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A Tale of Two Wineries, One Coming Up and the Other Coming Back

July 21, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

RUTHERFORD, Calif. — Building a winery's image from scratch is simple compared to the problems faced in improving a winery's image from the dregs.

With no albatross to explain away, the new winery is free to release only its best wines, spend money on an attractive label and a well-regarded wine maker and shoot for recognition based solely on the wines' quality.

A winery that has had public image problems, however, literally leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many, and that recollection keeps buyers away for years, sometimes decades, until by the passage of time the image improves.

As case examples of these two types of wineries I take Sinskey and Inglenook. The former is a new brand with no negative baggage, but a fine label, a great wine maker with a track record, a national sales manager with a decade of experience and an owner with the financial wherewithal and the desire to make great wine.

Restoring Once-Lustrous Image

Inglenook, one of the most revered names in the history of American wine, on the other hand, made great wine since its founding in 1879, but lost its lustrous image two decades ago, and repairing that broken picture has fallen to president Dennis Fife and wine maker John Richburg.

After a decade in the slums as far as image is concerned, Inglenook is making a dramatic but little-publicized comeback to the greatness it once shared with brother winery Beaulieu and a very few other wineries in the Napa Valley.

Last week I met with Fife and Richburg to discuss Inglenook's second release of its Reunion red wine, and as I drove down Highway 29 toward the winery at the southern end of the valley, it dawned on me that in the previous three weeks I had had half a dozen Inglenook wines that had been very impressive.

For a winery that makes 125,000 cases of wine, this is an achievement. Ah, but you must be thinking, they must make more wine than that; it's everywhere. True, the name Inglenook does appear on some 7 million cases of wine, but that's where the image took a shot to the head.

Parent company Heublein chose in the early 1970s to use the Inglenook name for a line of inexpensive, blended wines called Navalle, a hybrid word, the Na coming from Napa and the valle coming from valley. This wine was sold in restaurants and on airplanes in those funny-shaped, screw-cap bottles. It was, to be charitable, awful.

(By 1987, Heublein Wines, now owned by Grand Metropolitan of Great Britain, included not only BV but also Almaden, and the combined wineries made more than 18 million cases of wine, ranking Heublein second in the nation in production to Gallo.)

As the Navalle line pumped out carloads of profit-making plonk, the parent company paid less attention than it should have on historic, old Inglenook in the Napa Valley. Things that should have been done weren't, leaving the wines in disarray, some remaining solid values, others deteriorating.

And as a corollary to Murphy's Law states, when something goes wrong, a whole lot of other stuff goes wrong, too.

"Not only did we have the Navalle line, but so many of our vineyards were very old," said Fife, "and the drought (1976-1977) was the last straw for our old vineyards. They couldn't survive that." The vines nearly died.

Winery in Turmoil

They had to be torn out and replanted, but then nemetodes (a vine pest) were discovered, so the soil had to be treated and left fallow for an additional year. Add to that the three years it takes for new vines to produce a crop and you have a winery in turmoil through 1983.

By coincidence, that was the year Heublein reorganized its wine division and gave Fife the power and finances to make major decisions, and it was then that Richburg got his chance to shine as a wine maker, with new fermentation and aging facilities, new barrels and more equipment and assistants.

Also, Fife and Richburg took the step, which they felt necessary, to change the name of the winery to Inglenook-Napa Valley, which gives you the impression they see the major difference between their property and the wines emanating largely from the San Joaquin Valley that say Navalle on them.

It was with the wines of the 1981 vintage that I began seeing a turnaround at Inglenook, and that comeback continues with the release of the '84 Reunion, a wine that sells for $35 and which brings together the three original vineyards of Inglenook's founder, Gustave Niebaum, who made classic Bordeaux-style wine from them before Prohibition.

Reunion first was made in 1983, and the wine was hard and unyielding, typical of the vintage, but the '84 is a much more supple and classically styled wine, with a violet and mint aroma. The wine is awfully young at present and decanting helped open it up, revealing rich, concentrated fruit that will carry the wine many years in the bottle.

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