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June 7, 2006

Rebuilding a legacy


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A very informative piece on Robin Lail, who grew up on the Inglenook Vineyards and now runs Lail Vineyards, was posted June 7, 2006, on the Californai Farm Bureau Web site. The full article is posted in this entry. She has a remarkable story.

Robin Lail and her family walk their new vineyard on Howell Mountain, above the Napa Valley. Lail's ancestors once owned---but lost---Napa's world-renowned Inglenook Winery. Lail is now rebuilding on her legacy with the production of ultra premium wines at Lail Vineyards.

Handing Down the Family Farm: Legacy Lost
Issue Date: June 7, 2006

By Kate Campbell
Assistant Editor


In the late 1970s, Robin Lail occasionally led visitors through the Napa Valley home where she grew up. The three-story Queen Anne Victorian on the Inglenook Estate, with its wrap-around porches and sweeping lawns, unfortunately now belonged to someone else.

The house and surrounding vineyards had been sold after her father's death in 1971 to a local couple. Lail knew the couple socially and had agreed to lead tours of the historic property for their friends and business associates.

One summer afternoon as she was taking a group through the house, Lail was hit with the force of how much her life had changed and how much she had lost.

"It was one of those times when you come to grips with the fact that you have been told all your life that this will be yours--and it's not," Lail recalled.

As she looked from the window in the attic that once had been her playroom, she was overcome that day with memories, surprised at the sudden surge of emotion. To a friend standing nearby, sharing the view of the estate's stately oaks and lush vineyards, she said sadly, "Isn't it beautiful?"

Her friend offered first an affirmative reply and then a question: "Isn't it time you set about establishing your own winery?"

Having grown up in the wine and grape business, Lail knew it wasn't that easy. She was well aware of the hard work that goes into building a successful winery and the years it takes to establish a successful brand. The suggestion was filed for future reference.

The 1971 sale of her family's world-famous estate, founded in 1879 by her great granduncle, Gustav Niebaum, fractured a rare agricultural gem and nearly severed Lail's connection to the bedrock of her family's history.

"Inglenook was my tradition," she said. "It's what I was raised with. It was my inheritance and it is gone, period. It's not replaceable. It was a terrible loss, terrible. But it's not my nature to get lugubrious about what happened. It's bad for me and I'm not going to do it."

Building Napa's future

When Lail's great granduncle, Gustav Niebaum, a successful Finnish fur trader and sea captain, founded Inglenook Vineyards, he did so with a commitment to producing wines of the highest quality, she said. He did not do it with an expectation of the role his vineyards and winery would play in the history of the Napa Valley.

At his death in 1908, succession of the property went from Niebaum to Lail's grandfather, John Daniel Sr., who managed the vineyards and winery during the tough Prohibition years stretching from 1919 to 1933. Inglenook Ranch passed into the hands of Lail's father, John Daniel Jr., and his sister in 1936.

John Daniel Jr.'s mother died when he was young and his great-aunt Susan, Gustav Niebaum's wife, raised him on the Inglenook estate. A Stanford University graduate, aviator and talented businessman, Daniel spent years rebuilding the winery and vineyards.

He worked closely with his friend, the famed winemaker Robert Mondavi, to establish the basis for the Napa Valley appellation as it's known today. The pair shared Niebaum's conviction that the wines made in Napa Valley could rival the best wines made anywhere in the world.

But even though Inglenook's wines were widely acclaimed, the business struggled financially. The winery was in need of modernization and the California wine sector had yet to emerge as the powerhouse it is today.

Concerned that investment in the winery wouldn't yield an adequate return, Daniel sold it and some of the surrounding vineyards in 1964 to Heublein Corp.

Lail says it's hard to tell what caused her father's death in 1971--high blood pressure, complications from medication, depression, anger, a sense of loss. At age 63, John Daniel Jr. died unexpectedly in his sleep.

Shortly after Lail's father died, her mother sold the 1,700 acres of Inglenook vineyards, donating much of the proceeds to the Mormon Church. All that was left for Lail and her sister, Marcia Daniel Smith, was 125 acres at Napanook in Yountville.

A 'rare jewel' is gone

The vineyards that were once part of Inglenook Estate sit in the prime Rutherford bench area. When Lail was a girl, the ranch totaled about 2,000 acres. Agricultural land experts say planted vineyard land in the area today can sell for much more than $250,000 an acre.

Although appraisal experts caution there are many variables that go into pricing farm and ranch properties, simple math shows 2,000 planted acres in a prime Napa Valley location could add up to an asset worth more than $500 million.

What was once her family's Inglenook Estate is known today as Rubicon winery, owned by Hollywood filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. He bought part of the estate in 1975 and then acquired the original Inglenook winery building 20 years later. As he reunited the estate, he also put a valuable piece of Napa history back together.

