The Vintner's Daughter

Photo: Charles O'Rear

Thanks to the spring rains, Robin Daniel Lail and I are standing in a vineyard full of red mud. Up the slope is her home, Mole Hill. Below us, trellises of young cabernet vines furrow down the hill to a stand of oak and madrone. Red-tinged grape leaves peek through the sliding mist. Though it’s noon, the weather is foggy. Mole Hill sits near the peak of Howell Mountain, and as we stand here talking, the mist gradually lifts, revealing the Napa Valley floor 2,400 feet below.

We walk on through her property, Lail explaining that the vineyard is mostly red, rocky, shallow soil with a dome of rock under it, “not much to grow on.” But it’s a winemaking rule of thumb that good wine grapes come from vines that have suffered. “These are young vines,” says Lail, ’62. “We planted both the upper and lower vineyards in 1993. But it’s such a pistol of a vineyard! The fruit we’re getting is truly wonderful.”

Which it had better be, because in October Lail Vineyards will release its first vintage, a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend. One wine. Four hundred cases. Sixty dollars a bottle. Ouch, I say. But these days, the truth is that $60 a bottle is not an extraordinary price for the best cabernets from Napa and Sonoma. And like her father before her, Lail is really only interested in the best.

She recognizes that difficulties lie ahead. “The competition these days is legion, and you must be very clear from the get-go as to what differentiates you from everyone else. If you aren’t, you’ll sink in the sea.”

The sea of wine, that is, not the sea of mud surrounding us now. And it is a sea of wine. Ten years ago you had to hunt for a $50 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. These days there are almost 200 different California wines priced at that level, if not higher. Wine is booming, and so are wine prices.

The sea of wine, that is, not the sea of mud surrounding us. And it is a sea of wine. Ten years ago you had to hunt for a $50 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. These days, there are almost 200 different California wines priced at that price, if not higher. Wine is booming, and so are wine prices.

“With any wine project you only get one first release,” Lail is saying, “so consequently the pressure on that release is intense.”

Then what, I ask, will set Lail Vineyards apart?

“Tradition,” she says.

Robin Lail knows about tradition.

Gustave Niebaum, Lail’s great-granduncle, was a formidable man. A tall, bearded Finn, he spoke seven languages fluently, became a ship captain in the Russian merchant fleet at the precocious age of 21, and then abandoned his fealty to Russia to make a fortune in the mid-1800s trading furs up and down the West Coast of the United States.

Niebaum was a truly outsized figure -- a character out of Joseph Conrad or Robert Louis Stevenson -- and his ambitions were outsized as well. In his sailing days, he had seen the great wine châateaux of Bordeaux. By 1880 -- married, wealthy and restless in San Francisco -- he decided there was no reason California couldn’t equal France. On a visit to Napa Valley, then a bucolic backwater, Niebaum came across a failed sanitarium for sale along with 60 acres of run-down vineyard land. He snapped up the property, keeping the Scots name its former owner had given it. In 1882, he released 80,000 gallons of Inglenook’s first vintage.

In its first few decades Inglenook flourished. But in the 1920s, Niebaum’s winery fell on hard times. Prohibition was on, and the business was reduced to selling grapes and grape-juice concentrate to “home winemakers” throughout the country. In 1933, though, things changed again. Prohibition was repealed, and Robin Lail’s father, John Daniel, graduated from Stanford. The young man set about reviving Inglenook.

Daniel’s mother had died when he was young, and he had been raised by his great-aunt Susan, Gustave Niebaum’s wife. He had wealth and social position and grew into a striking man. Lanky, charismatic and darkly handsome, he became an aviator as well as a winemaker. For all his starched upbringing, he was gifted with a wicked sense of humor and a weakness for puns. In a scrapbook, Lail still keeps a label from one of the in-house wines Daniel produced, Mole Hill Red, “A Wine You Will Gopher!”

Yet the more you learn about Daniel, the more you realize that above and beyond all these other qualities, he was driven to make wine.

Not good wine. Not even very good wine. No, John Daniel wanted to make what his great-uncle Niebaum had dreamed California might one day produce: world-class wine.

It runs in the family. Over lunch one day, Lail describes waiting for the first merlot grapes to be used for Lail Vineyards’ inaugural merlot/cabernet blend -- grapes harvested from a second vineyard, a small patch of ground in Rutherford left over from her father’s Inglenook holdings. “We knew that they would be nice grapes. But nice grapes aren’t interesting. Nice grapes simply don’t matter in the end.”