Gustave Niebaum: Sea Captain and Winemaker

Wine trade has been a part of European civilization for millenniums. Winemaking is an involved process that requires land, time, and extensive market knowledge. Occasionally, other members of the trade decide to start making their own wine, like Gustave Niebaum. He was first a sailor but would later become one of the major vintners in early Napa Valley. His winery would survive his death along with Prohibition to march into the modern era.

Born Gustaf Ferdinand Nybom, Niebaum was born into a Swedish-speaking family in Helsinki, Finland, in 1842. Born into a port city with a long maritime tradition, Niebaum, whose father died at a young age, took to the sea. His first voyage took him to Alaska, which at the time, like Finland, was a part of the Russian Empire. He took to sea life well, eventually becoming captain of his own vessel.

Creating a Trading Firm

When Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867, Niebaum, who had changed his name to the German spelling widely known today, created a trading firm with several partners. This company traded seal skins and other goods from Alaska to California, creating trade links between the continental US and its new territory. This company would become the Alaska Commercial Company, a powerful player in the new territory.[1] Captain Niebaum would amass a small fortune by selling seal furs from Alaska in California.

Some of the earliest Napa Valley winegrowers were German immigrants as far back as the 1860s. Several of Niebaum’s employees pointed out the ideal nature of the Valley for wine growing, and, as he owned a shipping company, marketing the wine would be much easier. In 1879, Niebaum and his wife purchased 450 acres of Napa Valley land. While not the first vineyard in the Valley, it was still one of the early vineyards. Their vineyard was called Inglenook, near Rutherford, California.

Building a Vineyard

Niebaum desired to create a winery to rival Europe’s.[2] The first harvest occurred in 1882, allowing the vineyard time to grow and prepare for winemaking. Still, work was to be done, as the first 80,000 gallons were stored in a spare cellar behind Captain Niebaum’s home. The chateau or winemaking facilities would not be completed until 1887, and the wine had started to gain notoriety by then. The captain worked hard to ensure the quality of the wine and its bottling and storage care before purchase.

By 1889, the wine had gained international fame. While Captain Niebaum focused great effort on his vineyard, his work as a maritime merchant was not ignored, either, as they helped support each other quite well. By 1902, Niebaum, having long settled in California thanks to fortunes made on the sea, became president of the local branch of the Alaska Commercial Company.

Challenges

His success had pitfalls, of course, as mother nature and politics can always interfere with personal success. The local branch of the Alaska Commercial Company was destroyed during the 1806 Great San Francisco Earthquake. The Company survived, however, as it maintained several locations in Alaska and the United States, including Seattle, which would become the main office headquarters in later years. The Vineyard remained far enough to escape damages, but the next crisis would be much more difficult to weather.

The passage of Prohibition in 1920 hit Napa Valley hard, but Inglenook managed to survive. By then, though, Captain Niebaum had passed. He died in 1908 from heart disease. The vineyard closed for two years, but his wife reopened Inglenook. By the 1930s, the captain’s grand-nephew, John Daniel Jr., would oversee production, maintaining the same diligence and quality that had become a hallmark of the wine since Niebaum first started production.

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As for the Alaska Commercial Company, it still served remote northern settlements, though now under Canadian ownership. Though Niebaum focused on the vineyard he founded, he never strayed far from his roots on the sea. His roots allowed him to travel the world and market his wine internationally. Gustave Niebaum’s success spanned across the globe from a humble sailor to company president and vintner. Inglenook wine is still one of several high-quality wines available from Napa Valley.

Did You Know: Inglenook is currently owned by the Francis Ford Coppola family.

This Day in History:

August 30, 1842 –Gustave Niebaum is born. Though not the first to start a vineyard in Napa Valley, he would be the forerunner of a major winemaking movement. He also managed a successful career as a sailor across three continents.

March 30, 1867 – The sale of Alaska from Czarist Russia to the United States of America was ratified. The cost was $7.2 million. The remote American territory was sparsely settled and home to many First Nation peoples, who still maintain a large population in the state. The trade between Alaska and California would allow Niebaum to build his fortune.

August 5, 1908 – Niebaum died at the age of 66 from heart disease. His family would continue to operate Inglenook for several decades. Inglenook survives as a winery under different ownership.

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References:

[1]“Gustave Niebaum”, https://www.cypresslawnheritagefoundation.org/gustave-niebaum/.

[2]“Inglenook History”, https://www.inglenook.com/story/history.