A Filmmaker's Smash Second Act

During his three-decade parallel career as a vintner, Francis Ford Coppola has made his historic Napa estate into one of the world's great wine châteaux.

Cole Porter, America's peerless poet of the luxe life, wrote a funny lyric celebrating the pleasures of far-flung real-estate ownership, circa 1916: "I've a shooting box in Scotland, / I've a château in Touraine, / I've a silly little chalet / In the Interlaken Valley, / I've a hacienda in Spain...." Were he alive today, Porter might well add a line that would bring his list of prestige properties right up to date: "I've a winery in Napa." For although Napa Valley has been America's premier winemaking region since the California Gold Rush, recent decades have seen its stratospherically priced agricultural land become an irresistible trophy for international speculators.

Jet-setting oenological consultants, absentee landlords, and wineries that come alive only at harvest time are now common phenomena in Napa. And though the valley does have a few homegrown wine stars—especially its pioneering patriarch Robert Mondavi—few doubt that the influx of dilettante newcomers has irrevocably changed the spirit of the place. A glorious exception to the rule is, paradoxically, also Napa Valley's biggest celebrity vintner: Francis Ford Coppola, director of such classics as the Godfather saga and Apocalypse Now, and his personal favorite, The Conversation. Through the same perfectionism that he brings to his cinematic efforts, Coppola has mastered the art of winemaking as successfully as he conquered motion pictures.

Coppola has been described by Al Ruddy, producer of the original Godfather, as "a man of enormous appetites," and that is clear as he sits in his office bungalow on the Niebaum-Coppola estate in Rutherford and talks with gusto about the pleasure wine has brought him since childhood. "When I was growing up after World War II we always had wine with dinner," recalls the gray-bearded 65-year-old, who is dressed in an immaculate pale-gray suit and a paler gray linen shirt monogrammed FFC, which sets off perfectly the thin red cordon of the Légion d'Honneur sewn into his lapel buttonhole.

"Even the kids drank it, a little bit mixed with ginger ale or lemon soda," Coppola continues. "My uncle Mikey would make it in his basement in Brooklyn, collecting fifty bucks each from relatives and friends, buying a carload of grapes from some paisan, and then dividing the wine up. This was just a few years after Prohibition, and the stories were always so exciting and funny—who got pushed or fell into the vat—it was all part of life."

It wasn't until Coppola went to Paris in 1965 to help write the screenplay for director René Clément's Is Paris Burning? that he was introduced to fine wines by his connoisseur-collaborator, Gore Vidal. Though Coppola had never experienced high-quality wine, he remembers that "I could immediately tell that those Bordeaux and Burgundies were great." His oenological education took a quantum leap forward several years later when he hung out with his friend Bill Cosby, who was performing at a Lake Tahoe resort. Though Cosby doesn't drink, he ordered the most expensive labels from the extensive wine list. Coppola sampled them all, and from then on there was no looking back.

In 1975, flush with the proceeds from The Godfather, Part II, Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, bought just under 1,600 acres of the venerable (but by then disassembled and degraded) Inglenook wine estate for about $2.5 million. "To me, wine is part of family," he explains, "and I always wanted to make my own." Coppola rechristened the winery Niebaum-Coppola to honor both his own creative clan and an early owner of the property, Gustave Niebaum.

The Coppolas, who were then living in San Francisco's Pacific Heights, initially thought of the estate as their private retreat. But soon they made Rutherford their principal home, moving into Niebaum's Victorian mansion, sending their three children to local public schools, spending the major holidays there, and becoming an integral part of the community (though there were long absences during the torturous filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines). "Francis isn't somebody sitting in a boardroom who owns some Bordeaux château and shows up and has a party once a year," says a friend. "He knows the vineyard workers' kids because he's there. There's a real sense of connection with the land and the people who work it."

Over the intervening decades, the Coppolas have patiently reassembled and expanded the former Inglenook holdings, a costly labor of love that has taken the historic property back to its glory days. In 1995, twenty years after their initial purchase, the Coppolas acquired the remainder of the original estate for more than $10 million (this time thanks to Coppola's hit horror movie, Bram Stoker's Dracula). Most recently, in 2002, they bought 165 acres of adjoining land formerly owned by J.J. Cohn, a veteran Hollywood producer, for $31.5 million, thereby increasing the Niebaum-Coppola estate to 260 cultivated acres.

