglenook cabernet from the 1890s that Coppola brought up from the cellar. As the men talked and shared the wine, Coppola came to see the potential of the estate to produce great wine. Soon, the Niebaum-Coppola winery was born. The first vintage of the flagship wine, a Bordeaux-style blend called Rubicon, was produced in 1978.
Coppola nearly lost it all when he risked his personal assets to make “Apocalypse Now” – now considered a classic but a flop at first – but he rebounded and in 1995 paid nearly $10 million to buy much of the rest of Niebaum’s original property: the historic Inglenook chateau, built in the 1880s, and its 70 acres of vineyards. In 2011, he also acquired the Inglenook brand, which had come to be associated with cheap jug wines, and set about restoring its reputation, just as he had renovated the chateau. The transformation included renaming the estate as Inglenook.
As the property went through all the changes, Rubicon continued to be produced. But it, too, has changed some over the years. The early vintages were produced under rustic conditions, with no temperature control during fermentation. The wines were 60-70 percent cabernet at first. When winemaker Scott McLeod arrived in late 1991, he started picking the grapes a little riper and used more cabernet (more than 90 percent of the blend). “Cabernet is the story of Inglenook,” McLeod said.
After McLeod left in 2010, Coppola hired Philippe Bascaules of Chateau Margaux, who took the wine in a more restrained direction and kept the cabernet percentage high; the 2013 is 100 percent cab. Bascaules has returned to Margaux but continues to consult for Inglenook; Chris Phelps is the hands-on winemaker.
The winery held a vertical tasting earlier this year of 16 vintages of Rubicon, going back to the first one, and the stylistic changes were obvious. “They’re time capsules of where the winery was then and where the winery is now,” McLeod said later of the lineup.
The color on the early wines was still amazingly vibrant. The 1978 Rubicon showed some age in the aromas. The flavors ranged from red fruit to tobacco leaf and cedar. A notoriously tannic wine when young, the 1978 is now smooth and silky. The 1979, which was released to the market before the 1978, is dark and savory, with fruit that’s still quite fresh, accented by notes of tobacco, cedar and black olive.
The 1986 smells a little cooked, but the flavors are still fresh, with notes of black currant, anise and celery seed. The 1987 is particularly lovely now, with some floral overtones, lively red fruit and Earl Grey tea. The 1991 is still somewhat austere.
Under McLeod, Rubicon became bigger, richer and more dramatic. The 1997 is ripe yet lively, with red cherry, a potpourri note and a drying finish. The 1999 is dense and plush, with a combination of opulence and savoriness. The 2001 is big and concentrated but has nice freshness.
A couple of vintages in the mid-2000s were a little over the top. The 2005 smells a bit cooked and is very ripe; the 2006 almost smells a little porty. “I got a little crazy in ’05 and ’06,” McLeod said. The wines swung back a bit later in the decade. The 2007 and 2009 are both big, dark and tannic, but they have some freshness. The 2010 adds an exotic, spicy note.
The wines made by Bascaules dial back the ripeness. “Francis wanted wines that are fresh, elegant and food-friendly,” Bascaules said. He said that his goal was to pick ripe grapes but not wait so long that the acidity fades. “When the block is good and the vintage is good, you have a lot of freedom,” he added.
The 2012 and 2013 vintages (both $210) are juicy and savory, with tannins that are prominent but not brutal. We also tasted the 2014, in which the oak is still in the forefront. But the wine also has a savory, saline quality.
Bascaules thinks the best may be yet to come. “I think the wines can be much better than what I can imagine,” he said.