"I don't really know what the value of an estate like Inglenook would be in today's dollars," said Tony Correia, respected California farm and ranch appraiser. "But, instead of putting a number on it, I'd point out that the asset is irreplaceable.

"A prime estate in the heart of Napa Valley is a true world-class asset. You can't just walk down the street, see a 'for sale' sign and buy one.

"These properties are like the venerable estates in Bordeaux and Burgundy, where the same family has held them for many, many generations. They're priceless. That's what was lost at Inglenook--ownership of one of the best winegrape growing locations in the world, a rare jewel."

Correia said that from his years in the farm and ranch appraisal business, he has seen that estate and succession planning are an important part of owning these properties.

"We see so many failures of farming companies because of inadequate or improper succession planning," Correia said. "It's truly unfortunate because it doesn't have to happen that way."

Starting over, moving on

For Robin Lail, who was 24 years old when her father died, there was nothing she could do to stop the loss of Inglenook. Her father's will made the bank the estate's trustee and she was persuaded to comply with her mother's plans.

The Daniel daughters managed to hang on to Napanook, which John Daniel Jr. had purchased in 1946 with his sister. Napanook had a reputation as an excellent source of cabernet sauvignon grapes and the sisters sold their harvest to others.

Lail had moved to San Francisco and went to work for BankAmerica. It was Jon Lail, Robin's architect husband, who brought the family back into the wine business when he went to work for a wine distributor in San Francisco.

Soon he was hired by Oakville Vineyards as vice president of marketing, where he worked for several years before returning to architecture. Robin Lail, who felt there was nothing left for her in the Napa Valley, resisted moving back.

"When you once lived in the biggest house in town and end up in a small apartment, it's hard," her husband said. "That's exactly what happened to Robin. When we moved back to the valley in the 1970s, we were living in a little house right on Highway 29."

In 1977, her father's old friend Robert Mondavi convinced Lail to reconsider a career in the wine business and she became his assistant at the Mondavi Winery in Oakville. In 1981, Christian Moueix, a gifted French winemaker, wrote to Mondavi for advice about quality vineyards in the Napa Valley.

Mondavi introduced Lail and her sister to Moueix and about a year later they formed the John Daniel Society, with the intent of producing wines from Napanook along the lines of those her father had created at Inglenook.

The trio went on to co-found Dominus Winery in 1982. The following year, Lail help found Merryvale Vineyards with partners, including her husband, and served as the winery's president for 10 years.

Launching a new legacy

In 1995, the Lails sold their interests in Merryvale and Dominus and established Lail Vineyards on their own, with Robin, Jon and their daughters, Erin Lail Dixon and Shannon Lail, as partners.

In 1998, Erin, the couple's oldest daughter and the mother of Georgia, now 4, and Henry, 2, joined the firm as director of operations. Today she is busy as the general manager of Lail Vineyards and she's raising the sixth generation of Napa Valley winegrape growers.

Jon and Shannon work in vineyard operations and management.

"My father left us with a wonderful legacy of excellence," Lail said. "He was a Renaissance man. He had a great passion for the place where he lived. He was a great communicator and a man of enormous principle. He was all about quality. He had the highest regard for the vintners and growers of California.

"My dad viewed himself as the conservator of the estate for his children and grandchildren," she said. "But even with the most careful estate and succession planning, unforeseen circumstances do intervene. The fact that handing down the family vineyards and winery didn't follow a smooth course is far more common than the reverse. That's clear from the research. It's true from my own experience.

"They say fortunes usually run out by the third generation," she said. "I'm the fourth generation here in this business--and what am I trying to do? I'm rebuilding our family business one step at a time."

The road back to farming has been long and hard for Lail. It's a struggle unimagined when she was a girl riding her favorite pony, Nancy, through the vineyards, watching the sunlight glance off the ripening grapes.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Lail said. "But history is full of surprises.

"I had only 2.66 acres of merlot left when the Dominus partnership ended, according to the terms of the buyout agreement. Our family went from about 2,000 acres down to 2.

"Since then we've purchased 20 acres on Howell Mountain and we're rebuilding for the next chapter to our family story," she said. "These days I'm working hard to grow our business and prepare the next generations to carry on."

She says planning for future generations is important to her. The birth of her grandchildren offers Lail the promise of continuing her family's legacy in farming and the winemaking business.

To celebrate the birth of her first grandchild, she introduced a wine named "Georgia" that noted critic Robert Parker has called "...potentially the most serious sauvignon blanc to ever come out of California." It sells in limited quantities for $75 a bottle.

On a recent afternoon, Robin Lail wrapped up a video shoot for a television segment on the history of Napa Valley's founding families. Then she broke away to play with her grandchildren in her vineyard and vegetable garden.

Visit Lail Vineyards online at www.lailvineyards.com

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item. Top