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Solving the Mystery of the Inglenook Cabinet Port


In my post The Mysterious Inglenook Cabinet Port I looked into the pre-Prohibition years of Inglenook and Cabinet wines.  It was certainly fascinating but it did not bring me any closer to solving the mystery of the Cabinet Port.  I circled back to the bottle itself.  The label stated net contents as “750 mL.” At the bottom of the glass bottle the net contents appeared as both milliliters and fluid ounces.  In 1977 a law was passed requiring the American wine industry to use metric bottle sizes. It went in to effect a the beginning of 1979.  From what I understand, if the metric standard was being followed then the bottle could additionally list contents as fluid ounces.

Workers gather the harvest in 1893, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

Workers gather the harvest in 1893, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

In my mind the label was from 1979 or later.  But what about the the bottle and its contents?  Could the bottle have been produced and the wine bottled in the 1960s or 1970s before the metric requirement?  I started another thread on Wineberserkers with regards to net contents.  I have empty Martini magnums from 1964 and 1966 with  gallon units on the glass bottles.  A bottle of 1974 Veedercrest has both milliliters and fluid ounces.  Merril Lindquist stated her 1968 Souverain, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley was imprinted with 4/5 Quart four times around the base.  This pointed to the port being bottled in 1969 or later.

Old Cabinet Riesling Label, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

Old Cabinet Riesling Label, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

This helped narrow down the range of vintages but certainly did not reveal which one.  In fact, I still did not know if this was indeed a port from a single vintage.  As such it could be a vintage , late bottled vintage, or multi-year crusted port.  The flavor of the port clearly bore the hallmarks of oak aging but not to the extent of a tawny port.  If I gave it a range of one to six years in barrel the base vintage for the port could be as early as the late 1960s through the 1970s.  At the time I was still convinced this bottle was from 1978 or earlier.  The 1979 vintage was the centennial of Inglenook and all of the labels I had seen were designated “Centennial.”  Also the labels radically changed towards the modern in 1980.

John Daniel Jr in 1945, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

John Daniel Jr in 1945, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

I returned to Google searching for post-Prohibition accounts of Inglenook port and Cabinet wines.  In 1938 The Wine and Food Society partook of Inglenook Cabinet Sherry along with 1907 Inlgenook California Sauternes.  The San Jose News reported in January of 1941 that at An All-California Dinner, “Preceeding the dinner proper we convened in the buffer room with glasses of excellent Inglenook cabinet sherry in one hand.”  In 1943 we find House & Garden mention the Cabinet Sherry yet again but this time there is also a Ruby Port.  In 1948 Robert Lawrence Balzer romantically writes, “It was a perfect time to get lost.  Mellow with the Cabinet Sherry we had shared with John Daniel at Inglenook, time had no meaning.”  And more recently in 1971 Robert Lawrence Balzer found amongst 37 sherries, the  “The top showing from California was Inglenook Cabinet Sherry.”  That same year Inglenook won a silver medal at the California State Fair for its Palomino sherry.  In the 1960 California State Fair  non-Californian wines were allowed, the first time since Prohibition.  Inglenook performed strongly all around and was even noted for a port, along with Beringer, Martini, and Madrone.  For three decades there are diverse accounts of Inglenook sherry but only one Ruby Port and one Port.  I began to think there was no Cabinet Port produced prior to the 1970s.  According to Tom Mendes of Inglenook Vineyards many records were lost during the period when John Daniel Jr. sold the property and Francis Ford Coppola purchased it.

I had searched Google countless time for mention of Cabinet Port.  The 19th century Edge Hill Cabinet Port always came up but so did a hit in a Heublein auction catalog.  Unfortunately it was one with hidden content.  I already owned the catalogs for the 5th and 8th National Auction of Rare Wines held in May 31, 1973 and May 27, 1976 respectively.  In the Price Review appendix auction results dating back to 1969 covered Inglenook vintages back to 1887.  There is no appearance of the term Cabinet.  The wines listed are mostly red including Cabernet Sauvignon, Charbono, Chianti, Claret, Gamay, and Zinfadel and white wines such as Johannisberg Riesling, Pinot Chardonnay, Dry Semillon, and White Pinot.  There were even three “Vintage Pre-World War II” Inglenook Sherries being Brown, Dry, and Palomino.

Inglenook Winemaker Tom Ferrell, Image from The 8th Premier National Auction of Rare Wines, 1976.

Inglenook Winemaker Tom Ferrell, Image from The 8th Heublein Premier National Auction of Rare Wines, 1976.