Coppola hasn't been content just to reunite Inglenook. Rather, he has transformed the oldest original vineyard at the epicenter of Napa's prime Cabernet territory, returning production to the massive château building, which was completed in 1889, and consistently turning out what I believe to be the finest of all New World reds, Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon. It was named by Coppola (a Roman-history buff who keeps all 498 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library in his office) for the stream in central Italy that Julius Caesar crossed as a proverbial river of no return when launching a civil war in 49 B.C., symbolic of the go-for-broke spirit of the winery's current owners.

This powerful, deep ruby colored Meritage blend is predominantly Cabernet, with single-digit percentages of Merlot and Cabernet Franc (the exact proportions vary from vintage to vintage) to underscore Rubicon's hallmark notes of ripe black cherries and fragrant violets.

Rubicon is a big, muscular wine of great depth and concentration, intriguing complexity, and lingering finish, but it is also subtle, the stylistic opposite of the vulgar fruit bombs concocted elsewhere in Napa these days. In contrast, Rubicon displays exceptional finesse despite its impressive size—think of an action-movie hero who can morph between gasp-inducing acrobatics and the nimble grace of a Fred Astaire.

But when growing conditions do not support the high standard that Coppola and his brilliant 41-year-old winemaker, Scott McLeod (a younger, handsomer Dick Gephardt look-alike) demand for Rubicon, forget it. One such off-year was the brutally hot 1998, when temperatures in Rutherford spiked to a withering 113 degrees at the same time that McLeod was converting the estate to organic farming, which made the vines more vulnerable. That fall, he realized that the finished product could not measure up to Rubicon's previous quality, and with trepidation approached Coppola with the bad news. To the winemaker's surprise and relief, his boss unhesitatingly agreed that having no Rubicon at all was preferable to having an inferior vintage, and thus none was made.

Robert M. Parker Jr., the most powerful critic in the business, has rated the 1999 Rubicon at 93 (out of a possible 100) and the 2000 at 90. But eyebrows raised when the sixth edition of his encyclopedic Wine Buyer's Guide was published in 2002 with no entry for Niebaum-Coppola, though far smaller Napa operations were listed. The only reference to Rubicon comes in a single, slighting sentence dubiously lumping it together with so-called California cult wines, collector's items made in tiny productions far smaller than Rubicon's and released at much higher prices. Neither Parker nor Coppola will comment on that startling omission, which seems to point to a froideur between two outsized egos, though favorable reviews of a number of Niebaum-Coppola wines can be found on Parker's subscription-only Web site.

Rubicon's counterpart as the estate's flagship white is Blancaneaux, a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne grapes picked throughout September and October in that order, as each varietal reaches its respective maturity. There is a full array of other commendable Niebaum-Coppola estate wines. Cask Cabernet, with its unique label printed on a round sliver of wood veneer, presents Rutherford's signature grape in an unblended homage to Inglenook's celebrated 100percent Cabernet Sauvignon, which was similarly aged in huge oak containers. In years when a bumper crop of Rubicon-quality Cabernet is harvested, the extra grapes go into Cask Cabernet, making it a relative bargain at two-thirds the price of Rubicon. (The '97 Rubicon, considered by some to be the best one yet—and the mere mention of which can make Scott McLeod's eyes brim with tears—costs around $125; the '97 Cask Cabernet goes for about $80.)

On the next tier, estate-bottled Niebaum-Coppola Cabernet Franc and Merlot, aged in small French oak barrels, provide intensely flavored wines for prices in the mid-double digits. Edizione Pennino Zinfandel—named for the music-publishing company of Coppola's maternal grandfather and namesake, Francesco Pennino—is a particularly elegant Zinfandel. When consultants urged Coppola to rip out those less prestigious vines and convert the acreage to Cab because Zin could never support as high a markup, he told them he'd keep the grapes and happily drink the wine himself if need be.

Then there are recent additions to the N-C wine family named for the Coppolas' two surviving children (their eldest son, Gian-Carlo, called Gio, died tragically in a boating accident in 1986 at the age of 22). Making good on his longtime promise to create a sparkling wine for his daughter (director of Lost in Translation), Coppola launched Sofia Blanc de Blancs, a prosecco-style white. It was first served at her big Italian wedding, in Rutherford in 1999, to Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich. Alas, the pair, dubbed "the first couple of indie film," split late last year, but this festive wine, at least, has kept its effervescence.

