Grape expectations

By Ed Schwartz

Robin Daniel Lail started her own excellent winery in 1995, and the rest is history. Not so fast! The history really began 116 years before, when her great-grand uncle, Gustave Niebaum, a pioneer winemaker in Napa, started his renowned Inglenook winery. Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain, was a giant of a man, spoke seven languages fluently and made a $10 million fortune trading furs along the Pacific Coast.

By 1880, he retired to San Francisco. But not for long. He believed that California could make excellent wines and he set out to prove it himself. He purchased acreage in the Napa Valley and went to work. In 1882, the first vintage of Inglenook wines was released. True to his great ambition, Inglenook won a handful of gold medals at the Paris tasting of 1889 and was the grand prize winner at the legendary Panama Pacific Exhibition in 1915, garnering an astounding 17 gold medals for, among others, a sherry, burgundy, claret, zinfandel, champagne, Chianti and Riesling. Of course, the winery went into steep decline during Prohibition.

In 1933, when it was repealed, Lail’s father, John Daniel, Jr., began the great revival of Inglenook. Daniel, a Stanford graduate, had wealth, charm and an outgoing personality, but, more important, he had an immense desire to make great wine. And that he did. The long line of magnificent vintages made by Daniel and his meticulous winemaker, George Deuer, began in the 1930s with the repeal of Prohibition and ended in the 1960s with his sale of the winery. But as James Laube, a senior editor of Wine Spectator, noted, “For an amazing 31-year stretch—1933 to 1964— Inglenook compiled a collection of cabernets that stand up favorably to the best red wines on earth; nearly all of these Inglenook wines were made under Daniel’s inspired leadership.” During a 1991 vertical tasting of Inglenook vintages, the 1941 (!) Inglenook garnered 100 points and Wine Spectator named it one of the “wines of the century.” Lail’s father sold Inglenook in 1964, but that was just the beginning of her own wine destiny.

In 1977, she became the executive secretary to Robert Mondavi. Lail recalls, “He taught me some very beautiful things, one of which was great attention to every detail is the key to art of winemaking. Almost every day he would encourage me to get back into the wine business and carry forward my family legacy.”

Robin carried forward the esteemed family tradition and then some. In 1982, she partnered with Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus fame to create Dominus. The next year, she cofounded Merryvale Vineyards with Bill Harlan. She sold out of both those ventures in the early 1990s before starting Lail Vineyards in 1995. So, with great experience, a unique legacy, important contacts and a laserlike determination, Lail and her children started Lail Vineyards. She hired a terrific winemaker, Philippe Melka. Should it surprise anyone that the wines she produces are superb? How superb? Robert Parker gave the 2012 J. Daniel Cuvée Napa Valley Cabernet 100 points, calling it “absolutely perfect,” and the 2013 vintage a 99-plus.

ED SCHWARTZ began his career in wine promotion at New York’s “21” Club. As his interest in wine grew, he moved west to be closer to the grapes. Ed has written more than 500 published articles on wine, food and travel.

– W I N E & S P I R I T S –

Robin Daniel Lail continues her family’s legacy with a shockingly good cabernet


• 2015 Lail Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. Big burst of fruit up front with fine oak notes, then amazing acidity at the finish. Needs at least a year to integrate. $40

• 2014 Lail Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, “Georgia,” Napa Valley. This is not simply a wonderful sauvignon blanc, it is a superb white wine. Fresh, bright, complex, exciting and balanced. $135.

• 2014 Lail Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, “Blueprint,” Napa Valley. Wonderful nose, gobs of sweet fruit, full and ripe with good structure. $80

• 2013 Lail Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, J. Daniel Cuvée. One of the greatest cabernets I’ve tasted in the past five years. Period. $250 Robin Daniel Lail carries forward a California winemaking legacy that stretches back to the 1880s.

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