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Coppola: The Great Wine Auteur

Movie director Francis Ford Coppola is also Napa Valley’s most famous vintner. Lettie Teague learns about the wines that inspire him.

The napa valley is full of men in search of fame. Men who have spent tens of millions of dollars to be immortalized on a bottle of wine. And yet Napa Valley’s most famous resident, Francis Ford Coppola, actually took his name off his label several months back, turning Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery into Rubicon Estate. The Coppola name, however, isn’t gone entirely; around the same time, he bought the old Chateau Souverain winery and moved all the Coppola brand wines there—making him Sonoma County’s most famous vintner instead.

Hoping to hear more about such developments and get some more details about Coppola’s other impending projects (movies, restaurants and resorts), I flew to California for a chat with the famously press-shy movie director.

Coppola has lived in Napa Valley for more than 30 years; it’s been his home between buying trips to Italy, movie-making in locations like Romania and forays to his resorts in Belize. As Coppola explained to me, his original intention was to find a "nice little summer house" in the valley where he could make some wine for family and friends. Instead, in 1975 he bought one of the most historically significant properties in California, Inglenook, which he renamed Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, in honor of Inglenook’s founder Gustave Niebaum.

Coppola and I were sitting across from one another on the front porch of his Napa Valley house as he delivered a short history of his estate. And I was trying hard not to stare at his socks, which were two different colors. Coppola, a generously proportioned, generously bearded man, was wearing shorts, so his socks were clearly visible. I decided not to comment on the mismatch, lest it was only a sartorial oversight, or worse, a test, of the sort that Jay Shoemaker, Coppola’s CEO, had told me Coppola might employ. According to Shoemaker, "If Francis thinks you are an intelligent person, he will probably throw six or seven ideas at you. He’s always coming up with ideas. And the ones you don’t like are the ones he will know are good ideas." (Meaning that an idea a less visionary person such as myself might consider outlandish or impossible, Coppola would be determined to make a success?)

Could Shoemaker give me an example? There were so many to choose from, he replied. Francis was "an idea machine." And while many of his ideas had actually come to fruition (e.g., the new winery, the resorts) many had not. For example, Francis had once had the idea to create a fleet of taxis driven only by professors. The taxis would be VW Bugs, the classic car of the impoverished intellectual elite. What had happened? I asked. I actually liked the idea—which I guessed, according to an inverse of the Coppola philosophy, would mean that he had not.

In fact, said Shoemaker, Francis had realized he didn’t really want to be in the taxi business after all. He was happy enough with his other businesses. Certainly they were enough to keep him busy right now, with the new Sonoma winery and the reconfiguration of the Rubicon Estate. Then there are the resorts and the food business (Coppola pastas and sauces) and other new enterprises such as the restaurant in Tokyo due to open next spring and a palazzo Coppola bought in his ancestral home of Basilicata, in southern Italy, which he plans to turn into a boutique hotel. In other words, Coppola has plenty to do. Even so, he is always in an acquisitional frame of mind. Or as he himself said to me later, everything to him was a buying trip because "It’s the sex of life."

But half an hour into our allotted two hours, Coppola (a remarkably affable sort of world-famous film director) still hadn’t said a word about taxis, nor had he asked my opinion about any new schemes. Instead, he was focused on explaining why he’ d abandoned the Niebaum-Coppola name and moved almost all his winemaking facilities, save those for Rubicon and a few other wines, to the Souverain space in Sonoma. He’s also moving all the movie memorabilia and most of the tasting room paraphernalia to the Sonoma location too, leaving behind a much smaller and much more predictable selection of merchandise—no piano music, no toys—at the Rubicon Estate. This seemed a shame, as Niebaum-Coppola had some of the best and most creative merchandise of any winery in Napa Valley. It wasn’t unusual to see employees of other wineries shopping there for Christmas and birthday presents.

"We had great success from the start, almost by accident," Coppola said about Niebaum-Coppola. When he bought the estate, his original intention was to make only a small amount of wine there. In 1978 he began making Rubicon, a refined, Bordeaux-inspired blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot (now more than $100 a bottle) that soon became a collector’s wine. But by the mid- to late 1990s, Coppola was also producing a great deal of inexpensive wine in addition to Rubicon. Coppola Rosso and Bianco wines debuted, beginning with the 1995 vintage, followed by Zinfandel and Chardonnay and the ever-popular Coppola Black Label Claret—all made from purchased fruit, all under $20 a bottle. The company also introduced several new superpremium wines made with grapes grown on the 1,700-acre estate—Edizione Pennino Zinfandel, RC Reserve Syrah (named for Coppola’s son Roman), Cabernet Franc and a white Rhône blend, Blancaneaux, that shares its name with the Coppola resort in Belize. Just a few years ago Coppola launched Sofia Rosé, named after his daughter. And while the company shies away from exact figures, Coppola says that the total wine production is "a lot."