As the Coppolas' second son, Roman, began contemplating his fortieth birthday in 2005, he expressed interest in helping to create a special wine to be poured at his big party and beyond. Thus RC Reserve, the first Niebaum-Coppola estate Syrah, was born. As his sister did with the packaging of her namesake wine, Roman Coppola designed the label for his, with bold initials playfully accented by a tiny trompe l'oeil bug.

Finally, the broad base of the operation's price pyramid is supported by the reliable and highly profitable Francis Coppola Diamond Series of Chardonnay, Claret, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel, all in the $15 range and made with purchased grapes and sometimes blended with excess fruit from the estate. In addition, the mass-market Coppola Rosso and Coppola Bianco table wines, which go for about $10, are the equivalents of the red and white Mouton Cadets that likewise subsidize the high end of Château Mouton Rothschild's estate wines. In that niche is also Talia Rose, a rosé named for the director's actress sister, Talia Shire, a two-time Oscar nominee. All told, these big-production Coppolas account for a quarter-million cases a year, and their role in his larger economic scheme of things cannot be overestimated.

For all of Francis Coppola's viticultural professionalism, his famous name has been an unquestionable factor in his marketing strategy. "The wine industry in California alone is a thousand producers—it's a highly competitive environment," explains Erle Martin, president of the Niebaum-Coppola Estate Vineyards & Winery. "Mr. Jones walks into a Safeway, Costco, or Trader Joe's and is confronted with all these choices. The average consumer is looking for some level of emotional connection and sees Coppola's name and says, 'I can trust him.' There is a halo effect about him as an artisan."

But mining the celebrity factor only works up to a point. As Martin continues, "Scott McLeod always says, 'Francis sells the first bottle, but I've got to sell every bottle after that.'" It's the consistent follow-through that has made the operation, at every price point, such a success. "When I started out," the multitasking Coppola says with a smile, "the films supported the winery. Now it's the other way around. My financial advisers used to tell me to get rid of the winery; now they tell me to get rid of the films."

The winery's other namesake, Gustave Niebaum, was a Finnish-born sea captain who got rich in the Alaska trade, loved fine wines, and intuited the extraordinary potential that this particular portion of Napa possessed for producing wine that could rival the premier grand cru classé Bordeaux. In 1880 the farsighted Niebaum bought the fledgling Inglenook wine estate for a hefty $48,000. He got his money's worth, for the site is a climatic and geological wonder, set at the base of Mt. St. John, an extinct volcano in the Mayacamas Range, which separates Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley to the west.

The mountains shelter the land to the east from cool ocean air currents and fog, and shade the vineyards at their base from the harshest effects of the afternoon sun. Rich alluvial soils from the summit of Mt. St. John wash down to the valley floor via Bear Creek, a stream that winds through the property and spreads the sediment in fanlike deposits that continually replenish the so-called Rutherford Dust. That mineral-laden red soil is the secret to the site's success and the source of the unique goût de terroir that makes Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon instantly recognizable to connoisseurs.

Niebaum imported the finest rootstock from Europe, and the hardy direct descendant of his prime Cabernet vines has been patented as Clone 29, the foundation of the estate's enduring heritage. He cleverly marketed his wines as credible alternatives to Continental varietals and helpfully labeled his offerings with the names of their counterparts—

"Claret, Médoc type," or "Riesling, German type." But as excellent as his offerings were, Inglenook languished after Niebaum's death in 1908 and, like the rest of the valley, it took a huge hit when Prohibition began a decade later. The matchless grapes of Inglenook were sold to make communion wine for the Catholic Church.

After Prohibition's repeal, Niebaum's exacting great-nephew, John Daniel Jr., inherited Inglenook, and over the ensuing two decades elevated it to one of America's most distinguished wine estates, rivaled perhaps only by the neighboring Beaulieu Vineyards. Experts still speak of the 1941 Inglenook Cabernet with a reverence bordering on idolatry. Inglenook wines were proudly served at White House dinners, even during the Kennedy administration, when Jackie favored the top French Bordeaux and Burgundies.

But then Inglenook's high standards began to slip. In 1964, after years of financial difficulties and conflicts with his wife, a Mormon who disapproved of winemaking on religious principle, Daniel sold off the major front portion of the estate to the United Vintners marketing group, which in turn traded it to the wine-and-spirits giant Heublein. From there it was downhill all the way, and a once sterling reputation was run into the ground. Winemaking was suspended at the historic château and moved to a larger facility elsewhere in the valley, where there was less quality control. Worse, the Inglenook name was bestowed on generic jug wine, debasing one of the most honored upmarket brands in the business. This was Inglenook's condition at the time of its 1975 acquisition by Coppola.