The Google Cabinet Port search result pointed to the 11th National Auction of Rare Wines held on May 24, 1979.  This was the centennial year of Inglenook so I promptly ordered a copy.  John Daniel Jr. sold Inglenook to United Vintner in 1964.  The winery was later acquired by Heublein who brought on Tom Ferrell as the winemaker in 1970.  This was the same year that John Daniel Jr. passed away.  Inglenook went on to produce some four million cases of wine most of which were bottled at the Italian Swiss Colony Winery.  Higher-quality “Estate Bottled” wines were also produced at the 250,000 case level.   The centennial was celebrated by Inglenook with a special dinner in San Francisco where over one dozen vintages were poured.  In March of 1979 Nathan Chroman commented in The New York Times on a John Daniel Jr. wine served at the dinner, “The 1941, of course, was my favorite.  It was still vigorous, although perhaps not quite as I remember it, but nevertheless a Cabernet that other wineries might well emulate.”  From a vintage several decades later he finds, “Far better [than an Estate white wine] was the Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon cask 1974, which in due course may rival earlier Cabernets of Inglenook.  The wine is worth acquiring and aging.”

Tom Ferrell Decanting Wine at Centennial Dinner 24 January 1979, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

Tom Ferrell Decanting Wine at Centennial Dinner 24 January 1979, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

The catalog arrived at the end of a day, just as I was departing the house to pick up my wife and daughter.  I was gitty with excitement so I brought the catalog with me.  I ripped open the package as I drove.  Having made good time to the parking garage I remained in the car to inspect the catalog.  The title page bears the subtitle, “Featuring The Centennial Celebration of Inglenook Vineyards, Rutherford, Napa Valley, California, Founded 1879.”  A section on the history of winemaking concluded, “The goal of Inglenook in 1979 is the same as it was in 1879 – to produce wines equal to or better than Europe’s best.”  The table of contents revealed Lots 74-192 were part of the 1884-1978  Inglenook Vineyards Centennial Collection from the Vineyards Library.  I quickly looked through bu there was no lot of port nor of sherry.  I rifled through it again.  Still nothing.  And no mention of Cabinet despite two different pictures of Michael Broadbent and John Daniels Jr. with Cabinet Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon.  This was driving me nuts.

J. M. Broadbent opens Cabernet Sauvignon 1933, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

J. M. Broadbent opens Cabernet Sauvignon 1933, Image from The 11th Heublein Premiere National Auction of Rare Wines, 1979.

I made a thorough study of the catalog later that night and the next day.  I returned to Google and continued my searches.  By chance, for some strange reason, I got a result I had never seen before. In the 1983 Heublein auction catalog Prices Review appendix I found:

INGLENOOK CABINET PORT
Napa Valley; Est. Bot. Inglenook Vineyards.
V. 1979 $280

After an exhaustive search I finally found documentation that the Cabinet Port did exist, it had a vintage of 1979, and had sold for $280 per case.  It was a matter of moving forward two years to 1981 when the 13th National Auction of Rare Wines took place.  In it I found:

During the vintage of 1979, I made a few special wines as part of the celebration of Inglenook’s Centennial.  These were made with an eye both on the past and the future.  I wanted to produce wines that were traditional, but also wines that will last to the bi-centennial of Inglenook.  A number of red grape varieties were made into Port and more than one lot of each variety was fortified.  In tasting the wines that followed, it became apparent that a blend of two of the lots produced a distinct and complex dessert wine with a great potential for future development, it will be called 1979 Cabinet Port, a name used by Inglenook for an excellent dessert wine produced at the turn of the century.

I chose a blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon Port and 47% Petite Sirah Port.  The presence of the Petite Sirah in the blend serves to mollify the varietal predominance of the Cabernet and produce a more subtle blend.  About two hundred fifty cases total were produced.  The wine will be bottled young in early 1982 and the entire bottling will be placed in the Inglenook Wine Library.  The Wine shows an intense and elegant ruby red color; a distinct aroma; an excellent potential for bouquet development; a full rich flavor and a balanced yet sweet finish.  Analytically, the wine is about 19.3% alcohol and 13.2% sugar.” T. A. Ferrell, January 14, 1981.  Delivery after bottling in Fall 1982.

Tom Ferrell’s notes were written during his last year as Inglenook winemaker.  With this wine he aimed to produce  a traditional bottle which would last until the bi-centennial in 2079.  It is a beautiful wine with which to end his Inglenook career.  My note suggested drinking by 2053.  I hope am I wrong.

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Just a few more items.  The auction only listed several case lots of the Cabinet Port.  Tom’s notes state that the entire bottling will be placed in the Inglenook Wine Library.  What of the bottles in the Library?  Also I see three Non-vintage Cabinet Port bottles listed in Cellar Tracker inventory.  Who’s are they? And why are these bottles also lacking a vintage date?  I left Tom Ferrell a voicemail earlier in the week, hopefully I will hear back from him.

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