Too much, in fact. And the Coppola series of inexpensive wines threatened to overshadow the flagship, Rubicon. As Coppola put it, "Someone said to me, ’ I had your wine,’ and they were talking about the Black Label Claret, an $18 wine, not Rubicon." It sounded to me a lot like what had happened to the Mondavi brand. Robert Mondavi once made some very good wines, Cabernets that helped put Napa on the map, but the company allowed inexpensive, commercial wines like Woodbridge and La Famiglia to dominate and ultimately detract from the prestige of the Mondavi brand.

There was a lesson to be learned from the Mondavis, Coppola agreed. Moreover, Niebaum-Coppola winery, only a half-mile or so from his house, had become uncomfortably overrun. Said Coppola, a little disgruntled, "There were so many people there on a weekend, it was a real mob scene. And although we showed artifacts of the history of the estate, the Coppola memorabilia, people just wanted to see ’t he Godfather estate.’  " By removing all the Coppola-labeled wines—none of which were even made at the winery—he hoped to put the emphasis back on the estate and its history. As Coppola said, "Rubicon is Inglenook." And he wanted to keep the connection pure.

Coppola offered, "If I go next week, which I may do, and buy Château Margaux, I’m not going to change it to Château Coppola Margaux. I’ d be an idiot. If I was able to buy a great thing like that I’ d be proud to own it." In fact, Coppola would have gladly changed the name of his winery back to Inglenook if he’ d been allowed. (He petitioned Inglenook’s corporate owners; they said no.) But the estate had a history of greatness. Did I know that the 1941 Inglenook Cabernet was considered one of the greatest wines of the world? I did not. I have a bottle of it on top of my refrigerator, Coppola said, and went inside to retrieve it. The top of a refrigerator seemed like an odd place to store a legendary wine. But as I was both relieved and disappointed to see, the bottle Coppola brought back was empty. He’ d bought the wine at auction for $24,675 several months ago and drank it with friends. It was one of the best wines he’ d ever had.

What of his own wine? Did he consider Rubicon to be great, too? Rubicon, after all, had its own lengthy history, at least by Napa standards. And I’ d had some vintages of it that were very, very good. (The 2001 was particularly deep, rich and substantial.) Rubicon was one of the very first Bordeaux-style wines made in Napa, preceded most famously by Joseph Phelps Insignia (1974). Coppola hedged a bit with his answer. "If I came here and wanted to make one of the greatest wines in the world, it would only be because Inglenook had done it here before," he said. Besides, it was the estate that could produce greatness, not him. But, I protested, certainly Coppola was better able to judge greatness than most. After all, he had made many great movies, including one that my friend Peter Travers, the film critic for Rolling Stone, has declared the greatest movie ever made in America (The Godfather), better even than Citizen Kane.

Peter is a big fan of both Coppola and his work; the two men recently had lunch together when Coppola was in New York City. One of the highlights of their several-hour meal, according to Peter, was when Coppola broke into the song "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," from his 1968 movie Finian’s Rainbow. (The movie, starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, was pretty much a flop.) Incidentally, Peter noted, Coppola sang quite well. "Maybe you can get him to sing to you, too," Peter suggested when I told him that Coppola and I would be meeting in Napa Valley. Sitting across from Coppola on his porch, that prospect seemed unlikely—especially since Coppola had yet to ask my opinion on a single idea.

Instead, he warmed to the topic of greatness. "To be great, a wine has to have its own personality, individuality," Coppola opined. "It’s like greatness in a person. There are qualities that you find in a person that make them unique. Now, obviously, you could have a terrible wine that would be unique, but I think a great wine goes beyond pleasure and gets into levels of complexity. It’s like a film that has so many levels of meaning you can go back and see it again and again. It’s not a simple story."

And though Coppola believed a great wine required a great terroir, it wasn’t a concept he thought was limited to wine. It could be found in people and even in film. For example, in his daughter Sofia’s work. "My daughter’s filmmaking has terroir," he said, "When she makes a film there is only one person who could have made that film. A lot of people can make a movie. Ten other directors could have done a good job. And then every once in a while there’s a director whose work is something you can’t find anywhere else. That would be terroir: a uniqueness rooted in the origins of the thing."

Was it easier to make wine than movies? I asked. For example, most people might consider the vine louse phylloxera a lot easier to deal with than, say, a year in the jungles of the Philippines, where Coppola shot Apocalypse Now and famously remarked that during the filming "Little by little, we went insane." But to Coppola, making wine and movies was exactly the same. (Both were capable of driving people insane?) They were, to Coppola, both a form of show business, of theater. "Wine is so much more than a beverage. It’s a romance, a story, a drama—all of those things that are basically putting on a show," he said.

Moreover, wine had become a topic of conversation in the larger world in the same way that movies were in the 1970s. "Years ago, when you went out with a girl you used to talk about what movies you saw," said Coppola. "Now you talk about what wine you drink. We’ re at a heightened state of interest in wine in this country. Wine has even become a prop in a movie, like cigarettes were in the ’ 40s. A girl could flirt holding a cigarette. Now they don’t like cigarettes in movies but wine is a great prop."

