Distinguished Service Award: Francis Ford Coppola

The Oscar-winning film director earns Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award
Feb 23, 2004

The scene is deserving of a screenplay. A Napa Valley château, a grand work of stone covered in ivy, splendidly decorated for a holiday fete. In the shadow of plump and polished Taransaud oak tanks, guests gather around glasses of wine. Not just any wines, but Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1930s through the 1960s, some of the rarest and most- esteemed wines ever produced in California.

Francis Ford Coppola lingers over the 1941, produced two years after he was born. The Cabernet is a wine of beauty, elegant and remarkable in its youthfulness, and a reminder of how sparing should be our use of the word profound. The wine is both a testament to a glorious past, and a beacon for Coppola's future.

Coppola staged the retrospective tasting in December 2002, culling many of the wines from his own cellar, to mark the rebirth of the Inglenook château in Rutherford as Niebaum-Coppola. Best-known as a film director, Coppola drew on his achievements from that famously difficult industry to bankroll his venture into wine. And this son of Italian immigrants, who grew up sipping his grandfather's homemade wine, has thrown himself into his Napa Valley endeavors with all the talent and passion that made him successful in Hollywood.

Partly because of his fame, Napa may have been slow to accept this high-profile and monied outsider when he arrived, 28 years ago. But his fascination with the once-storied Inglenook estate and his efforts to rebuild it as Niebaum-Coppola have won over his neighbors and the country's wine drinkers alike. This commitment, investment and impressive achievement earns Coppola the honor of Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award for 2003.

As the director of classic films such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, Coppola is a familiar Hollywood face who has brought star power to California wine. But his approach to the beverage is refreshingly down-to-earth. He lets winemaker Scott McLeod deal with the technical details of creating the wine. Coppola simply enjoys drinking it.

Coppola explains it this way: "I come to it as a wine lover, not a wine expert. I tried to be honest that my sophistication in the appreciation of wine is limited. That's probably good in that I never get in the way of those who know, like Scott. However, I do truly enjoy wine and that's the most important criteria of all in terms of my role, which is to point the direction to which we aspire."

Coppola wears many hats -- writer, director, producer, restaurateur, history buff, vintner. But he is anything but a wine geek. "Unlike many Napa Valley winery owners, Francis drinks wine every day -- always has. It's a part of his life," McLeod says. "One of the things Francis told me once changed the way I make wines. He said, 'At the end of the day, it's entertainment. You share it like a movie or an opera, with friends.'"

But compared with the film industry, Coppola sees inherent virtues in wine. "Although all business has the main goal of making money, I feel the movie business today has taken that to an extreme -- to the detriment of the love of cinema -- whereas the wine business seems to have a good perspective and balance on that," Coppola says. "The love and appreciation of wine doesn't feel as compromised by the business aspects. I feel the balance of art and commerce is better handled by the wine industry."

Coppola may have made his name and his fortune in Hollywood, but Napa and the wine business are now home.

The 1972 film The Godfather brought Coppola to the attention of American moviegoers, but at first, Coppola had resisted directing the film. "They want me to direct this hunk of trash," he said at the time. "I don't want to do it. I want to do arty films." And yet Coppola was deep in debt after the failure of several film projects and he decided to have it both ways, creating art from a highly entertaining pulp novel. The movie went on to win three Academy Awards. He was 31 at the time.

If anything, the influence and the myth of The Godfather have grown over the years. Recently, it was named by Entertainment Weekly as the greatest film of all time. In 1974, Coppola would follow The Godfather with The Conversation, a personal favorite of the director's, and The Godfather Part II, perhaps the only film sequel that rivaled -- and some believe surpassed -- the original. It won six Oscars.

The success of the two Godfather films gave Coppola the wherewithal to pursue another fancy, a weekend house in the country, or as Coppola himself put it, "a cottage, a place to write and a couple of acres to make a little wine." In characteristic Coppola fashion, of course, it became so much more.

From his home base in San Francisco, he looked north to Napa Valley, and rather than a simple farmhouse, he acquired a piece of hallowed California wine history: 1,560 acres of the original Inglenook estate in Rutherford, including the 19th century Gustave Niebaum mansion. The price, according to Coppola: "$2 million, plus."

Inglenook is a venerable name in Napa. It was founded in 1879 by Niebaum, a Finnish fur-trader who made his fortune in Alaska. He built the winery's magnificent château, designed by architect Hamden W. McIntyre, and established the property's reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon. After Prohibition ended in 1933, Inglenook achieved its greatest glory under John Daniel Jr., Niebaum's grandnephew. The wines produced at the château between 1933 and 1964 are legendary, setting a standard for ageability to which every Napa Cabernet aspires.

The winery went into decline in the late 1960s, as it was bought and sold over the years. In the 1970s, owner Heublein built the brand into one of California's largest, emphasizing jug wines under the Inglenook-Navalle label.

