Great Cabernet, Great History: Inglenook

Francis Coppola Recreates the Great Cabernet of Inglenook Legend

This is, I think, my first second wine review. The first was on Virginia’s Horton Vineyards Norton the other day.

I don’t plan to have many wine discussions, not because of any particular focus to this blog, but because I don’t drink that much wine.

Why is that? It’s not that I don’t like it. I like most examples of fermented and distilled beverages, wine included. It’s just that both budget and a rational weekly drinks limit exclude wine for the most part.

For the drinks I permit myself, they must be mostly beer and a little spirits.

Wine features therefore only where I have a particular interest, usually historical as for the Norton, or there may be some other reason, perhaps something I find on holiday.

For the wine pictured above, I wrote recently about a dinner in 1954 at which all-Inglenook wines were featured. The event was the inaugural dinner of the Wine and Food Society of Pasadena, its menu is shown below, sourced from the chapter’s website. I outlined some of the winery’s history in my post mentioned.

Inglenook had a high reputation in the 1950s and 60s as it did in the years following its establishment in the 1880s by pioneering vinifera grower Captain Niebaum. With restoration of winemaking after Prohibition, 1940s Inglenook Cabernets were particularly esteemed and acknowledged in wine circles internationally.

The post-1935 winery (year of passing of Niebaum’s widow) achieved a high pitch of excellence especially for estate reds.At the 1954 dinner a 1946 Cabernet Sauvignon was served, possibly made 100% of that grape or blended with Merlot or another grape. It was eight years old when the neophyte Pasadena branch of the Wine and Food Society held its first dinner.

1940s Inglenooks were legendary, also pictured is the 1941 vintage put up for auction with similar items some years ago as chronicled in this 2011 Decanter article by wine writer Adam Lechmere.

What did 40s Cabs taste like? What did Captain Niebaum’s acclaimed early noble wines taste like? He grew Cabernet Sauvignon among other European varieties and it’s not clear (from my reading) how his early wines were composed. Given he admired Bordeaux red it’s likely though he was seeking the character of the French classified estates whence his cuttings issued.

Inglenook after its 1950s-60s upmarket heyday went into a relative decline by being passed through different hands and focusing ultimately on the supermarket category. Its European-style wines were good average quality, good value for table wines, but the halcyon vintage days were passed.

Francis Ford Coppola, now in his late 70s, bought parts of the winery in stages from the 1970s and finally rescued the Inglenook trade mark. His wines today come out under his own name and a few years ago he issued a premium “1882” as a tribute to Niebaum’s groundbreaking work in California viticulture.

The all-Cabernet Sauvignon wine is issued, as further tribute, under the Inglenook name, clearly as an attempt to restore lustre to the brand. The name indeed is hard to find on the label, but presumably will get a ramp-up as time passes.

The current winemaker is French and is implementing a long-term plan for the winery including restoration of the highest quality for its Bordeaux-style wines.

We rarely get the chance to taste premium wine, Champagne apart at festive moments. But I have read acres of prose over the decades what fine Bordeaux and estate Napa red are like. So the first taste brought back, not so much personal experience, but all that reading.

The nose was, in a sometimes-derided cliche but it’s true, lead pencil. The lead more than the wood, with background notes of blackberry and dark-skinned fruit, also a tarry note.

The taste was plush yet dry, easily carrying the 14.5% ABV. The 1882 is easy to drink slowly, and no acidity seemed to build as for many red wines. It’s very good, let’s just say that. It gives me an inkling what the fuss was about when quality Bordeaux-style wine started to emerge from Napa, Sonoma, and Livermore valleys in particular.

It was interesting to compare it to the Norton of Horton Vineyards in Virginia. Norton is a North American grape once viewed as a contender in the international premium red wine stakes. It is somewhat acid (its nature) and offers a more frankly but non-foxy, I underline, fruit character.

The analogy of Norton is not really to Cabernet IMO but to Pinot Noir and perhaps more Gamay for Beaujolais, or to a cross of Gamay and Zinfandel.

Both wines were excellent but different. I’d serve them with different foods at different temperatures.

A good example of a beer analogue to the 1882 is Timothy Taylor’s Landlord from Keighley, England: every bit as good but on the malty vector. I could see a dinner at which just those were served serially (beer first) with Ontario ice wine to finish. Yes?

Coppola and his winemaker should be very proud of 1882. I’d guess it is on a par with the best superwines and so-called garage wines of California’s best wine regions (damaged as some were recently but they will come back).

The only California superwine I’ve had I’d put on a par with it is 1970s Mayacamus with its violet-scented nose and taste – softer and more flowery than 1882 but a similar level of quality.

Some years ago I had the chance to taste different vintages of Heitz Cabernet but this 1882 easily outclassed those, IMO, as for most other premium Golden State reds I can recall.

Note re images: the last two images above were sourced from the sites respectively linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.