When Philippe Bascaules arrived at Inglenook in 2011, he didn’t want to talk to anybody. Winemaking, he says, is always linked to the place you’re in, and the only way to be true to your land is to know it intimately. There would have been no point in taking advice from someone who works a different patch.
‘There is no general truth in winemaking,’ he says. ‘If you have another winemaker telling you, “Oh, you should do that”, you can’t apply exactly what he’s doing without checking that it’s also true at Inglenook.’
I first met Bascaules when he’d been at the famous Rutherford winery three weeks. We walked the vineyards, up in the benchland at the foot of the Mayacamas range on the western side of Napa. The night before, we’d had a 1951 Inglenook Rutherford Pinot Noir at dinner with the owner, Francis Ford Coppola; Bascaules said it was likely the grapes came from this gravelly parcel, cooled by the dense woodland that abutted the top of the vineyard.
Last month, we met again, over Zoom, and Bascaules reminisced about his first few weeks working for Coppola. He took over at a seminal moment in the winery’s history. Coppola had owned Inglenook and been making wine there since 1978 but he’d only just bought the right to use the Inglenook name, which was why up to now his flagship Cabernet Sauvignon was called simply Rubicon. Bascaules was to be in charge of reviving a once-legendary brand.
That the Rubicon Cabernets from the 2000s and 2010s weren’t to his taste (‘too extracted and too much alcohol’) wasn’t important. He could see the potential of the land, not least when Coppola opened an Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon 1959. ‘It was an amazing wine. And so I realised, okay, it’s possible to make this type of wine in this place.’ Coppola’s ambition for wines of ‘freshness, power and elegance’ was exactly in line with what the founder of Inglenook, Gustave Niebaum – ‘the Captain’ – had articulated in the 1890s. ‘Francis’ vision was exciting,’ Bascaules says.
Bascaules is about to turn 60 but might be a decade younger (he has an earnest, slightly rumpled look, a bit like a secondary-school teacher). He’s only really worked at two properties. He joined Chateau Margaux as estate director at the age of 27 in 1990 and left to join Inglenook in 2011; in 2016 he was persuaded back to Margaux on the death of managing director Paul Pontallier. He’s now managing director of Margaux and director of winemaking at Inglenook, where he goes every five or six weeks.
When Bascaules arrived at Inglenook, he quickly saw that to fulfil Coppola’s vision, he had to change an entire culture
When he arrived at Inglenook, he quickly saw that to fulfil Coppola’s vision, he had to change an entire culture. ‘It had to be an interaction between my vision, the vision of Francis, my interpretation of the vision of Francis, and also the place, the team, the history.’
He trod carefully. ‘I like to go very slowly,’ he says. He knew the scale of the job he had taken on – ‘I had to learn really long-term’ – and if he had ideas about the winemaking culture in Napa, he certainly wasn’t going to air them when he’d barely unpacked his pyjamas. ‘I didn’t feel skilful enough, you know? I wasn’t légitime.’ Crucially (and this is where you get the measure of the man, protestations of humility notwithstanding) there must be no distraction, nothing to come between him and the soil. ‘So yes, of course I spoke to other winemakers, but I didn’t want to exchange too much. Because I wanted to keep my vision and not to be too much influenced by people who had been making wine there for many years.’ (Bascaules is highly respected in Napa but not really known. ‘He’s not the kind of guy to come knocking on your door and asking to taste your wines – though he’d be welcome,’ one of his neighbours told me.)
After 10 vintages of incremental changes – earlier picking, changing the irrigation regime, replanting about 3 per cent of the vineyard every year – he’s ‘totally happy with the wines…with the texture, because to me that’s key.’ Last year Inglenook unveiled a mighty new cellar with 120 precision-controlled tanks. Bascaules calls them ‘tools’ for more precise separation of the blocks, leading to greater understanding of the vineyards. ‘The goal is to have more consistency.’
The change in the wines over the last decade is notable. ‘Not only Rubicon and the Cabernet Sauvignon, but also the Sauvignon Blanc have continued to gain refinement,’ critic Elaine Brown told me in an email. In the difficult 2020 vintage, she said, he crafted wines that are ‘genuinely beautiful, with a balance of flavour, depth, and finesse.’ You won’t find many who disagree.
Bascaules is also taking a greater interest in the wider appellation and allowing himself to wonder how Napa might evolve. At the moment he sees vintners pursuing their own vision and thinks it will take a long time ‘to build a collective vision or a collective culture’. This is the logical conclusion of what Coppola saw as his mission in Napa: to transform not just Inglenook but to change the whole of the region, to be a spearhead for elegance and restraint in Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the region knows that the needle has moved considerably in that direction over the last 10 years. Of the many wineries in the vanguard of that revolution, Inglenook is certainly one of the standard-bearers.
And it’s an irony that just as Napa learns restraint, Bordeaux is in danger of going the other way. When he joined Margaux in 1990, Bascaules notes: ‘all we wanted was more sugar, more ripeness, more concentration.’ Now, every year, they have too much sugar, too much ripeness, and they find they’re searching for balance much as they do in Napa.
The way Bascaules talks about Inglenook, about the variation of terroir in a tiny area – the difference between the higher alluvial benchland and the wetter, clay-based levels down by the river, and the types of wines they bring – you can understand what compelled him to come here. It sounds much more interesting than the flatlands of the Médoc, I say. Not so, he replies: it’s all a matter of detail. ‘When you think something is simple, it’s probably because you don’t know it very well.’