Rare But Well Done : Charbonos by Inglenook Are Neither Common Nor Costly

DIVERSITY IS always welcomed by wine lovers seeking to expand their taste horizons. After all, they don't want to drink only Chardonnays or Cabernets. One interesting wine, especially attractive because it is rare, is Inglenook Charbono. It's a red wine with an intriguing bouquet. But what makes it even better is that it is available for less than $12 a bottle.

The rare cuttings of Charbono--which, researchers speculate, Inglenook founder Gustave Niebaum brought from Piedmont in the northern Italian wine country in the late 1800s--occupy 40 acres at Inglenook. That acreage makes up about 85% of the total Charbono planting in California.

Inglenook, a Scottish word meaning a warm and cozy corner, was the name Niebaum gave to California's first architectural landmark winery in the Napa Valley. Niebaum, a wealthy, young Finnish sea captain, ran his winery as tightly as he might have run his ship. To create a constant shipshape sense of order, he had the aisles between the rows of grapevines swept daily. Magazine and newspaper articles, even books, were written about Niebaum's unusual management style.

Not much seemed to fluster Niebaum. In fact, the late John Daniel Jr., Niebaum's grandnephew, once told me a story about his great-uncle.

In the 1880s, a visitor turned into the grand driveway to the winery in his horse-drawn, two-wheeled gig. The visitor asked Niebaum, who happened to be walking by on an inspection tour, "What's going on here? A winery?"

Niebaum nodded.

"I'd like to see it."

So Niebaum climbed aboard and gave the stranger a tour.

When the tour was over, the visitor handed Niebaum a dollar tip and, with a sweep of his hand, indicated the apparent expanse of the winery.

"Who's doing all this?" the tourist asked.

"A foreigner called Niebaum," the host responded calmly. Niebaum pocketed the dollar and waved the stranger on his way.

Ever since Inglenook opened (and reopened in 1933 after the repeal of Prohibition), it has been considered an outstanding Napa Valley winery, dedicated to the finest wine-making procedures.

This spring, Jamie Daniel Morningstar, a granddaughter of Daniel and Inglenook's resident chef, toured the country promoting Inglenook Charbono. Six vintages--1984, 1983, 1981, 1980, 1979 and 1977--were featured at the seven-course dinners she presented.

"It's a wine that works with food. It likes bold flavors," she said. Indeed, the wine stands up to strong flavors, with rare harmony.

The '84, '83 and '81 are still available and at modest prices.

The 1981 Charbono, with a silky finesse, costs about $11.50. The 1984 has a youthful liveliness and vim that suggests that it can use cellar aging. But the softer, leaner 1983 is of an earthy, intriguing balance. It is drinkable now. Both are about $8.50.

At Inglenook, visitors can view Niebaum's tasting room, which was fashioned after a captain's shipboard compartment, and maybe even catch a glimpse of Jamie Morningstar. But you won't have to tip her if she shows you around.

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