In the minds of many Americans, Napa Valley is the country’s most important wine area. It has the panache (grand wineries), makes the nation’s most recognized red wine (cabernet sauvignon), and has always been seen as a tourist mecca.
Which is part of the reason that film director Francis Ford Coppola acquired the historic Inglenook winery in 1975 on a site some consider the best cabernet land in Napa. It was the place to be.
And Coppola wasn’t done at the site in Rutherford. Next, he paid an outrageous sum to add some prestigious, adjacent vineyard acreage to the project, then spent even more to restore the property lavishly, and finally spent even more to re-acquire the Inglenook name and re-name the property back to its founding name from 1879.
All this has made a lot of headlines over the years and has made Coppola a hero to many who treasure the valley’s history.
With a red wine considered among the great wines of Napa called Rubicon, Coppola is now poised to release a new Inglenook red wine that will, according to the winery, pay homage to the winery’s founder, Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, and his successor, John Daniel and his family.
Far less publicized is Coppola’s dedication to his other winery in Sonoma County, which he acquired in 2006 and began to revitalize as it had never been.
Located near Geyserville in northern Sonoma County, Francis Ford Coppola Winery had been the old, sprawling Souverain winery, an aging project that once, decades ago, had been the home to a cooperative that made a number of fascinating wines, but little that was great.
In recent years, it had been operated by Treasury Wine Estates and wine maker Ed Killian had made some splendid wines. Coppola wanted a property large enough to create a family-oriented project, and Souverain seemed perfect except that it needed much renovation.
“Soon after Francis acquired the property,” said wine maker/general manager Corey Beck, “the economy began to get weak, and we weren’t sure which parts of the restoration would continue.” He said Coppola has amazing taste, and every addition to the project had to be first class.
As a result, he said, Coppola never wavered in his commitment to making what soon became known as Rosso & Bianco, a gorgeous winery.
It took nearly five years before dust began to clear at the project. Only then did Coppola change the name of the winery to his own.
It is said that Coppola used profits from his hit film “The Godfather” to buy Inglenook, but it’s clear that it’s wine profit that allowed him to complete FFC Winery. And the reasons are obvious: dramatic improvements in wine quality combined with dramatic increases in volume — to about 1 million cases a year spanning 10 brands.
A key is Beck and a team of accomplished wine makers using fruit from 120 Sonoma County growers, with whom the winery stays in touch regularly.
“In some wineries,” said Beck, “the grower delivers fruit and then they never see the winery for another year. Not here.” He said growers return often and tastings of wines from each grower are regularly discussed with them. And each grower gets some of the wine his or her grapes made.
The winery is equipped with a state-of-the-art laboratory, and wine makers run numerous tests to analyze what makes up each lot of grapes. And they do endless tastings to make sure quality is always on the rise.
For visitors, Coppola has expanded tasting room areas, has two separate restaurants with a superb staff of chefs. He has also added twin swimming and wading pools (and cabanas for people to use to change into swim clothes). The property even has a children’s library.
The décor has an Italianate look, and wherever you turn there are features from Coppola films, including one of the 49 Tucker automobiles that were produced (and featured in the film of that name that Coppola made).
There are also photos of Francis and Eleanor Coppola’s resorts on the island of Belize.
Visitors to Napa love the Inglenook restoration with a hand-carved staircase of Belizean woods and movie reflections. Now Sonoma can claim an equally dramatic (pun intended) winery destination.
Wine of the Week
2010 Director’s Cut Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley ($27) — This superb reflection of one of Sonoma County’s top Zinfandel growing zones shows red raspberry and spice character, and a food-friendly balance. The brand is one of Coppola’s most interesting, and the wrap-around label pays homage to a zoetrope card.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.