Robin Lail is lost in thought as she stands on the porch of her beautiful country-style home overlooking the vineyards atop Mole Hill, vineyards that have been in her family for 18 years. From her down-to-earth demeanor, one might not know that she is part of one of the greatest family legacies in Napa Valley, one that reaches back five generations to 1879. Her lineage includes distinguished winemakers such as her granduncle, Gustave Niebaum, and her father, John Daniels Jr., both of whom were considered to be two of the finest cabernet producers in the country. Lail, too, is a fine winemaker. As the founder of Lail Vineyards and co-founding member of Auction Napa Valley, it is more than just her family legacy that will make her forever etched into the Valley’s history. When she says that, “The wine business is my life that I love so much,” she means it completely.
Born and raised in wine country, Lail always had a special connection with the land that she describes as a “treasure that includes the earth, hills, light, vines and wines.” Her connection with wine was practically solidified at birth, especially given that her father was a man determined to change the face of winemaking in California through his work with Robert Mondavi. Says Lail, “My dad was Mondavi’s mentor and they were good friends. Those men shared the vision that Napa Valley could produce wine that was second to none in the world.” Her father sold his winery, Inglenook, in 1964, which changed hands several times before its purchase by director Francis Ford Coppola in 1975. Of the latter, with whom Lail had an opportunity to work with as an Inglenook ambassador in 2012, she gracefully maintains, “I am grateful that he has rebuilt the estate and I’m very enthused by his vision for the future.”
Clearly, the passing of Inglenook did not stop Lail from moving forward in the business of winemaking. She was naturally fit to become the protégée of Robert Mondavi in 1977. “He taught me some very beautiful things, one of which was check and recheck every detail, because making great wine is an art,” she remembers. In fact, it was Mondavi who convinced Lail to keep the family business alive. She continues, “In the five years that I worked with him, almost every day he would encourage me to get back into the wine business and carry forward my family legacy.”And so she did, in more ways than one. Lail’s ventures include the co-founding of Dominus Winery in 1982 with Christian Moueix, where she was a partner until 1995. In 1983, she co-founded Maryville vineyards with Bill Harlan, where she remained president for ten years. She sold out of both of those ventures in the 1990s before starting Lail Vineyards in 1995. Her lengthy legacy in Napa also includes co-founding the valley’s primary fundraising event, Auction Napa Valley. She was approached with the idea of helping the community raise funds back in 1979, and was immediately and enthusiastically on board with the idea. One of the earliest planning meetings took place with co-founders Robert and Margrit Mondavi as well as Pat Montandon, who were interested in hosting a charitable venture to benefit the Napa Valley Vintners.
From there, Lail put together a committee of enthusiastic vintners from the community including Meadowood founder Bill Harlan, whom she refers to as her greatest ally. However, not everyone was certain that event would eventually become a success. “The Auction was very beautiful in its first incarnation [in 1981], but we had no idea if it would soar. It was a three-legged stool,” says Lail, who—along with many others—admits that she could not predict the “thrilling” success to come. In 2013, the Auction raised upwards of $17 million, and this year is poised to match or exceed that amount. Today, Lail remains involved in the Auction in various capacities as an attendee, a host and as a contributor. This year, she will be co-hosting the “Prohibition Napa Valley” welcome party at Alpha Omega. She vows that she will always support the organization she had a hand in founding, but these days, seems more inclined to live a tranquil, less bustling life. The majority of her time is spent at Lail Vineyards, where she produces only 4000 cases of cabernet each year. It is no surprise that quality, not quantity, is her focus. She describes these rare wines as “elegant with a lingering finish,” which coincidentally, can be used to describe Lail herself.
There is no doubt that this Napa legacy will continue to enjoy the fruits of her labor at Lail Vineyards. Her mission, she says, is to “take the legacy of our family into the 21st century and to produce wines of legendary quality.” She recalls a priceless lesson from Robert Mondavi that she holds near and dear to her heart, and that is this: “Don’t forget to look back and see where you came from.”