Capturing a Lost Nuance in Napa Cabernet

A handful of Napa producers are embracing a “back to the future” spirit, making a concerted effort to recapture a golden era of classic California wine.
The Inglenook estate / Photo courtesy Inglenook

There’s no doubt Napa Valley Cabernet can age. It’s had several decades to prove that.  Many like to point to the Cabs of the 1970s as the golden era when the wines possessed a more classic style, restrained in terms of ripeness.

A number of those who spend their days among the vines and cellars of the region will tell you there’s no going back, that the growing conditions these days are too different, the vines more vigorous, the climate warmer and consumers’ palates as much in search of opulence as structure.

So it’s impressive to find producers who are doing the best with what they’ve got, and going back to the vineyard to capture nuance and ageability.

No one is doing that better than Inglenook right now, the Rutherford estate owned by Francis Ford Coppola, that is drawing particular inspiration from the past. At one point known as Niebaum-Coppola, and then Rubicon, it’s now settled back to its early roots, with a symbolic return to the name of its founding.

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The winemaking has completely changed, with Philippe Bascaules of Chateau Margaux brought on in 2011 as winemaker and general manager to re-imagine Inglenook the way a quiet, meticulous Frenchman raised and trained in Bordeaux would—with a long-term vision of how to farm and vinify for grace and beauty.

It’s working.

Classic producer Chateau Montelena is getting on board as well, with their 2013 The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga), which captures this throwback, age-worthy style. Young winemaker Matt Crafton is working hard to capture the property’s elegance and grace in the glass, and he does in this wine.

Meanwhile, a more substantial offering worth cellaring is The Vineyard House 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville. It so well captures that blend of power and grace at which Napa Valley excels, a study in grip and grit with a meaty defiance to the fruit.

For Inglenook, Bascaules’ first order of business was convincing Coppola to buy into a 50-year plan of replanting the storied estate, the largest contiguous vineyard on the Rutherford Bench at 235 acres, which has long been farmed organically. Less irrigation is one of the keys. Trimming to reduce canopy vigor is another, with the goal of less sugar accumulation. Picking earlier is another.

Instead of looking at the wines of the 1970s, Bascaules is using the Inglenook wines of the 1940s and ‘50s as inspiration. If recent reviews (namely 2015 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 Rubicon and 2013 Rubicon) are any indication, it’s a new day for Napa Cabs, with shining examples of preserved acidity, soft elegance and lengthy structure. They’re worth keeping an eye on.

Published on December 11, 2017
Topics: California
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email:

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