Francis Ford Coppola: From Feature Films to Fine Wine
The famed movie director recounts his Napa journey, culminating in the resuscitation of the historic Inglenook Estate.
Francis Ford Coppola presides over the mansion at Inglenook like a lord of the manor from some English novel, an imposing presence in his trademark beret and scarf.
He’s come a long way from Detroit, where he was born in 1939, and from Queens, New York, where he grew up. Inglenook (until this year, named Rubicon), in Rutherford, California, where he and his wife, Eleanor, live, is one of Napa Valley’s most historic properties.
Although most tourists will never see the mansion, much less obtain entry, tens of thousands have flocked to the nearby stone chateau, with its tasting rooms, gift shop and Coppola’s movie memorabilia museum. Using what he calls “show business savvy,” he lured in the crowds and made a lot of money at a time when he needed it.
But the success of Rubicon as a destination ultimately left Coppola with a sense of despair. Inglenook, in the 19th century and much of the 20th, was one of the noble names of Napa Valley. Now, it had become Disneyland.
“There were thousands of people coming here,” the legendary movie director says. “It was a mob! I felt badly.”
The Inglenook legacy had turned into a tourist mill. He was sick, he says, of people saying, “Francis made his winery a temple to his own ego.” And so he shocked his staff by “undoing the damage” that 20 years of promotion had caused, a process now well under way.
Gone are the tourists, redirected, in a sense, to his relatively new Sonoma venture, Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Gone is the movie memorabilia. Gone, too, is the Rubicon brand itself.
Coppola, energetic at 73, is adamant about restoring Inglenook’s greatness. In early May, he announced “the release of the first premium wine bearing the Inglenook label since the Estate was disassembled in 1964,” the 2009 Inglenook Cask Cabernet Sauvignon.
A winery The Godfather bought
Coppola could never have foreseen the twists and turns when he first saw the Inglenook property more than 40 years ago.
Following the success of The Godfather in 1972, he and Eleanor decided to check out real estate in Napa Valley. “We were looking for a cottage, a summer place where our boys could go swimming and climb trees,” he says. The family was living in a large San Francisco Victorian at the time.
Coppola’s real estate agent—perhaps with an eye to the commission—brought them to see the Niebaum mansion, hardly a cottage. “We drove in, and saw these gardens, this house, and thought it was so beautiful. So, just for the hell of it, I put in a bid.”
It was refused.
A year later, the group that had purchased the property was forced to sell after its plan to subdivide the property was killed by Napa’s new agricultural preservation scheme. “And so, I bought it,” Coppola says simply. The price: $2.2 million.
The purchase included the mansion and the slopes leading up Mount St. John, but did not include the chateau or the vineyards along Highway 29. It was to be another 20 years before Coppola was able to buy those, on the long, winding road toward restoration of the estate.
A California legend, despoiled
Inglenook was one of the great names in Napa Valley. Launched by the Finnish sea captain, Gustave Niebaum, in 1879, it was, according to wine historian Leon D. Adams (quoting a San Francisco journalist who wrote in 1889) “the California equivalent of Château Margaux.”
The late enologist and pioneering winemaker André Tchelistcheff called the stretch of land from Martha’s Vineyard in the south, through Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard and up to and including Inglenook’s vineyard as “the greatest region for production of Cabernet Sauvignon in California.”
Yet Coppola, first touring Napa Valley in the 1960s, bypassed a visit to Inglenook and chose instead to taste at Beaulieu Vineyard, just across the street. BV was more famous. Inglenook was on the brink of its slow slide into the backwaters.
Inglenook’s decline began when Niebaum’s descendents sold it to the first of a series of companies that saw the property as little more than a cash cow. John Daniel Jr., Niebaum’s grandnephew, sold the winery in 1964 to Louis Petri of United Vinters and Allied Grape Growers, a winegrape marketing cooperative.
Coppola says that by the time the spirits giant Heublein acquired Inglenook in 1969, “they wanted it to be their mass wine. It sort of offended me. They weren’t even making the wine in that beautiful chateau.”
The downward spiral continued through further changes. By the 1980s, Inglenook was known more for low-priced jug wine than for its past glories.
Following his initial purchase, Coppola found himself with 100 acres of grapes that produced a crop every year.
“We were new at this. I had to figure out how to run the property,” he says. The first few vintages, Coppola sold the grapes to Heublein. His movie career was “in the toilet,” he says.
This was around the time of Apocalypse Now (1979), which “was very damned by the press, and considered wholly flawed,” Coppola says. “I was in deep, deep financial trouble.” Things had gotten so bad that Eleanor couldn’t pay the bills at the local market.
