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The Cabin Boy Who Became a Multimillionaire. Part Two of Two

K-G Olin

[Continued from Part One printed in SFHS Quarterly, Jan. 1998]

Took a German Name

In time Gustav Nybom began to call himself Gustave Niebaum. The reason he chose the German form of his name is not clear. Most of his partners were however German Jews, and after the change of name he was often taken to be one too. The German image was further strengthened when he married German-American Susan Shingleberger in 1873.

Niebaum planned to build a ship for himself in which the two of them would sail to distant parts of the earth. The problem was that Susan didn't share the old salt's warm feelings for the sea at all.

In the search for an area of interest in which they both could share, Niebaum's attention was directed to the vineyards of Napa Valley. In that fertile valley a few dozen kilometers north of San Francisco, wine had been very successfully marketed commercially since the 1860s. A couple of Niebaum's partners had already settled on vineyards.

When the Niebaum couple visited those vineyards, they were also taken with the beauty of the valley. After having carefully researched market conditions, Niebaum bought the Inglenook Winery in Rutherford in 1879.

Together with a number of adjacent plots which were also purchased, the farm consisted of 450 acres of California's finest grape-growing fields.

Niebaum's ambition was to raise the quality of California wines. He utilized his enormous wealth to import the best grapevines from Europe. He also succeeded in employing eminent experts in wine production.

The contacts with the European wine growers were made easier because Niebaum was a remarkable linguist. It has been reported that he had mastered no less than seven languages and, out of these, spoke five perfectly. Niebaum had a standing order with a book dealer in Frankfurt to obtain all old and new wine literature in whatever language it might be. Over the years he thus gathered a library containing 600 volumes. During trips to Europe on Alaska Commercial Company's (ACC) business, he would also acquaint himself with the production of wine, so foreign to him as a Finlander.

At this time the California wines had an especially poor reputation. Most of the wines were transported in barrels to the east coast of America. There the wines were taken in hand by unscrupulous businessmen who often blended them out in such a way that they gave the greatest profit in the short run. It might also happen that those bottles into which the wines were tapped had a false French label.

Naturally, Niebaum couldn't accept that kind of treatment for Inglenook's quality wines. Inglenook began to tap its wines in its own bottle, the first Californian vineyard to do so. Niebaum even forbid the Inglenook wines to be served other than out of the farm's bottles. He quickly perceived the need of some form of quality control over the California wines. For an extra tax, he got the authorities to officially certify that the bottles contained wine and nothing else. The Finlander's good economic position also made it possible for him to store wines for several years, something which at that time was unusual in California.

Niebaum also attempted to influence his Californian colleagues not to send out inferior wines onto the market but instead to use these for the production of brandy. His argument was that a load of poor wine from California could do more damage to the economy than two good loads could help.

It didn't take long before Niebaum began to harvest the successes from his investments in quality wines. At the 1889 World's Fair in Paris several of Inglenook's wines received prizes. Those honors would come to be followed by many more. Niebaum didn't see Inglenook as some isolated business activity. Wine production was his personal hobby. Despite the high costs of developing quality, the vineyard became an economic success. Niebaum's investment in quantity also contributed to that success. During the years 1884-1887 he had a large stone building constructed for the warehousing of the wine barrels. The building, which was a stately creation in half-Gothic style, held a warehouse's capacity of 112 million gallons. The building still exists today and, like all of Inglenook, it is open for tourists who stop by in order to get a free taste of the vineyard's wines.

In the large warehouse Niebaum designed an elegant tasting room shaped like a ship's cabin. The window with squares of colored leaded glass created in the 17th century in Holland gave a special warm charm to the room, which was decorated with antiques and art work from Europe. In the lovely tasting room, Niebaum often gathered his friends around him for happy parties.


Apparently Niebaum was gifted with a very welldeveloped intelligence in general and a mind for business in particular.

