As Auction Napa Valley approaches June 1-4, Robin Daniel Lail can look back with many memories, but probably few are more rewarding than her part in launching what was then called the Napa Valley Wine Auction.
Although the auction was conceived by Margrit and Robert Mondavi, Lail was Bob’s assistant and the details of making the auction happen fell largely to her.
Since then, the auction has raised, and donated, more than $170 million to local causes.
But that’s only one part of a life so significant that James Conaway used it as a thread throughout his seminal 1990 book, “Napa: The Story of an American Eden.”
Robin Lail’s great-granduncle was Gustav Niebaum, the Finnish sea captain and adventurer who founded Inglenook Vineyards in 1879. When he died, his nephew and Robin’s grandfather, John Daniel, inherited the property with its stone winery and Victorian mansion, and that was Robin Daniel’s home.
Her mother was a Mormon who was not close to her two daughters and discouraged Robin from having anything to do with wine or the winery.
Her father, John Daniel Jr., inherited Inglenook in 1936. He was driven to make great wine but he didn’t raise his two daughters to work in wine business.
As a young girl, however, Robin stopped at the winery for water on the walk home from school, and she got to explore its mysterious niches and play in the vineyards.
She also remembers her father’s pickup truck and her treehouse perched over an Indian mound where she looked for artifacts.
She remembers the golden mustard that filled the valley on the ground and looking for shapes in the clouds and she recalls riding her pony and horse.
In 1964, her father sold the Inglenook property to liquor maker Heublein, which also bought Beaulieu.
Lail hadn’t had anything to do with the wine business, and by then, she was working in San Francisco for the Bank of America. Nevertheless, she now recalls, “I had an immense sense of loss.”
Her father died in 1970.
Rekindling an interest in wine
Losing the family home and business had an unexpected effect on Lail. It rekindled her interest in wine and the Napa Valley.
She and her husband, Jon, belonged to a wine tasting club and their interest grew. In 1972, they moved to Napa Valley, where Jon Lail, an architect but not practicing, ran Oakville Vineyards (now Napa Wine Company).
In 1974, Lail became executive director of the Volunteer Center of Napa County; then she started working as executive assistant to Bob Mondavi in 1977.
As Mondavi’s assistant, she learned everything about how a winery runs from the top down, from attending board meetings as an observer to working with growers and entertaining visiting guests.
Mondavi was full of ideas, but, she noted, not a detail person, so much fell to her, including the Wine Auction.
Mondavi later admitted that he hired her to motivate her to get back into the family business. “I wanted nothing to do with it at first,” she said.
After five years, she left Mondavi, and she and her sister Marky co-founded Dominus with Christian Moueix of Pétrus in Bordeaux in 1982 with part of Napanook Vineyards, a family legacy.
In 1983, while working with developer Bill Harlan, she helped found Merryvale Vineyards, holding the title of president.
In 1995, she left Merryvale and sold out of her partnership in Dominus to finally start Lail Vineyards and restore her family’s legacy. That was a tough year to buy grapes but they used merlot grapes from the remaining two and a half acres of their Napanook Vineyard on the east side of Highway 29 north of Yountville and bought cabernet from Bob Phillips.
She and Jon bought 20 acres on Howell Mountain in 1996 and built a home and later planted a small vineyard; by then he was practicing as an architect. She sold her partnership in Merryvale in 1997.
A different approach to daughters
Robin and Jon Lail have two daughters, Shannon and Erin, both partners in Lail Vineyards.
Recalling her childhood, Lail granted her two daughters the wine exposure she was denied. Both were cellar rats at Merryvale during high school, and Shannon also worked in its shop.
Erin Lail started her professional career in San Francisco after graduating from college, working for a private investment company but joined her mother to launch Lail Vineyards. In 2006, she founded Honeydew Napa Valley providing luxury estate management and concierge service.
Erin has two children, Georgia and Henry, who attend St. Helena public schools. They have been present for harvest since they were old enough to help, and are interested in carrying on the family tradition.
Shannon attended Duke University in North Carolina, then she returned to Northern California to work for Francis Coppola’s film company, American Zoetrope.
She spent 10 years under Coppola’s tutelage learning the film business from the perspective of a writer, director and producer. She collaborated with Coppola on more than 30 projects, helped launch the company’s first distribution division as well as the short fiction and art quarterly, Zoetrope: All-Story.
Although her work took her all over the country, she felt most at home at Coppola’s wine estate where her mother and grandfather lived when it was Inglenook. Lail also worked a bit with Francis Ford Coppola, and considers him a friend.
Shannon left Zoetrope in 2004 to work with Stephen Gaghan and Steven Soderbergh’s Section 8 as a co-producer on “Syriana.”
Afterwards, she transitioned to independent film so she could return to the Napa Valley to raise her children, Wells and Lail.
Her last film project, “Goats,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.
Both daughters have been through the U.C. Davis Executive Wine Program. Like Erin, Shannon is involved with Lail Vineyards, handling its social media.
Philippe Melka is the winemaker. Lail Vineyards was his first consulting client and he’s made wine for them for almost 20 years. They make the wines at nearby Arkenstone Winery. The Lails have a permit to build a winery but have not yet built it. “We have 57 winery plans,” Robin jokes.
Pete Richmond tends the vines.
Two premium vineyards
The Lails own two vineyards.
Mole Hill, on the Lail’s 20-acre Howell Mountain property, is named after a mound on the original Daniels property. It contains three acres of cabernet sauvignon planted in 1993 and 1994 and is nestled on Howell Mountain at 1,600 feet with a western exposure.
The 2 1/2-acre Totem Vineyard in Yountville is part of the original Inglenook Vineyards. In 2006 and 2007, merlot vines planted in 1988 were t-budded to sauvignon blanc used for Georgia sauvignon blanc.
Lail Vineyards wines
Lail Vineyards makes about 3,000 cases of five wines.
The J. Daniel Cuvée cabernet sauvignon honors her father. It’s made from vineyards in Calistoga, Oakville and Howell Mountain. They produce 400-800 cases at $250 per bottle.
About 125 cases of Mole Hill cabernet sauvignon from the estate vineyard on Howell Mountain are made in some years. It sells for $300 per bottle.
The Georgia sauvignon blanc is fermented in new French oak. They produce 150 cases; it sells for $135 per bottle.
The Blueprint wines pay homage to Lail’s husband, Jon, and are aimed at “younger people,” She said. Blueprint cabernet sauvignon (1,500 cases) is $80, and Blueprint sauvignon blanc (1,000 cases) is $40.
The wines are sold in 35 states and 12 countries, and Lail wants to maintain a combination of distribution and direct sales. “They could be better known,” she admitted, noting that they’ve hired a publicist to help that happen.
The winery also has an active direct-to-consumer program and formerly had the wines at the Ma(i)sonry tasting collective in Yountville. Currently, it doesn’t have a tasting room presence.
For the future, Shannon and Erin have made a long-term commitment to the with Lail Vineyards.
“It’s extremely important to me that they’re involved,” said Lail. “This is part of their legacy going back 135 years, a legacy of years of people seeking excellence and driven by passion.”
Lail admits that it’s taken a long time to establish the brand, but vowed, “This is not a dilettante deal. We are building an international brand that we want to be one of the best in the world.”
The work seems to be paying off. The wines get excellent reviews from top critics – like a 100 from Robert Parker for the J, Daniel Cuvée in 2014.