While Inglenook's reputation sagged, Coppola was risking his own piece of Inglenook history. The Coppolas had no sooner settled into Napa when the director set out to make his epic Apocalypse Now, and in the three-year process of making the film he would risk his career, his marriage, his fortune and, as Coppola would later famously admit, his sanity. "This film is a $20 million disaster," the director said at the time. "I'm thinking of shooting myself."

The Napa property had been used by Coppola as collateral to secure a multimillion-dollar loan to help finance the movie, which, after all the creative turmoil, was a commercial and critical success. As the director was finishing work on Apocalypse Now, he was just beginning his second career as vintner.

In the first years, Coppola sold most of the grapes to other wineries, but that changed one evening when Coppola opened a bottle of 1890 Inglenook Cabernet from his cellar to mark the visit of Robert Mondavi. The wine impressed them with its vitality. Inspired, Coppola set out to make one of his own, Rubicon. A Bordeaux-style red blend, it takes its name from the Italian river that for Caesar symbolized the point of no return. The metaphor, for Coppola, was apropos.

Renowned enologist André Tchelistcheff was hired as a consultant; Coppola's ambitions were nothing less grandiose than creating a wine that would live 100 years. In pursuit of that goal, the first Rubicons were made in a powerfully tannic and somewhat acidic style, that often produced wines that were anything but pleasurable on release. Even the consulting winemaker at the time, Tony Soter, later conceded: "The wines were always important, but they weren't always personable." The early wines scored in the low- to mid-80s on the Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.

To compensate for the wines' rustic personality, Coppola held them for several years beyond the norm before release. The 1978, in fact, wasn't released until 1985. By that time, America's taste in Cabernet had evolved toward a richer fruitier style. It took the winery a few years to catch up, but it was a lesson well-learned. The winemaking regime changed. Grapes were picked at a riper level and tannins were managed to avoid astringency. Since 1990, Rubicon has consistently achieved outstanding scores.

"In the real world sense, you measure a wine on how much pleasure it gives, not on how much acid or tannin it has," winemaker McLeod says, reflecting Coppola's point about wine as entertainment.

While the early 1990s saw the turnaround of Rubicon, Coppola's career as a filmmaker was a rollercoaster, hits mixed in with box-office failures. After flirting with financial ruin on and off for years, Coppola filed for bankruptcy in 1992, only to be saved a few months later when Bram Stoker's Dracula proved to be one of his most commercially successful films. Dracula also provided the funds to realize Coppola's dreams for Niebaum-Coppola. In 1995, after years of scheming to recreate the glory days of Inglenook, he paid Heublein $10 million for the château.

Heublein had discontinued Inglenook's premium labels and the brand name had been sold to New York-based wine giant Canandaigua, now Constellation Brands. Wine had not been made at the château in decades and it was sorely in need of renovation. Coppola poured another $10 million into its rebirth. With a museum devoted to the winery's past and Coppola's movie career, the château is now a popular Napa Valley destination. With the 2002 harvest, winemaking also returned to the château -- the first time since 1966.

"In America," Coppola said at the time, "so many great things are taken apart. Rarely do they ever get put back together."

Coppola continued his expansion in December 2002 with the purchase of the J.J. Cohn Vineyard in Rutherford for a reported $31.5 million. The vineyard borders the Coppola property and in recent years the grapes had gone into the wines of Joseph Phelps, Opus One, Etude and Niebaum-Coppola. The purchase brings Coppola's vineyard holdings in Rutherford to about 260 acres.

As his vision of Niebaum-Coppola has expanded, so has his line of wines. Rubicon remains the flagship, but at just more than 5,000 cases a year it represents only a fraction of the winery's overall production of 268,000 cases. The program includes limited amounts of estate wine, such as Edizione Pennino Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc, as well as the Diamond series, priced around $15 and made largely from purchased grapes. A few years ago, the winery added the Francis Coppola Presents series, basic blends with names like Rosso and Bianco selling for $10 or less.

"These wines supplied the cash flow that made it possible for us to restore what was Inglenook into Niebaum-Coppola," he says.

Plans call for splitting the winery into two companies, Coppola says, one that focuses on wines from the Rutherford estate, and another that produces his other brands, predominantly from purchased grapes.

Ironically, this plan resembles the strategy that led to Inglenook's demise in the 1970s. But, according to Coppola, the split is key to his vision for the winery. As he rebuilds Inglenook as Niebaum-Coppola, he's laying the groundwork to preserve it for the future. And that he sees as his legacy to California wine.

"I will leave Niebaum-Coppola, arguably America's greatest wine estate, in pristine condition, far better than I found it," says Coppola, who would like to see his son Roman take over the winery and establish a family wine dynasty. "In that way I hope we can achieve the greatness of our past and the promise of the future of the greatly blessed Napa Valley."

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