What about the movie Sideways? I asked. That had to be the greatest wine-as-prop movie of all. No movie had ever gotten more mileage out of a bottle of Pinot Noir. Coppola didn’t have a problem with that. In fact he liked the movie, which he declared charming. "It really elevated the way people have made wine a passionate part of their lives," he said. He had even tried unsuccessfully to get his company to finance the film.

At the time he’ d been pursuing another film, which he later dropped to make a smaller movie, Youth Without Youth, due out next year. An exploration of the meaning of consciousness, it’s based on a short story by the Romanian writer Mircea Eliade that Coppola discovered through a friend, a Sanskrit scholar. "I found the story while I was working on a larger, more ambitious project that I wasn’t able to do to my satisfaction," he said. The bigger project would have cost a lot of money, so much that Coppola would have had to seek outside funding. And it wasn’t the sort of picture that was an easy sell. "Hollywood is only focused on formula movies that the public is sure to like," pronounced Coppola, repeating the last three words in disbelief. Certainly there has been nothing in Coppola’s own risk-taking history that could be described as such. (His list of noble failures is nearly as long as his successes.)

The Romanian movie meant that Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, spent almost a year in that country. (Eleanor accompanies her husband on nearly every movie location and makes documentaries about his films.) They endured a few privations, including a particularly harsh winter, but Coppola also discovered some decent Romanian wine, made from the grape Feteasca Neagra. "It’s a star red grape of Romania. It’s like Negroamaro, the grape of southern Italy," he said. Though it’s a bit rustic, "it has some richness to it," Coppola said. In fact, he thought Romania had a lot of promise as a winemaking country. "After all, it’s the home of Bacchus," he noted. Did that mean the famously acquisition-minded Coppola was considering investing in a Romanian vineyard?

"I don’t want to buy anything else," he replied. Never mind that he’ d said that (many) times before. This time was different, Coppola protested, because he had too many projects at hand. The new winery in Sonoma County was much on his mind, though he wouldn’t say much about it—or even share its new name. "But it will be a completely different kind of experience—different from any other winery," he promised. "People will want to spend the day there with their families."

The Sonoma winery will also be a place where he can experiment with different kinds of wines and packaging. Like Rosso-to-Go: red wine in a glass that Coppola hopes to sell at the Sonoma winery as well as in ballparks, stadiums and grocery stores nationwide. "I can show you the prototype," Coppola offered, and went into the kitchen once again, returning with an outsize plastic wineglass with a paper lid. He set it on the porch table next to the 1941 Inglenook; a perfect illustration of Coppola’s two worlds.

"It’s a bistro glass, a very nice glass," said Coppola proudly, looking at the Rosso-to-Go with seemingly as much delight as he had the 1941 Inglenook. "And I think people will save it, because it’s such a heavy glass." While the idea of wine in a to-go glass had been Coppola’s , he conceded that "It took a lot of engineers to figure out how to make it. It should be ready in a few months."

But beyond such innovations, beyond the new winery, the new restaurant in Tokyo and the new hotel in Italy, Coppola was also thinking about his next movie, which he said would be "very personal" —more personal than any other movie he’ d ever made. "I’m going into my Tennessee Williams period," he said.

It wasn’t , by any chance, a movie about wine? I asked. Coppola shook his head. His movie was more personal. But wasn’t his life about wine? And besides, I pressed, who better than Coppola to make the world’s first truly great movie about wine? There hadn’t been one as yet. Sideways was charming, as he’ d said, but it wasn’t a movie about wine—it was really a buddy picture, framed by wine. I even had an idea for the movie I thought Coppola should make: the story of the Mondavis. Their story had everything: three generations of achievement, discord and, ultimately, dissolution.

Everyone always has an idea for a movie I should make, Coppola sighed. But that wasn’t the way to make a movie. Or at least the way he makes movies. If you have to live with a movie for years and years before it is made, it has to be something deeply personal, something you really care about, "especially since you begin to hate it after working on it six months straight anyway."

What else? Ask me something else, Coppola instructed. Well, there was one other thing, I ventured. I’d heard he had a very nice singing voice. Really? Coppola replied. And what did I want to hear him sing? What about something from Finian’s Rainbow? I replied. I hear you do songs from that movie very well. Coppola genially obliged:

On the day I was born
Said my father, said he,
I’ ve an elegant legacy
Waitin’ for ye
’t is a rhyme for your lip
And a song for your heart
To sing it whenever the world falls apart
Look, look, look to the rainbow…

Coppola sang with feeling and warmth. And though he stopped there he might well have continued, for the chorus was the perfect coda for Coppola’s own life: "Follow the fellow who follows a dream."

Comments? E-mail Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published November 2006
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