Unlike some of his more memorable movie characters, Francis Ford Coppola hasn’t made many enemies. Quite the opposite, it seems. I pondered this as I sat waiting for him at Inglenook on a beautiful October morning. It was early but there were already a few tourists about, and as the rumpled, stately figure – wearing odd socks, I noted, one bright red and one bright blue – hove into view he was accosted by two pretty young women for a photograph. Coppola embraced them both in a big hug and they tripped off happy as can be.
Why shouldn’t he be popular? He is engaging company, peppering his conversation with asides along the lines of, ‘I don’t know anything about making wine, but then I don’t know anything about making movies either. It can be an advantage.’ Women adore him (he’s a terrific flirt), and he’s surrounded by loyal and affecionate staff.
He’s also one of the world’s most celebrated film directors. He is personable, warm, amusing, accessible. He’s very, very rich. But none of that really accounts for the respect – even reverence – in which he’s held.
I was in Napa for a week and I spoke to dozens of people, winemakers, winery owners, guys in baseball caps lining the bar at Ana’s Cantina. No-one has a bad word to say of him. Why? Because he’s rescued an American icon. He’s the saviour of Inglenook.
Here is Warren Winiarski, for example, who rang me one evening to underscore comments he had made at lunch. ‘The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. It is such a high-minded, noble enterprise, to restore Inglenook to the role it once occupied.’
Then there’s Chris Howell, winemaker at Cain Vineyards: ‘He’s a hero’. And here’s Marshal Walker, a winery designer, who emailed me to say he remembered the Coppolas throwing ‘some majorly kick-butt parties. I was always impressed with the fact that he and his wife were there dancing, smoking cigars and having fun with us working class folks.’
I called Robin Lail, the dispossessed daughter of former Inglenook owner John Daniel. The sale of the estate in 1964, it is well-documented, was devastating for her. She runs her own winery now, but when a portion of the Inglenook estate, and the chateau, came onto the market in 1992 she was unable to buy. How did she feel about Coppola’s tenure there? ‘It is fascinating, and exhilarating. He reminds me of Niebaum and the way he pursued his dream.’
The dream began in the mid-19th century with the arrival of a Finnish fur-trader and sea captain of immense wealth and a yearning to make American wines to rival Bordeaux. Gustave Niebaum – ‘the Captain’, as he is always known - bought a 1,650 acre estate near Rutherford, a spot described by the San Francisco Examiner in 1890 as one of ‘indescribable loveliness’, and built the splendid chateau that forms the centrepiece of the estate today.
Contemporary accounts show the Captain to have had an uncannily modern grasp of fine winemaking. By 1890 he was close-spacing rows to reduce yields. He introduced the first gravity-flow system in California, the first bottling line, the first sorting tables, and obsessed about cleanliness in the winery. He believed utterly in terroir.
The estate survived Prohibition, and Niebaum’s successor JohnDaniel, a great-nephew of his wife’s, carried on the tradition of innovation (he had the first bulldozer in Napa). Inglenook’s reputation grew. Vintages like the 1941 are still considered among the world’s finest wines.
But Daniel had to sell. He had two daughters – Robin Lail is one of them – to whom, for complex social and religious reasons he felt he couldn’t leave the estate. In 1964 Inglenook was bought by a joint venture of Allied Grape Growers and United Vintners. The Gallos had also been interested.
Now started Inglenook’s wilderness years. By 1969 Inglenook had been acquired by Heublein, a Connecticut-based company, the owner of Smirnoff Vodka. Heublein began to produce a wine called Inglenook Navalle, and started the process which today means most Americans know Inglenook as the cheapest of jug wines. A three-litre box of its Burgundy Premium costs $9.
This is where Coppola, flush from the success of 1971’s The Godfather, joins the story, nipping up to Napa from San Francisco to look for ‘a cottage, three of four acres, somewhere we could grow grapes and make wine like the Italians do.’
Coppola and his wife Eleanor bought the first tranche of Inglenook in 1975 and steadily bought up the rest of the estate over the better part of three decades, through rollercoaster years of bankruptcy and riches, and finally – in April 2011 – securing the rights to the Inglenook name for the reported sum of $14m. ‘My contract doesn’t allow me to say how much,’ he said. ‘But it’s in that region.’
From the start they knew they had good land. The part of Inglenook they had bought included the ‘back property’ as they call it, a swathe of the Rutherford Bench, that narrow strip of alluvial sand and silt that is home to the To-Kalon vineyards and the best Cabernet Sauvignon land in California.
‘Everyone wanted an option on the grapes’, Coppola said, and although for one or two years they sold the fruit they soon decided, if it as was so good, why didn’t they try and make some wine themselves? ‘So I borrowed $20,000 from my mother to buy some fermenting tanks and worked with an amateur winemaker up the street. And we made the first Rubicons - 1978 and 1979.’
