Robin Lail is the founding winemaker and partner at Lail Vineyards. Her extensive background and history in the Napa Valley have given her a unique perspective on the valley and its wines. Robin grew up among the vineyards of Napa’s great Inglenook estate, founded in 1879 by her great-grand uncle, Gustave Niebaum. She graduated from Stanford University in 1962, and in 1977 began her wine career at Robert Mondavi Winery under the tutelage of her mentor, Robert Mondavi. While at the Mondavi winery, she directed the creation of the first Auction Napa Valley. In 1982, Robin co-founded Dominus Estate with Bordeaux’s Christian Moueix, and a year later co-founded Merryvale Vineyards with Bill Harlan. With her two daughters, Erin and Shannon, she launched Lail Vineyards in 1995.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Robin Lail for WineSpeed in August 2019.
Karen MacNeil: Gustave Niebaum—the man who created Inglenook—was your great grand uncle. And Inglenook, founded in the 1870s, was the first grand chateau-style winery in the Napa Valley. From what you know, what kind of a person was he?
Robin Lail: He was a passionate man who had a lifelong love affair with the sea, and, later, wine. He was extremely intelligent and spoke five languages fluently with a reading knowledge of two more. He apparently gave only one interview during his life, and while he had friends and business associates he liked to entertain, he was reclusive. The word “can’t” did not exist in his vocabulary. He was a great innovator in the wine business in Napa Valley. He was a self-made man who was enormously successful financially which gave him the economic freedom to fully pursue his visions. It is entirely likely that he was an obsessive man. There was no expense too great in his mind to do everything possible to make the finest wine in the world. His mantra was “Quality not profit!”
KM: Your father John Daniel Jr. was one of Napa’s great vintners in the 1940s and 1950s. But he ultimately sold Inglenook, and today the estate is owned by the film director Francis Ford Coppola. Do you ever drive by Inglenook and think, “if only…”
RL: No. I put that question away in my early 30s. But every once in a long while I do a brief round of “what if?” This is not a healthy landing place, not even briefly. Had I had the reins of Inglenook, who knows what would have happened. I can tell you that I think I might be a different individual than I am today, and that I never would have had the opportunity to see if I could create a brand and wines to excite by myself. In my case, the old shopworn expression, “everything happens for a reason” holds true!
KM: You founded your own winery, Lail Vineyards, in 1995, after being a partner in several other wineries including Dominus with Christian Moueix and Merryvale with Bill Harlan. Why did you need/want your own winery?
RL: When I co-founded Dominus and Merryvale, I did so with the hope that one of those ventures would enable me to carry forward the Inglenook legacy in a new incarnation for the 21st Century without having to start over by myself. However, my plan did not work. So what next? It was obvious. I had to start my own winery. Carrying forward the generational tradition was not optional. I had to do it. And, as a woman, it was important to me to lead the way. It was important that whether I failed, or I succeeded, I would be recognized as the responsible party.
KM: Were you ever tempted to become a winemaker yourself?
RL: No. I have always had the amazing good fortune to be associated with brilliant winemakers. The style of wine we make is of the utmost importance to me, and participating in the blending sessions is like looking for the treasure. Our winemaking team is of the utmost importance as they have the genius to put the elixir into the bottle. But I am the person who revels in taking the wine to the next step. I am the ambassador who brings the wine and its story to the audience. For me, wine has an element of magic which brings delight to the people who are enjoying it. I am by nature a person who is fascinated with people and how to capture their imaginations and make their lives better in some way. I love the idea of making magic and bringing moments of something exquisite into people’s daily lives.
KM: What is it about wine that moves you?
RL: It is alive AND it is always morphing. I can open a bottle of wine on a particular night and find it charming. The next night I can open a bottle of the exact same wine and it may sing opera. It reflects my day, the place where I am, the people I am with, the food which are its companions. All is distilled in that glass of wine. Wine is created from a partnership with the earth, the seasons, the farmers, the winemakers and ultimately those who drink it. It is a passionate conspiracy to find excellence, pure delight, even perfection.
KM: You are writing a book. Is it fair to say it will be a memoir about your life in the wine industry?
RL: Yes. I have had such a great ride. The book will be a collection of stories and episodes and notes about the landscape of Napa Valley which has changed so much through the decades. It will be about challenges and resolutions. I hope that it will be a book that will inspire people to follow their dreams, no matter how rocky the pathway.
