From his time working in Italy’s Chianti region, Scott McLeod developed a singular obsession: to make wine in the way of a classic European winery—an estate vineyard based exclusively on terroir.
“The land is what we sell, what we manage, what we farm, what we walk every day,” McLeod declares, adding pointedly, “You are your land.” So when the call came, in 1991, from Francis Ford Coppola to join him at Rubicon Estate, McLeod jumped. “I wanted that job right away!” he recalls. “I couldn’t wait. What better story is there in California than the Inglenook story?”
“The Inglenook story” is, of course, that of a winery founded in Napa Valley in 1880 by a Finnish sea captain, Gustave Niebaum. It became one of the greatest in America, only to devolve sadly into a manufacturer of jug wines. The original vineyard was split up. The great name of Inglenook disappeared. Enter Coppola. Flush with the success of the Godfather movies, in 1975 he began a 20-year effort to reassemble the estate vineyard, an effort he finally achieved in 1995. The first Rubicon wine dates to 1978, but “The wines were less ripe, with less ripe tannins, and were hard and acidic,” McLeod says.
McLeod recalls the problems confronting him from his first day in 1991. Winemaking facilities were rustic. The vineyard was suffering from phylloxera. Even while tinkering with the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the finished wine (McLeod eventually raised it to average 90%), he had to be on guard against failed vintages, such as 1998, when he recommended there be no Rubicon. “[Francis]said, ‘If you don’t want to make it, then we don’t make it!’” This, despite the fact that “the company was heavily in debt, so there was motivation for us to make as much Rubicon as possible.”
Coppola gives full credit to McLeod for helping restore the estate. The film director ticks off McLeod’s contributions: “Scott’s love of the land, both in Italy and here in Rutherford; his ability to bring from the great Italian tradition ideas that could be suitable for Napa Valley; his sensitive opinion as to all decisions related to our major quest for the ultimate quality of wine made here, and his work in assuring the restoration of the ‘Niebaum’ clone [of Cabernet Sauvignon]—all have raised the bar. Scott,” Coppola concludes, “is a vital part of the heritage of the estate.”
In addition to Rubicon, the flagship wine, McLeod produces Cask Cabernet (a 100% Cabernet that is an hommage to the original Inglenook wine), Blancaneux (a white Rhône blend) and RC Reserve Syrah (named after Coppola’s son, Roman), as well as some club wines. The red wines, in particular, define Rutherford’s western benchland terroir, and the vineyard remains perhaps the stellar property in Rutherford. Under McLeod’s guidance as chief viticultural officer, it recently achieved full organic certification.
McLeod’s devotion to the vineyard is appreciated by his contemporaries. “Scott understands the vineyard’s contribution to wine quality, and he has the opportunity to deal with Rubicon, one of the historically great vineyards of Napa Valley,” says super-grower Andy Beckstoffer.
Going forward, McLeod sees the Rubicon wines “getting better and better.” He takes pride in the fact the 1,700-acre Rubicon parcel “is still intact, even as the [Napa Valley] population increases and traffic gets worse.”
McLeod gives proper respect to his staff. “I never wanted to make wine by myself. Everything we do is with a team.”
For presiding over one of Napa Valley’s greatest and most glamorous wines, for accomplishing as much as he has at the young age of 47, for implementing the vision of his demandingly creative boss, Scott McLeod is Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year.