In private he was characterized by strikingly reserved behavior. For example, he never allowed any newspaper interviews. From his time in Alaska, a story was told about how an Englishman once came into a saloon and bragged high and low about having successfully explored one of Alaska's rivers, getting nearer the source than any other white man before him. After the Englishman was gone, Niebaum, who had calmly listened to the blustering, commented that the Englishman had certainly described the river in question accurately. Niebaum himself had gone up along it several years earlier. Besides that, he had gone more than 200 kilometers farther up along the river than the Englishman. As soon as the braggart had calmed down, he would hear about it.

During his period as a wine merchant in the Napa Valley, it was a common sight to see Niebaum himself participating in the daily work. It was said that Inglenook once had a visit from a stranger. The visitor ran into a sloppily-clad man, who he assumed was a foreman. The visitor asked the man to show him around the vineyard. The worker went along with it and gave the visitor a guided tour during which he gave detailed information about the unbelievably extensive work which had been invested in the farm. After the tour ended, the guest pressed a dollar into the hand of guide. When they were about to part, the guest asked who the jackass was who had done all this. "A foreigner by the name of Niebaum", answered the worker evasively. When the visitor rode away, he still had no idea that the sloppily-clad guide and the vineyard's jackass of an owner were one and the same person.

The investment in the vineyard in the Napa Valley kept Niebaum from spending as much time on ACC as earlier. But he made regular visits to the company's head offices at 310 Sansome Street in San Francisco. There he often spent the time together with business acquaintances, friends and the captains from the company's ships. During the long conversations which took place, they exchanged experiences from the journeys through the North. At this time Niebaum, together with Lewis Gerstle and Louis Sloss, completed the troika which directed the company. In time Niebaum extended his share of the stock in ACC, the profits from which made its owners multimillionaires. In the middle of the 1880s he himself used the title "general manager".

European House

When the Niebaum couple constructed a home for themselves at the Inglenook vineyard, they had no need to consider the costs. Material as well as craftsmen were brought over from Europe. The hallmark of the stately home was a gigantic veranda which went around the entire building.

The Niebaums never had any children of their own. When Susan's brother and his wife were lost to an epidemic, it was only natural that the Niebaums adopted the children of the dead couple.

Niebaum's days ended in San Francisco August 5, 1908. In the beginning of the same year, he had stepped into the position as president of the Alaska Commercial Company. Upon his death he belonged to the group of America's richest men. He had then realized the American dream. As a cabin boy he had come to Alaska, recognized the opportunity, and in the crucial moment bet everything on one card. He had won the hand and made the most of his talents.

The estate he left at his death went first to his widow, Susan Niebaum. After her passing in 1936, the house and vineyard went to the children of their adopted daughter. They took care of the vineyard and developed it still further up until 1964. Niebaum's stately home was purchased in 1975 by the world famous film director Francis Ford Coppola. A small portion of the old vineyard went with it, but not Inglenook itself.

The Coppolas today produce a high-quality wine at the farm which is sold under the brand name of Niebaum/Coppola.

On the wine label you can admire Niebaum's stately home. The annual production at the vineyard is approximately 5,000 cases. The wine is even exported to Finland.

Inglenook itself was purehased in 1964 by United Vintners. The company was bought out in turn by Alcoholic Beverages of Heiblein, Inc. in 1969, one of the world's largest producers of alcoholic beverages. Inglenook has replied to Coppola's brand competition by beginning to create a wine series which goes by the name of "The Gustave Niebaum Collection."

The Alaska Commercial Company languished in the beginning of the 1900s. In 1942 activity ceased completely. The proud old name of Alaska Commercial Company has however recently re-emerged as the name of a chain of retail stores which continues business in a number of smaller towns in Alaska.

K-G Olin, SFHS member, well-known writer and historian, is a frequent contributor to our Quarterly. Translated by Syrene Forsman.

Published by The Swedish Finn Historical Society Quarterly, Volume 7, No.2, April 1998

© K-G Olin

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