The Godfather's Wine Advice
Writer Jason Adams gave his mom a bottle of Francis Ford Coppola's most famous wine in 1995, but she died without ever opening it. Sixteen years later, he visits Coppola in Napa looking for closure, and the director tells him just what to do.
Shortly after my mom died, I found myself standing with my father in the basement of my childhood home. He was prepping the house to be sold and had been working for weeks to pack up 30 years of housewares, board games and family memories. It was now just a matter of a few last details.
He reached up to a spot near the ceiling, just above the cool water pipes, and gently pulled down the bottle of wine I'd sent my mom as a gift the last Christmas she was alive. It was the year, fresh out of college, that I'd relocated from my hometown of Chicago to San Francisco. Young and broke, I decided to stay in California for the holiday, and I used what meager funds I had to send a present back to my mom. Something to assuage her considerable worries about my living 2,000 miles away; something to let her know, even if it wasn't entirely true, that I was fitting in well out west and everything was all right.
There was a wine store on Market Street, across from my $10-an-hour temp job. At the time, my knowledge topped out around Almaden Mountain Chablis and the Vendange wines my father liked, but the shop seemed like as good a place as any to browse. It was, after all, next door to the post office.
Not really knowing what I was looking for, I spotted something that seemed evocative of my new Bay Area home, a bottle of wine carrying a familiar, famous name well associated with this part of the country. It was a 1988 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon—a hearty red blend from the estate of Francis Ford Coppola, the giant personality of a director behind the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now, the latter a well-worn VHS tape in our household when I was growing up. The bottle was $20; that was within even my minimal budget.
What I didn't know as I sent off the cylindrical mailer was what I would find out just after my mom received it: She would soon be having surgery to replace half of her jaw, which had been ravaged by a cancerous tumor. She said we'd share the bottle of wine to celebrate after she recovered, but the cancer spread, and six months later, I was with my father and four siblings in our home, watching her take her last breaths. It was (and remains to this day) the most devastating event of my life.
"Your mom would have wanted you to have this," my dad said as he handed me the bottle. I would have wanted to have it too, I thought, if only it could have been with my mother.
For the following decade, as I moved from San Francisco to New York, from apartment to apartment, that bottle of wine became something of a totem for me, a physical reminder of my mother. I placed a larger and larger importance on it, its emotional value rising with its market value. A relative bargain at the time I'd bought it, I would later see it priced at $100 or more. But I certainly wasn't going to sell it, and I couldn't bear to drink it, so what was I supposed to do with it? The wine became something of a silent obsession. It was as if my Catholic upbringing had kicked in, asking me to sanctify this almost religious artifact with ritual and spirituality, a sense of higher purpose. Finally, the answer of what to do, what I could do with the wine, came into focus. It was a romantic notion, a sort of daydream (and maybe a slight mania): I could return the bottle from whence it came. I would make a pilgrimage with it. I would return the wine to Francis Ford Coppola.
Now, there are various ways to go about something like this, and many of them will land you in jail. Being an editor at a large entertainment magazine, I'm a little soft to be doing hard time, but my job does make it easy enough to place a proper, if somewhat self-indulgent, interview request. Coppola's schedule was jam-packed with obligations at his winery in Sonoma County and shooting a film in and around Napa, but eventually I was told that he'd be free for a short time, more or less right away. I booked myself on the next plane.
And so, on a bright, balmy day, I met Coppola on the wraparound porch of his Napa estate's old yellow mansion. He wore tinted glasses and a maroon shirt, every bit the bear-like figure I'd seen in photos over the years. A smudge of red stained the shoulder of his tan jacket. Fake blood from the shoot, which he'd wrapped only hours ago? He said it was his own blood. It wasn't clear whether he was joking.
We sat down on the white wicker furniture, and I began with some nervous small talk. I told Coppola I had been out to his new winery the day before, and had eaten lunch at the restaurant, Rustic. "They served me about 23 dishes," I continued, being only slightly hyperbolic. I'd told the waiter to bring me whatever it was I'd need to eat in order not to be embarrassed when I met Francis Ford Coppola. This had resulted in an array of olives, pettoles, a Cho Cho salad, crisp chicken al mattone (cooked under an iron weight with garlic and paprika), a rack of lamb and a panna cotta in a Zinfandel reduction with berries.
