A Director's New Direction

A Director's New Direction
Peter Schroeder

"A wine wonderland…  a place to celebrate the love of life.” That’s how film director Francis Ford Coppola envisions his latest creation—a winery that’s fun for the entire family to visit. Yes, his newly renovated Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County offers tastings, tours and festive events. But that’s not all. The property features movie memorabilia (including Coppola’s five Academy Awards), plus soon to open bocce courts, a performing arts pavilion, and swimming pools where guests can relax. Overlooking vistas of vineyards and oak-clad hills, the new Rustic restaurant serves Coppola’s favorite dishes, including specialties from an authentic Argentinean wood-fired parrilla grill.

Coppola’s passion for food, wine, and family inspired his 2006 purchase of the 81-acre Alexander Valley estate (formerly the Chateau Souverain winemaking facility). The property had a restaurant—a huge asset, since eateries generally are not permitted at wineries in Sonoma County. With a dining venue, Coppola’s philosophy of how wine entwines with family can play a starring role."To me, wine is an element that takes part in the family gathering," he explains. "Whenever people take a meal, wine or something like it is part of it, and it’s a blessing, a sacrament, a unifier."

For the renovation, Coppola enlisted longtime friend and Academy Award-winning production designer Dean Tavoularis, with whom he worked on "The Godfather" trilogy. "A show is a show, be it a resort, a film or an opera," Coppola states. "The elements are similar, and the audience or visitor or guest is paramount. You must give them a large vision, and back it up with countless details."

Speaking of details, since day one Coppola has involved himself in every element of the project, from selecting fixtures to taste-testing recipes at the restaurant. For the towers of the Norman-style chateau, Coppola had visualized copper roofing with a patina like that atop his 1907 Sentinel Building headquarters in San Francisco. When the new metal looked garish, he suggested applying horse urine—the go-to solution for Old World Europe copper work. This process essentially aged copper 100 years in a matter of days.

On the day Rustic restaurant opened, Coppola inspected each plate as it emerged from the kitchen. Spotlighting "Francis’s Favorites," the menu reads like edible autobiography, brimming with remembrance of repasts past: the braciole with rigatoni in meat sauce his mother made for Sunday dinner, a lamb tagine he enjoyed at the souk in Marrakesh. A talented chef, Coppola experimented for years to recreate "Mrs. Scorsese’s Lemon Chicken," a specialty cooked by the mother of friend (and fellow Academy Award-winning director) Martin Scorsese. Drowned in lemon juice and cooked slowly, the caramelized fowl celebrates golden juiciness.

The other crucial element in Coppola’s concept? Creating a winery where kids can have fun. Coppola recalls sitting in the café at Rubicon, his landmark wine estate in the Napa Valley. He’d see parents admonish their children if they tried to splash in the fountain at the grand chateau, which was built in 1887. "When we began to plan this new winery park, I thought, ‘Gee, the kids want to go swimming, let’s have swimming pools,’" he says.

Situated in the center of the park plaza of the winery, the two pools connect via a swim-through under a water arch. The pools would have been completed this summer, but because of a construction mix-up, one wing was shallower than Coppola had envisioned. He then ordered the section to be ripped out and rebuilt. "Francis approached the new winery the way he did a big production like "Apocalypse Now," with a large vision and scrupulous attention to detail," observes his wife Eleanor, a documentary maker, writer and artist who chronicled the director’s travails while shooting that film in the Philippines. Throughout the year, special events entertain youngsters, from costumed Halloween jaunts through the vineyards to puppet shows at the bandstand styled after the one in "The Godfather II."

Meanwhile, grown-ups can sample a full range of Coppola wines—more than 40 labels—in the chateau tasting room, revamped to showcase stunning vineyard views. Per Coppola’s request, tastings of the classic everyday wines, Rosso and Bianco, are free. Several labels are available only at the winery, including the flagship Archimedes, named after the Greek mathematician admired by Coppola’s grandfather. First released in 2010, the wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, intense with the dark mysteries of black currant, huckleberry, spice, and tobacco.

One of the most intriguing wine offerings is the Director’s Cut 2007 Cinema, an uncommon blend dominated by Cabernet sauvignon and Zinfandel. It potentially could be Sonoma’s answer to Super Tuscans, according to Corey Beck, director of winemaking and general manager of Francis Ford Coppola Winery. "The Cab is grown in Alexander Valley, while the Zinfandel comes from Dry Creek Valley—the regions that do each varietal very, very well. The Cab provides backbone, and you get a little spice from the Zin."

Both adults and kids will enjoy the Movie Gallery filled with Coppola’s cinematic mementoes, including costumes from Bram Stoker’s "Dracula," Don Corleone’s desk from "The Godfather" and the gleaming red Tucker car—one of only 51 made in 1948—that figured in the film about the innovative auto maker. In addition to the five Oscars, a showcase holds other film festival honors, including the Palme d’Or from Cannes and the Golden Lion from Venice. Even more evocative for anyone who ever tingled upon hearing the awards show phrase, "The envelope, please," the display holds the cards that announced his wins for best picture and best director for "The Godfather II."

Coppola sums up his new namesake winery: "It’s a park for love of life. That’s what pleasure, grounds are for, people who are not afraid of pursuing what I jokingly call the ‘Independence Lane’ of their own lives, just as I have done, and not be told by others what’s good and what’s bad." 

What’s Next:

Swimming Pools: The pools are scheduled to open by November and will be complimentary to all guests through 2010, after which a day-use fee will take effect.

Seasonal Tours: The Italian Harvest Tour offers a behind-the-scenes experience of grape harvest at the winery. Activities might include testing the sugar levels of grapes (brix sampling) and punching down grapes in fermentation tanks as well as breakfast and lunch. [Offered Saturdays from September 11 to October 30, 2010; from $199 per person.] 

Rustic Restaurant: On Sundays starting this fall, the restaurant will feature dining a tavola (pronounced a tah-vah-la)—an informal, family-style meal. Guests can have as little or as much as they like, and pay only for what is eaten and drunk. Inside sources confirm that there "will also be a theatrical component”—which might include costumed servers, entertainment, and a story line.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery
300 Via Archimedes
Geyserville, CA 95441
Phone: (707) 857-1400
Toll Free: (877) 590-3329

Published on September 8, 2010