Niebaum Part III – Kippis, Niebaum!

At age 16 (1858) Gustaf Nybom could see nothing but the wide open seas, but at age 31 (1873), going by, Gustave Niebaum decided it was time to settle down.  He married a German-American named Susan Shingleberger.  As a man of the sea, he dreamed of building a ship and sailing around the world with his new wife.  She did not have such dreams.  Instead the two found a mutual interest in wine and in wine making.  So starts the third chapter of Gustaf Nybom.

In 1879, Niebaum purchased the Inglenook Winery in Rutherford, California along with another 120 acres for $48,000.  Along with the winery he purchased 60 acres of grape vines, both black malvoisie and zinfandel.  Now that he had a winery to start he put a trusted friend at the helm of the Alaskan Commercial Company.  He bought more land and started growing sauvignon blanc.

Inglenook Vineyard

Next Niebaum started to use his vast financial resources and contacts to procure whatever he desired for the new winery.  Books were collected by a Frankfurt bookseller on the topics of wine making, old or new, in any language.  Horticulture and mechanical equipment was brought to Inglenook. He started importing grape varieties from Europe along with other trees like fig, walnut, chestnut, and almond trees.  He visited wineries in Europe and took notes all along the way.

Niebaum’s fortunes from furs allowed him to invest in Inglenook.  Niebuam’s focus was on quality, not quantity.  The wine cellar was made of stone instead of wood.  While it was more expensive, the stones kept cooler in the summer.  He imported all the best wine making equipment.  He used nickle-plate rather than iron, because iron which would rust reducing flavor. Brass equipment and oil-finished oak and pine were used throughout as they showed stains easiest.  Fermentation vats were placed four feet above the ground for better inspection.  Any worker neglectful in the cleanliness was immediately let go.

In 1880, when the phylloxera louse threatened Napa Valley and while still building his winery, Niebaum funded an experimental garden until the state could put aside money.  As acting Consul of the empire of Russia, he was able to share reports and wild seeds through the Russian Department of Foreign Affairs

Niebaum’s first harvest in 1882 did not go well.  First there had been too much rain.  The neighbors, Beringer brothers and others, were laughing at the novice Niebaum who they felt was wasting too much time on his complex process.  Inglenook was the first winery to use extra quality steps in its production like separating the leaves and stems from the grapes and using steam cleaning.  Second-class grapes were used for brandy rather than wine.  In that first year, 80,000 gallons of wine were produced and some brandy. 

Over the years Niebaum continued to experiment in his vineyard.  He “borrowed” techniques from anyone that shared them.  He continued to produce for the long term. Some consider Inglenook the first of the Napa estate wineries.  Inglenook also had the first sample room in Napa Valley.

At the Australian Exposition in 1889, Inglenook wines received the first award of merit against French and German competitors.  Later that year at the Paris World Fair, Inglenook was recognized along with the California wine region.  Twenty-seven California wineries received gold, silver or bronze medals for the products.  But only Inglenook received a special award for “excellence and purity”. Further renown came in 1891, when Inglenook wine was served in the White House to then President Benjamin Harrison.  Harrison may have been introduced to Inglenook wines when he stayed at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in April 1891, as Inglenook and Schramsberg were the only two California wines served.  Later, Inglenook Pinot-Chardonnay was Harry Truman’s favorite wine at the White House.

When Gustave passed in 1908, the Finn had lived a real American rags-to-riches story.  The Finn that had first set foot on North America as a cabin boy from Olou in 1858 had become a captain of industry twice over in the United States.  That legacy still lives on.  Now at the hands of filmaker Francis Ford Coppola, the Inglenook winery has been restored to its former grandeur.

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