"Wow, you didn't gain any weight," he said.
"I'm hiding it under my jacket," I joked.
At that point, conversation stalled. I decided, still not fully believing where I was, that I better get around to the matter that had brought me here. I told Coppola I'd read that he'd once said he planned for his Rubicon wines to last for 100 years. "I think they can," he said in a gravelly voice. "A hundred years is not that big a deal. I've had Château Margaux 1779. That was wonderful."
I reached into my shoulder bag and pulled out the bottle of '88 Rubicon. I explained its sentimental value. He reached out, and I handed him the bottle. He studied it in his meaty paws, turning it over to look at both the front and back labels.
"It's not a particularly noteworthy year," Coppola said. My heart sank a little. "And you can see from the back," he added, pointing to the map printed on the label, "that the vineyards were much less extensive in those days."
Not a particularly noteworthy year? This wasn't exactly the Hollywood ending I'd been hoping for. Coppola was supposed to tell me that my mother's wine was this rare and extraordinary thing, the irreplaceable artifact I'd built it up to be. Maybe I could just grab the wine back and sneak out of here, I thought. Pretend this never happened. It was all starting to feel wrong.
But there I was. So, sticking to the plan, the mission, I timidly asked him if he'd care to share it with me.
"Not really," he replied. "I'm not in a moment to drink wine. I'd just get sleepy." (To be fair, it was just before noon.)
Right then, I felt a kind of relief. I realized that it's possible to push things to a certain point—after all, here I was sitting on Francis Ford Coppola's porch talking to him about a bottle of wine I'd bought for my mom 16 years ago—but you can't force someone to feel sentimental about something. Especially, I thought, the guy responsible for Vito Corleone's famous line, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." What I'd done was make Coppola an offer he could refuse. And he did.
"You should drink it," he said. "You shouldn't carry a bottle of wine around." Then he added what I already knew myself: "Drink it with your family. You'll find an occasion, I'm sure."
It wasn't a religious experience, but in the end, Francis Ford Coppola did send me off with what I'd been hoping for, which was insight—and my cherished bottle of wine.
On the flight home, I thought about the perfect situation to open it. I would celebrate my mother, I decided, and enlist the help of those who knew and loved her as I did.
I talked about it with my younger sister and older brother, and a few days later, my brother emailed a suggestion: "What if we made a feast from those Woman's Day cookbooks that Mom always used? And served the wine at it?"
"It could be a best-of-her-recipes dinner," my sister agreed. "All the things we loved."
And as if on cue, our oldest sister, who lives in Los Angeles, said she was coming to New York City to visit. And our sister in Chicago—there are a lot of us—said, what the hell, she'd come out, too. All five kids together: the perfect occasion for our Mom Dinner.
A week later, my brother pulled mushrooms stuffed with parsley, garlic and Parmesan from the oven and my younger sister browned fillets for steak Diane—both dishes my mom always reserved for special occasions, like a birthday or recovering from the flu. I uncorked the wine. Or tried to.
My corkscrew went in smoothly and came out again, just as smoothly—without the cork. I stood there, baffled for a moment. Then I pushed the cork into the bottle and strained the wine into a decanter. It smelled faintly of port, a much better smell than the vinegar stench I'd half expected (my brother had some salad greens on hand, just in case).
We all sat down to dinner, and I poured the wine. Miraculously, it wasn't corked. It also wasn't half bad. It had opened up in the decanter, though the fruit had faded a bit. It tasted like a modest Bordeaux.
Maybe 1988 wasn't a particularly notable year, as Coppola had told me, but that hardly mattered. Over steak Diane and stuffed mushrooms, this bottle of Rubicon was magical. It did something that hadn't been possible for 15 years: It brought my family together to create a new memory of our mother.
Jason Adams is a top editor at Entertainment Weekly magazine and lives in New York City.