During his first decade of ownership, the artist in Coppola saved him from one viticultural disaster. In the 1980s, the University of California at Davis was promoting the planting of AXR rootstock, a clone that later turned out to be susceptible to the dreaded root pest phylloxera, which wreaked havoc on the Napa wine industry. Niebaum-Coppola was set to introduce the new plants, when the proprietor drove by and spotted the AXR aluminum grape stakes, which offended his aesthetic sensibilities and violated his preference for the traditional wood stakes Niebaum had used. "I don't want the aluminum grape stakes and I don't want the new rootstock," he declared, thereby inadvertently dodging the phylloxera bullet that was soon to hit his neighbors.

Though winemaking is now Coppola's most profitable enterprise, filmmaking remains central to his life. He always has many cinematic irons in the fire, currently including a screenplay for Jack Kerouac's On the Road—the film rights for which he owns—and the cinematic enterprise closest to his heart, Megalopolis. He began working on it two decades ago, but kept setting it aside as other distractions intervened.

This allegorical futuristic epic, he said in a 1983 interview in Film Comment, is "based in part on Roman history, because it takes a period in Rome just before Caesar, in which the conditions of Rome were almost identical [to modern-day New York]. I wanted to tell a story in a kind of Plutarch vision of New York as the Roman city."

Although exuberantly Italian and thoroughly American, Coppola is perhaps best seen in the light of the ancient Romans who have so captivated his imagination and in whose actions he discerns so many contemporary parallels. He is nothing if not a classic paterfamilias, head of a clan that for him remains the defining unit of the world. Just as aristocrats in the days of the Caesars retreated to their estates to escape the tribulations of public life and drink their homemade wine, so this emperor of the cinema has found that after two millennia the things that matter most have changed very little indeed.

Director's Cut: A Coppola Primer

NIEBAUM-COPPOLA RUBICON 1997 Were I limited to but one New World red for the rest of my life, this would undoubtedly be it. The best-yet Rubicon, it is imposing yet intricately detailed. Beautifully perfumed and deeply colored, it displays the ripe Bing cherry and Margaux-like violet notes that define N-C's justly celebrated standard-bearer. $125.

NIEBAUM-COPPOLA RUBICON 2000 N-C winemaker Scott McLeod has a sure instinct for turning out top-tier estate reds of the highest consistency. Here he does it again, and though this marvel is too young to consume now, lay some down for five years hence. At a release price one-half to a third of less-nuanced Napa cult wines, it's a relative steal. $100. (To be released on March 15, the ides of March, as a nod to the ancient Romans from history-buff Coppola.)

NIEBAUM-COPPOLA CASK CABERNET 2000 Big and bold, it flaunts the inimitable goût de terroir of Rutherford Dust, the mineral-rich red soil that gives this Cab its world-class body. At two-thirds the price of its sister Rubicon, it's an excellent value. Don't be scared of pairing it with spicier beef or game preparations: It'll stand up to them handily. $65.

NIEBAUM-COPPOLA BLANCANEAUX 2002 Sleek and aromatic, this Condrieu-style white sends a sharp rebuke to the overly oaked, vanilla-drenched Napa Chardonnays that have given that misused grape a bad name and spurred the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) backlash. A fruity blend of four white grapes, it would be ideal with a cold seafood salad. Available from March 15th. $30.

RC RESERVE 2000 Identifying corners of the Niebaum-Coppola estate where grapes other than Cabernet will flourish has been a keynote of McLeod's stewardship, and this full-bodied Syrah (with 10 percent Petit Verdot and 6 percent Merlot), created for Roman Coppola's upcoming fortieth birthday, in 2005, underscores McLeod's skill in balancing complementary grapes. $56.

EDIZIONE PENNINO ZINFANDEL 2001 They said he was crazy to grow low-ticket Zinfandel in the promised land of Cabernet, but Francis Coppola is demented like a fox. This noble Zin shows his insight, and stands among the best American reds in its price range. Thanksgiving turkey will provide good reason to say grace if paired with this shapely beauty. $35.

SOFIA BLANC DE BLANCS 2003 This lightly carbonated, low-alcohol sparkler takes its cues from prosecco, and thus can't be compared with the world's most famous celebration wine. Delightful if undemanding, it's just right for aperitif sipping, and is named for the Coppolas' award-winning director daughter, a perfectionist like her papa. Available in April. $19.

Martin Filler wrote about ice wine for the January/February issue.