It wasn’t an auspicious beginning. He was broke, for a start. After The Godfather he wanted to make a Vietnam epic, but the studios just wanted more gangster films - ‘no-one would give me the money to make Apocalypse Now.’ So he paid for it himself. ‘I ended up owing US$21m - and at that stage it looked like I would lose it all because it seemed like no-one liked [the film]. I was on the verge. I was in bankruptcy.’
But he wouldn’t declare himself bankrupt. He was despondent, Eleanor was refused credit at the local stores. ‘I had arrived at a kind of paradise and I was only there in order to lose it.’ He spent the 1980s ‘doing one film a year just to pay off the debt.’
It was not until the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in 1992, that he became properly solvent, and in 1995 was able to buy the next piece of the estate that came on the market, the front vineyards and the Inglenook chateau itself. He didn’t have the Inglenook name, of course, so he called it Niebaum-Coppola, filled it with memorabilia from his films and watched the visitors pour in.
‘It was unbelievable. The first year we made $9m, the second year $18m, the third year we made $40m.’
But he began to be appalled by his commercialisation of the venerable estate. He still cherished his dream of making a great wine, ‘in the spirit of Inglenook’, as he put it, and he couldn’t square that with the hordes that came to gawp at Dracula’s cape and Don Corleone’s desk. ‘I said to my wife, I’m worse than Heublein. I’ve taken this historic place, that made great wines, and I’ve turned it into a mall.’
So eight years ago, he opened the unashamedly commercial Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma, and cleared Inglenook of the film glitz. Soon, the Inglenook retail space will be closed, the better to concentrate on restoring the estate to its past glory.
And what glory. Coppola said that when he first bought the house in 1975, he and his neighbour Robert Mondavi opened a bottle of the 1890. ‘The aroma of this wine permeated the room.’
I haven’t tasted the 1890, but I have had three old Inglenooks whose aromas were as seductive. The finest, by a hair, was a 1958 Cabernet that I had over lunch with Coppola in London. Then, at dinner in Napa we had a 1951 Pinot Noir and a 1961 Cabernet, which have the brightest, freshest, most charming palates you can imagine. All who taste the wines agree. Jancis Robinson said the 1958 was ‘ethereal’, the best of that vintage she had ever had.
That tasting with Mondavi was the birth of Coppola’s ambition to make Inglenook a wine that can take its place among the greats. ‘What we want to achieve is to make a premier cru wine that is known around the world. We know that Inglenook made great wine 50 years ago, and we know it made great wine 100 years ago. So the question is to make sure we follow in that tradition.’
Now that he owns the Inglenook name, the project has shifted a gear. He has hired Philippe Bascaules, winemaker at Chateau Margaux for 21 years, as his managing director. Another Frenchman, Stephane Derenoncourt, has been consulting for some years and will continue to advise, while on the board Coppola has Craig Williams, veteran Phelps winemaker, ‘to give them some feeling of Napa’.
The first vintage of the newly-named wine will be the 2009, in an elegant Bordeaux bottle which will replace the heavy, embossed Rubicon bottle, and a label inspired by an original from the 1940s. As to style, Coppola says he wants ‘to go more in the direction of the 2010 because it has this combination of femininity and and power, freshness and elegance.’
As we taste the wines I ask how he deals with jibes that he wants to produce what one critic called ‘a frenchified California first growth’ – especially now that he’s got a brace of Frenchmen on board?
Coppola points he wasn’t specifically looking for a Frenchman: Philippe was simply the best man for the job.
Bascaules chips in. ‘I’m not here to make a mini-Margaux’, he says. ‘It’s important that I make these wines from the vineyards, not from a pre-conceived idea in my head. My job is to understand the terroir and then use meticulous selection and careful vinification to extract the best possible wines from the estate.’
Inglenook seems to be in good hands. Coppola says his role as owner is ‘to make sure the property can realise its full potential. My goal is to understand the vineyard, and to ultimately provide the ability for Philippe to create a new winery, supplementing the antique chateau winery, where we can bring in 260 acres of fruit, and put it in individual fermenters. I want to learn about not just the parcels that are vinified, but the areas within those parcels.’
Bascaules mentions the geological survey they have underway, ‘to study the parcel limitations, as some of them may be sub-divided in the future. This parcel-by-parcel analysis will give me the lexicon I need for the future, to truly understand the Inglenook terroir. But I’m already starting to appreciate the enormous potential of the estate.’
What comes across is Coppola’s utter confidence. He knew the ‘absolute rightness’ of the decision to spend $14m (or thereabouts) on the name. He’s quite sure that he can restore the devalued brand to its rightful position. ‘Those who appreciate Inglenook’s greatness have no knowledge of the cheap spinoff wines.’ If you build it, they will come.
And so the future of Inglenook is assured. Coppola has atoned for the sins of the corporations that desecrated its name, and for his own sin of commercialisation. He’s doing it for the unsentimental idea that it’s something worth preserving. And the most touching thing about the whole business is that he – the great director – still can’t quite believe it. ‘How could a guy like me, from a lower-middle-class family from Queens, end up owning America’s greatest wine estate?’
This article first appeared in Decanter magazine