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Philippe Bascaules: Trading First Growth Bordeaux For Napa

Philippe Bascaules was a surprise choice for Inglenook
© Gundolf Pfotenhauer/Chad Keig/Inglenook | Philippe Bascaules was a surprise choice for Inglenook
Three years ago Philippe Bascaules was named as the surprise appointment as managing director and winemaker of Francis Ford Coppola’s historic Inglenook winery. Before that he was Paul Pontallier’s No.2 at Château Margaux where he’d worked since 1990.

Were you destined to be in wine?

Not at all. I was always interested in nature, science and mathematics, so I could have gone into computers or finance. But I discovered the wine industry at 22 and that was that.

You spent 20 years working at Château Margaux. How exactly did you end up in Napa?

In 2011, I was approached out of the blue. My first answer was "no", because I was very happy at Margaux and had already turned down several previous offers. But Coppola’s people were very persuasive. I also talked to Paul Pontallier and Corinne Mentzelopoulos [Margaux’s owner], who were fantastic. They encouraged me to take a look and talk to Francis.

Is that what you did?

Yes. I’d been to L.A. but never to Napa. I spent three days there and it was a revelation. I was amazed by the estate and its history back to Gustave Niebaum.

What clinched it?

Tasting some of Inglenook’s older vintages like the '59 and '61. They were exceptional. If they hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have come.

On the personal front, how easy or difficult was the decision?

It was complicated because I was going through a divorce. I talked about it for three weeks with my grown-up children. They all gave me their support and I realized this "fresh-start" opportunity was just what I needed.

Describe your working relationship with Coppola?

He wants to know everything. In that sense he’s just like Corinne at Margaux. When he’s here, I see him a lot. But even when he’s traveling, I’m in contact with him all the time. If I send him a message, I get a response within five minutes.

How often do you see Stéphane Derenoncourt, who consults at Inglenook?

He comes about five times a year. His role is different to mine. He is there to bring an external viewpoint. He’s Bordelais and we get on very well.

What’s the biggest point of difference with Bordeaux?

The weather. It’s almost the opposite of Bordeaux. There, we fight against rain, botrytis and underripeness. In California, we struggle against drought, sunburn and overripeness.

The aim is to make wines that reflect Inglenook's terroir
© Inglenook | The aim is to make wines that reflect Inglenook's terroir

What’s your winemaking brief?

It’s simple: to make the best wine possible, which reflects our unique terroir. I’m not necessarily looking to make the best wine in the world. That’s too subjective.

Stylistically what are you aiming to change?

The main thing will be the level of ripeness. If we want to really taste Inglenook, we have to lower the concentration, sugar and alcohol to get to the real flavors of the soil.

You’ve been critical of Californian wines for being too powerful and lacking identity.

Only some wines. I don’t like those wines whose terroir has been smothered by too much alcohol. In my opinion, they lack finesse and won’t age. But this trend isn’t unique to California because we’ve seen lots of overripe wines in Bordeaux, especially on the Right Bank.

Fair point. What alcohol levels are you aiming for?

Firstly, I don’t want to make underripe, vegetal wines. Secondly, I’m not trying to make Bordeaux in California. I don’t have a "target", except to make wines that are balanced and elegant. However, I don’t think you can make great wine at more than 15 percent.

Tell me about the winery.

It’s completely dedicated to Inglenook now. Some of the equipment was a bit old so I immediately bought a new de-stemmer and a new pneumatic press. The main thing is having small tanks, which allow us to vinify each parcel separately and observe the quality. That way, we can build up a picture of the vineyard.

What was your first vintage like?

2011 was a difficult vintage that worked to our advantage. Firstly, we had to pick a bit earlier than usual, which meant we got more freshness and complexity. Also, some winemakers here hadn’t seen botrytis before and didn’t know how to handle it. Because I’d seen it so many times in Bordeaux, I knew exactly how to make very good wines with 5-10 percent botrytis. It’s not a problem.

What about 2012 and 2013?

2012 was more challenging for me because of the drought conditions and high temperatures. But I’m really happy with the end result. In 2013, the harvest quality was exceptional.

What has surprised you?

The quality of Petit Verdot and Merlot. We don’t have much Petit Verdot but it was so good in '11 and '12 that we put all of it into Rubicon [the estate's flagship wine]. We did the same with our Merlot. Surprisingly, it makes more acidic wines here than Cabernet Sauvignon, which I don’t quite understand yet. I’ve already planted more.

What have you introduced?

We now pay our pickers by the hour, rather than per ton. It means they are more focused on quality, not on speed.

Francis Ford Coppola wants to know everything
© Inglenook/Wikimedia/squidish | Francis Ford Coppola wants to know everything

I hear you are keen to sell some lnglenook en primeur?

I know it has been difficult in Bordeaux. But when it’s done well and offered at the right price, it creates excitement and interest. You have to respect the distribution chain so everyone does well, including the consumer.

How is that progressing?

We started with 2011, offering limited volumes to members of our Heritage Society [Inglenook's member's club].

What is it like living in California?

I’m incredibly happy here. I love the dry air, the ocean, the forests and the mountains. I've settled very quickly.

What else?

The positive mentality. People are more dynamic, enthusiastic and confident. When we want to change something, we do it. It’s not a big deal.

Anything you found difficult?

At first it was mentally tiring to have to speak so much English. The American accent added an extra layer of difficulty. But it’s fine now.

What do you miss?

Obviously, family and friends. Also I miss the food. Restaurant food here is too complicated with too many ingredients. It’s a bit like some wines. I prefer it when the ingredients speak for themselves.

Have you been back to Margaux?

I first went in 2012 to show Paul my debut vintage. I’m pleased to say his reaction was very positive. We tasted our '09, '10 and '11 and he told me that he preferred the '11.

What’s your biggest challenge at Inglenook?

Now it’s really lots of little things to raise the level of refinement, sophistication and finesse in the wine. That’s what Francis wants me to do.

What keeps you awake at night?

Too much white wine.

And finally, which is your favourite Coppola movie?

Does he make films…..?

Prices worldwide on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):

Related stories:

Q&A: Corinne Mentzelopoulos, Château Margaux

Château Margaux Marches On

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  • Comments

    Russ turner wrote:
    02-May-2014 at 22:42:12 (GMT)

    Dear Plilippe, Please let me introduce myself. My name is Russ Turner and I established the winery for Francis and made the first 4 vintages of Rubicon. I wish you all the best in your efforts to making the Estate into an american first growth winery & vineyard as I always knew it once was and should be in the future. The vineyards there at the base of Mt. St john in Rutherford are exceptional and always believed that my primary job was to oversee the harvest and babysit the resulting wines with a keen attention to detail not interfering too much in the developing of the wine in the winery. All the best to you and look forward to enjoying a first growth Inglenook wine in the near future.

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