It’s a saga with a true Hollywood ending. Francis Ford Coppola, iconic director of The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, has spent more than four decades restoring one of California’s most historic wineries after years of neglect – and now the story has reached the pay-off scene.
In 1975, flush with profits from the first two The Godfather movies, Coppola and his wife Eleanor were looking for a country home. In the Rutherford section of the Napa Valley they were shown a 19th-century estate that had seen better times, the old Inglenook property. Part of it was for sale – the Victorian residence and half the vineyards (about 40 hectares), although the venerable château housing the winery was not included. Falling in love with the site, the Coppolas bought it and made the residence their family home.
But they had no intention of going into the wine business. “I was still in the phase where I preferred Coca-Cola,” the director told me. “I thought we’d make a few bottles of wine to give as Christmas gifts, nothing more than that. But as I got to know some affluent friends in Hollywood, I started enjoying a glass of wine with dinner, and tasted some of the great wines. Of course, I was very impressed with just how delicious they were.”
Coppola had always been around wine – growing up in New York he heard his uncles tell stories about the prohibition years, when families made domestic wine for themselves. “It was common for Italian immigrant families to have a fermenter and some barrels around,” he explained. “My family would partner up with their friends, their ‘paisans’, to buy half a train car of grapes coming in from California. Some of them were shipped from Cesare Mondavi, Robert’s father.”
When he first bought his part of Inglenook, Coppola was content to sell the grapes from his vineyard to local winemakers. But things began to change after a visit from Robert Mondavi himself, the man who’d revitalised the Napa by building his own winery in 1966, the first since prohibition. He asked the Coppolas if they realised they had bought ‘the jewel of the Napa’.
“His unexpected visit to our home was a big event for us. I took him down to the old cellar where there were still some bottles of the 1890 Inglenook Cabernet. We took one back upstairs and when we opened it the aroma filled the kitchen. Robert was really happy, he said, ‘See! I knew that if Napa wine aged it would be the equal of great Bordeaux!’”
That bottle was a reminder of Inglenook’s former glory. A wealthy Finnish fur trader Gustave Niebaum founded the estate in 1879, with the aim of creating wines to rival Europe’s best. Soon his cabernets were being served at the White House and winning medals in Europe, with some critics comparing them to Château Margaux.
Niebaum’s descendants continued to make great wine: the 1941 Inglenook Cabernet is a California legend. But by the 1960s, hard financial times forced the family to sell. They cut the property in two, keeping the residence and half of the vineyards, and selling the rest including the winery. The wine operation passed through a series of corporate owners who reduced the once proud Inglenook label to a cheap jug brand, and some of the heirloom cabernet vines were ripped out to make way for heavy cropping varieties. That was the state of affairs in 1975 when the Coppolas bought what had been the family’s half of the property.
After Robert Mondavi’s enthusiastic visit, Coppola started to think of making his own wine. “I knew very little about wine production, but I could see that the fruit from our part of the vineyard was very popular, many people offered us 30 year contracts. So I thought, if our grapes are so good, why don’t we just make them into wine ourselves?”
With the Inglenook brand still under corporate ownership, he named his estate Niebaum-Coppola, and created a premium red label Rubicon in 1978. But as scriptwriters know, there’s always a setback in act two. Just as his venture into wine was getting started, Coppola faced disaster in his other line of work. The budget of Apocalypse Now had spiralled out of control, leaving him facing financial ruin.
“Those were very tough times, and I don’t know how we got through it,” he remembers. “No doubt if it had happened a year earlier we wouldn’t or couldn’t have gone into winemaking. But as it happened we were already into it and couldn’t really stop.”
Luckily, both family businesses were able to survive. The wine venture continued in a modest way, with higher volume wines supporting the luxury Rubicon label. Then came another turning point.
In 1995, the corporate half of the Inglenook property came up for sale, including the winery château and the remaining vineyards. Buoyed by the success of his film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Coppola pounced on the rare chance to make the estate whole again. “In America, so few things that are broken apart are ever put back together,” he says. “Reuniting the property was truly a dream come true, both for my family and the Napa Valley. It confirmed in my mind that we were on the way to restoring Inglenook to its previous grandeur.”
Along with the property came stock of 40,000 cases of wine, which was re-branded under the Francis Ford Coppola label for the broader market. That line became a cash cow, and there’s now a separate Francis Ford Coppola Winery (francisfordcoppolawinery.com) in nearby Sonoma County.
But the Inglenook restoration was still not complete. Although he owned the whole estate, Coppola did not have the rights to the Inglenook name. When the trademark was finally put on the market in 2011, he paid a reported US$14 million to acquire it, “more than I paid for the estate itself”.
Coppola also spared little expense in bringing the wines to the highest level possible. He brought in celebrated Bordeaux consultant Stephane Derenoncourt and Château Margaux winemaker Philippe Bascaules, with the mission of recapturing the style and quality exemplified by the 1890 and 1941 bottlings. “Definitely we are aiming for a world-class wine with finesse, freshness, aroma and balance,” the owner says.
A tasting of recent vintages shows the mission is on track. Not surprisingly there’s a Bordeaux- like elegance to the wines, married with the famous depth of Napa cabernet fruit. There’s none of the over-the-top extraction and excessive alcohol found in some of the region’s reds.
Changes abound – the winery has been upgraded, the vineyard is now organic, and French oak barrels have replaced the American ones. Bascaules, who divides his time between Inglenook and Margaux, has implemented a 50-year plan, replanting 2% of the vines each year.
Coppola and his wife still live on the property (in a new house behind the vineyards) and their daughter Sofia and son Roman are set to keep the estate going as a family concern into the future. For the six-time Oscar winner, his nearly half-century restoration of Inglenook ranks with his Hollywood achievements.
“It would have been a sin for this beautiful 19th-century estate to have been left in a shambles, so it’s uplifting to be a part of preventing that,” says Coppola. “Inglenook was great before the Coppolas, it’s great during the Coppolas, and it will be great after us. Great films are like that, too, they can stand the test of time.”
To book a visit to Inglenook go to inglenook.com