An idea began germinating in Coppola’s head. “There was a little part of me that was [saying], ‘Gee, we have these grapes, why don’t we just make wine?’” After all, he told Eleanor, “These grapes once made great wine. Maybe we could someday learn to make great wine.”
He didn’t have a clue how to go about it. “But then, if you think about it,” says Coppola, “I hadn’t known how to make movies, either.”
Talent could be hired, and that’s what Coppola did. Among his consultants was Tchelistcheff. The first Rubicon, from the newly named Niebaum- Coppola Winery, was released in 1978.
It didn’t sell, nor did the next several vintages of the wine. In fact, the ’78 didn’t even go on the market until 1985. “I didn’t know how to sell it. It was just building up” in a local storage facility, Coppola remembers.
The turning point
The turning point for Rubicon, Coppola says, was the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1992 movie that ended his years of boxoffice drought. His earnings paid for the 1995 acquisition of the front vineyards and the chateau. It also stimulated Coppola to get serious about the business, hiring a professional staff to run it.
With the purchase of the vineyards and chateau came some 40,000 cases of wine that then-owner Canandaigua Industries Company (now Constellation Brands) had bottled under the Niebaum Collection brand. “Ugly label,” Coppola says.
He redesigned it, keeping the diamond logo. That launched the mass side of Coppola’s wine business, bottled under various names (Francis Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola Presents), but usually under the Diamond Collection moniker. It took off like a rocket.
“All I know,” Coppola says, “is that one year we did $9 million. Four years later, $60 million. I was making much more money in the wine business than I ever made in films.”
Reacquiring the name
Things came full circle in April 2012, when, after decades, the Inglenook brand name was put up for sale. Its most recent owner, San Francisco-based The Wine Group, offered it to Coppola. He won’t reveal the price, but says, “It was very expensive, far more than all the property had cost.”
From now on, the estate’s wines will be under the Inglenook name. Rubicon will be the proprietary name for the winery’s Bordeaux-style red blend.
Another change was last year’s hiring of Philippe Bascaules as winemaker and estate manager. He had been at Château Margaux in Bordeaux for the previous 21 years.
Bascaules, conceding that his experience of Napa Valley has been limited, says he comes to Inglenook, “with no preconceived idea of the wine.” He does, however, speculate about future directions, including picking earlier and producing lower volumes.
For his part, Coppola believes he’s on the path toward Inglenook being recognized as a great growth of Napa Valley. To achieve this, he says, “There are a few things you need. You have to be making great wine. You have to be making it great 50 or 100 years ago. You have to have an estate that is the most desirable in the region. You have to have a great story. And you have to have your winemaking team having been associated with great wine.”
Clearly, all these criteria now apply to Inglenook. Coppola, with his flair for the dramatic, has written what may be his greatest script yet.
The Director’s Cut
Coppola’s five favorite places to bring visitors when in Napa.
“They’re authentic, real and offer a sense of community life,” he says.
A Home-Style Pizza from the Coppola Family Kitchen
This pizza is easy to prepare at home and versatile enough to pair with almost any dry red wine.
“As a kid, I remember that it was like a whole meal, an alternative to a sandwich—a combination of good foods that went together,” says Coppola. “And the ingredients were perfect with wine, so if you were abandoned in a mountain and had only that, you’d not only survive, but be in heaven.”
2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 cup butter or shortening
2–4 teaspoons cold water
3 eggs, beaten, plus 1 egg yolk, beaten
8 ounces ricotta
1 cup parsley, chopped
¼ cup grated Parmesan Pepper, to taste
4 ounces ham, cut into pieces
6–8 slices Italian salami or prosciutto, cut into pieces
4–5 slices provolone, cut into pieces
3 hard-boiled eggs
Preheat an oven to 400˚F.
Mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Add the butter or shortening until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Slowly add in the water, mixing until the dough holds together. Form the dough into a ball, and chill it in a refrigerator for a few minutes.
In a large bowl, mix the beaten eggs thoroughly into the ricotta. Add the parsley and Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper. Add the ham, salami and provolone, mixing all gently into the ricotta. Cut each hard-boiled egg into 4 pieces and mix in gently so as not to break the egg pieces too much.
Roll the dough into 2 12-inch x 9-inch rectangles. Line a pizza pan with one piece of dough, place the mixture atop, leaving a 2-inch margin at the edges, and cover with the remaining dough, pinching the edges to seal. Brush the top half of the dough with the beaten egg yolk, and bake in the preheated oven for about 45–60 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the inside is firm. The pizza is done when a toothpick is inserted into the center and is clean upon removal.
Allow the pizza to cool, and refrigerate it until ready to serve. Serves 10.