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The Decanter interview: Philippe Bascaules

The former Château Margaux winemaker was persuaded by Francis Ford Coppola to join his historic Californian winery to help 'honour its heritage and restore its legacy'. Midway through his contract, Jane Anson catches up with him...

Napa Valley’s Inglenook is pretty confusing to drive around. It is stunning – parts of the property are cut directly into the Mayacamas, with wild glades climbing higher up to the mountain peaks and most of the vineyards running gently down the foothills to the valley floor in Rutherford. But it’s sprawling, with a maze of narrow tracks that criss-cross the 74 separate plots of vines, taking you past gorgeous clapboard houses, tree-lined avenues and hidden storehouses that are all part of the estate. I was on my second attempt to locate the main winery building, the late afternoon sun tipping down from the mountains and the approaching darkness rapidly minimising my chances of locating it, when I saw philippe Bascaules – managing director and winemaker – waiting for me outside, leaning against his battered Honda, with just a hint of a Californian glow.

I first met Bascaules, a French native, in a sparse upstairs meeting room in Château Margaux perhaps five years ago. He was quiet, reserved, obviously intelligent, working as the estate manager and technical director at the time alongside paul pontallier, and we were discussing the thesis that he had written during his studies on the cultural practices of the first growths. It struck me just how understated he was with his knowledge, and also what valuable research the thesis might provide to a host of winemakers around the world.

We stayed in touch ever since, and I may have been one of the few not to be surprised when he was poached by Francis Ford Coppola, who owns Inglenook, in April 2011. Bascaules may not have been the most well-known name (certainly in Napa, where several friends were shocked that former winemaker scott Mcleod was not replaced by a local personality), but he was bringing exactly what Coppola was looking for – a fresh sensibility backed up by precise knowledge and a link to the Old World heritage of Inglenook, which was founded with European vines by a Finnish sea captain in 1879. Coppola said Bascaules was hired ‘to honour the estate’s heritage and restore its legacy’.

Questions and answers

His contract was initially signed for five years, and he is now halfway through. ‘It wasn’t an easy decision to move to Napa,’ he told me at the time, and again now. ‘I’d already turned down several job offers during my 21 years at Margaux, and had no desire to move. But Coppola was very persuasive, and when I spent a few days out here, tasting through some of the older vintages from the 1950s and 1960s and understanding his plans, it suddenly became something that I could imagine doing’.

I found my old notes from that first interview in Margaux when researching for this article, and was interested to see that he had said something similar about moving to Bordeaux. In 1989, after completing both his oenological studies and his military service, he went to Beaujolais for a year, working in wine estates in the cru villages, before seeing an advertisement in April 1990 from Château Margaux for an assistant to paul pontallier. He told me, prophetically as it turned out, ‘I was really enjoying Beaujolais, but there are certain opportunities that you just can’t turn down.’

If the team at Inglenook was hoping that a first-growth winemaker was going to arrive in Napa with all the answers, however, they were perhaps a little disappointed at first. ‘There is an assumption in most Anglo-Saxon cultures that the person in charge knows everything,’ he tells me with a Gallic shrug as we climb into one of the small electric cars that are used to travel around the vines. ‘But one of the things I found most tough when I arrived was reining in my natural tendency to think through the possibilities out loud. What happened was that my team would jump to action when I was just floating ideas, not giving directions. Sometimes it’s still disturbing for them. They ask questions and like to have a leader who gives answers. I admit to doubts and to trying things out. But for me this is hugely positive. I love the energy here – it’s easy to have exchanges and discussions in ways that are more difficult back in France.’

Even the things he felt certain of before arriving turned out to need questioning: ‘When I got here, I imagined that it would be easier to ripen the grapes in Napa than in Bordeaux, but some plots are truly tough to get all the way there. The days are so short in October that I wonder if the tannins can ever really ripen and soften so late in the season. It’s why people have such long hang times out here, but when the sun goes down, the temperature plummets. I am thinking that perhaps we need to instead encourage earlier flowering by pruning the vines earlier in the season. Everyone prunes late to avoid frost, but I question if that is the right thing to do.

‘Similarly, I arrived thinking the one thing I’d change is irrigation. Intuitively, stopping irrigation should encourage root growth and complexity, and I still believe that as a general principle. But towards the end of the season I find a touch of extra water stops the berries from drying out. It can be dangerous to be over-confident in any direction.’

Making his mark

You soon realise that this is what makes Bascaules such a brilliant winemaker. He might seem at one level very different from his famous film director boss, but both men reveal themselves in the details. And even with his willingness to admit uncertainty, there were a few things that were non-negotiable on his arrival. Most importantly, Inglenook was 100% planted, which meant making long-term vineyard management plans was difficult. ‘You need parts of a property to be lying fallow, to allow for regeneration and sustainability, otherwise you are pulling up vast tracts of vines all at one time,’ he says.

To remedy this, he put in place a 50-year plan, working out which parts of the vineyard should be given space to breathe. He also made immediate changes to the harvesting techniques – replacing large baskets with small crates, and paying pickers by the hour, not by the ton, to encourage them to focus on quality not speed. In 2012 he also produced a third wine (to be released this year), named 1882 after the date when Gustave Niebaum hollowed out a cave in the mountain to store barrels.

Before this, 50% of the crop had been sent off in bulk, but Bascaules wanted to ensure that Inglenook could offer flagship reds at various price points, and today grapes are divided between 1882, Cask and Rubicon.

‘The other thing I immediately wanted to correct was the yields,’ says Bascaules. ‘They were too low. I have increased them to between three and five tons per acre [40-65hl/ha], a figure that is closer to Bordeaux than the average two tons per acre [27hl/ ha] in Napa. Most Californian winemakers make a virtue of low yields, even as low as one ton per acre [13.5hl/ha], but I am strongly against that, because I am trying to avoid over-concentration of flavours’.

In other things, he has remained open-minded. Not only with irrigation, but also alcohol (‘I can accept 14.5«v. We are in Napa, and I want to make a wine that is a true reflection of that. We can’t pick the grapes earlier just to lower alcohol if the flavours are not there’) and even terroir (‘I am convinced that great terroir in this climate can do well with many grape varieties. We have one great block that produces exceptional grapes across any number of varieties. It has been a learning experience for me; so different to the received wisdom in France’).

Finding the balance

So far, Coppola has been content to let Bascaules take his time, trusting in his expertise and vision. But there is clearly a sense of limbo in that, even with all of these adjustments, the real reaction to the new style remains only theoretical until Bascaules’ first vintage, the 2011, is released in November 2014. As we taste through the 2009s to the 2013s, there is a clear evolution between the turbo-charged 2010 and the more elegant 2011, but it was a difficult vintage where extraction had to be handled carefully. It’s not until the 2012 that you can see that this more balanced style is also carried through in the warmer years.

There must be a sense of satisfaction, I suggest, that Coppola and Bascaules’ approach chimes with a wider movement in California towards more elegant, terroir-specific wines. He nods agreement, but adds, ‘There is a danger that comes with it also. It’s a big risk to be elegant, particularly in such a critic-driven environment. In a flight of wines, lower alcohol, higher acidity, softer oak… these are not usually things that get signalled out for praise and high scores.’

Later, as we both taste the 1960 Inglenook for the first time, he says, ‘My goal is to try to capture the essence of the older Inglenook wines in a more contemporary style. I’m convinced that greatness lies in the middle, the balance, not in the extremes. If even one detail is immediately apparent on tasting a wine, it can be beautiful, unquestionably, but it can never be truly elegant

Written by Jane Anson

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