KM: You’ve often referred to Robert Mondavi as your mentor, and indeed after you went to Stanford, you came back to the Napa Valley in the early 1970s and worked as his personal assistant. Neither Napa Valley nor Robert Mondavi were yet world famous. What was working in Napa Valley like back then?
RL: At that time the community of growers and vintners was very tightly knit. We helped each other and shared both equipment and ideas if the need arose. The wine business was still primarily an art form. Although we had roughly 400 employees at Robert Mondavi Winery, we were a family. We worked hard and we had fun. Napa Valley was the sole appellation, and we were intensely engaged in trying to make ever more beautiful wines and bring their quality and value to the attention of collectors and Francophiles. I remember when we installed the first computer at Mondavi, it was gigantic and filled the entire room under the winery tower. Few women were in strong administrative positions. There were 2 or 3 female winemakers. Positions for women were secretarial, bookkeeping, public relations, tour guides and wine writing. The wine business was starting to grow and individuals who had been successful in other pursuits came to the valley and built new wineries or reclaimed ghost wineries from the Prohibition era. Even at that time, the vintners and growers were engaged in protecting the environment of this magnificent place. We had a steady stream of visitors, but not anything like we have today. Tastings were free at the wineries. It was during this time that Robert Mondavi formed a joint venture with the Baron Philippe Rothschild which became Opus One. This venture placed a very important marker in time. It was Opus that first began charging higher prices for their wines. That was one of the driving forces of building the partnership for Mondavi. He believed it was time to say to the world, the wines we are making in Napa Valley are of competitive quality to the wines of Bordeaux. Prior to this our finest wines were still inexpensive ranging in the $25-$30 range for our finest red wines. Wineries were producing many different varietals. AXR was considered the most excellent rootstock for its versatility in many soils, exposures and microclimates. It was also thought to be phylloxera resistant.
“Wine is a passionate conspiracy to find excellence, pure delight, even perfection.”
Karen MacNeil: Is wine good for a society or a culture? How so?
Robin Lail: For me, wine is a valuable addition to the culture of a society. Subtly, when you pull a cork from a bottle of wine, you say to the person/people you are with, “I think you are special”. Wine is of the arts. It is a beverage with character which adds a tone of conviviality to an occasion. Wine has been for centuries an evidence of the pleasure of civilization.
KM: Besides Napa Valley, what other wine region inspires you the most and why?
RL: A visit to any wine producing region is, for me, inspiring, exciting, educational, challenging. I believe this is not surprising because all regions are part of a remarkable family. We are all farmers, we share passion for what we do, understand the joys and disappointments of our profession, and I think we share a common respect. For all our commonality, each region is unique and produces distinctive wines. I find the discovery of the terroir and intent of the winemakers behind the wines they produce exhilarating.
KM: Do you believe that women approach wine differently than men and if so, in what way?
RL: I think women approach life differently than men, and that carries over into their opinions of wine and the wine business.
KM: Your grown daughters—Erin and Shannon—have become involved in Lail Vineyards. When they were growing up, how did you teach them about wine?
RL: Unfortunately, when the girls were small, we did not have a winery for them to wander in and out of. However, we did spend summers at Inglenook Ranch before it was sold. And there were so many stories and conversations we shared about our heritage in the business. Jon, their dad, worked in the wine business with the family that bought our ranch for a few years. The wine business was part of our life as a family. just growing up in Napa Valley is an environmental immersion into the wine business. It becomes a part of your pulse.
KM: What advice would you give a young woman in the wine industry who ultimately wants to own a winery one day?
RL: There is a hurricane of responses which bombard me, but I will just name a few. I would recommend four basic things:
- Examine carefully why you would like to own a winery? Do you have a story behind this desire? Do you have a passion for wine? What kind of wines do you like? What kind of wines would you like to make? Do you have good basic business sense? Where will the financial backing come from?
- Get a job working for a small winery so that you can learn as much as possible about the full extent of what is needed in a winery. Perhaps intern abroad as well as working in the U.S.
- Get a job working for a winery in sales or as a sales representative for a distributor. Get a sense of how the marketplace works. So many people are mesmerized by the allure of making wines without any idea of how they are going to sell them.
- Develop friendships or mentorships with women who have wineries or are in high profile positions of influence. Don’t limit these future colleagues to solely women as men can be very helpful as well. These are the people who can save you hours of experimental time and be resources for problem solving. They can also be primary ambassadors for your brand.