Wearing a seersucker suit and sipping demitasse with anisette on the porch of the 130-year-old Victorian built by Inglenook winery founder Gustave Niebaum, Francis Ford Coppola swivels in a rattan chair. He points to a massive California oak.
There was another oak tree in that spot when the house was built and Niebaum lived there, Coppola says. “It was a beautiful, gorgeous tree and we lost it,” he says wistfully. “I was heartbroken because the house wasn’t the same.” He proposed moving a 300-year-old oak already on the property to supplant the original, but was told to plant palms instead. Coppola persisted. After eight years, the replacement tree stands strapping and tall.
For 44 years — more than half his life — Francis Coppola has been a winery owner. Now 79, far better known as a movie director, he has all the pieces in place in his effort to resurrect Inglenook, one of the most iconic wine names in California history. Since buying the Inglenook estate in Rutherford in 1975, Coppola has been trying to rebuild a brand that had been relegated to jug-wine mediocrity.
To Coppola, the transplanted tree is a metaphor for his revival of Inglenook, one of the six original wineries in Napa Valley. It’s arguably a metaphor for the revival of Coppola himself. The director of “The Godfather” trilogy and “Apocalypse Now,” the writer of “Patton,” the founder of the movie production company American Zoetrope, Coppola hasn’t had a hit movie in decades. Other ventures, like his “City” magazine in the 1970s, have been short-lived. He was one of the investors in the highly regarded but long-shuttered San Francisco restaurant Rubicon. Now, as he visibly has slowed down physically, the winery has become his passion.
Coppola has slowly been putting Inglenook back together since he bought the estate, acquiring the surrounding vineyards and winemaking facilities over the years. He’s spent millions rebuilding the winery, adding an additional wine facility and bringing in a winemaker from one of the greatest properties in Bordeaux.
“You have to realize that Inglenook is a screenplay and Francis is the director — it’s that simple,” says Scott McLeod, who made Coppola’s wine from 1991 to 2010. “Francis always wanted to change the ending of Inglenook. … His belief is that, as it was once a great brand, so it will become great again.”
Coppola even had to reclaim the Inglenook name. The corporations that owned the brand over the years wouldn’t allow him to put “Inglenook” on his bottles. Substitute names, such as Niebaum-Coppola, Rubicon, Francis Ford Coppola Wines flummoxed consumers about the wines’ provenance until Coppola finally was able to buy back the name in 2011.
But to Coppola, Inglenook represents much more than a name. Coppola says his wife, Eleanor, was not initially in favor of his buying the name Inglenook.
“We’d argue. She said, ‘Why would you want to buy a name for so much money that’s been trashed?’ I said, ‘Because some day in the future is what this is all about. I don’t want to say this is the estate that used to be Inglenook. I want to say Inglenook.’ …
“The idea of Inglenook was much more eternal,” Coppola says. “It was a place and it was a certain style of excellence and it got broken up into a lot of pieces. Then someone came along and put the pieces back together. That’s all I did.”
ALL ABOUT THE WINE
Beyond the property’s classic chateau, the Italianate piazza, the museum-like interior containing Coppola’s film ephemera, it’s the wines that hold the key to re-elevating Inglenook into the pantheon of an American first-growth estate.
Judging from the quartet of vintages so far released, the wines — cabernet sauvignon and the Bordeaux-blended Rubicon — are again showing signs of how the Inglenook wines used to taste. Those were extraordinary in their age-worthiness, balance and finesse. The wines under Coppola’s aegis are powerful but restrained, with lower alcohol than many from California. They also are balanced, in structure and in spanning that space between California (power) and Bordeaux (finesse). They’re priced at $78 a bottle — a relative bargain in such a pedigreed region as Napa Valley — to a hefty $210 for the Rubicon.
Inglenook produces about 25,000 cases of wine a year, which includes about 5,000 cases of Rubicon and the Inglenook cabernet. That’s a pittance compared to the 2 million cases the winery previously was churning out annually. Most of those lower-priced wines now are being made at Virginia Dare in Geyserville, which Coppola also owns.
But can Inglenook overcome years of bargain-bin reputation? Will younger customers respect the venerable brand name? “You mean they won’t like first growth, they won’t like world-class wines?” Coppola says. “A millennial is someone about 30; they don’t spend over $200 for a bottle of wine, so they’re not our customer. Our customer is someone who can afford to buy a $500 bottle of wine or a $200 bottle of wine.”
SWEET AND SOUR GRAPES
In the wine community, opinions are mixed about whether Coppola can succeed in his quest to revive Inglenook.
Robin Lail, who owns Lail Vineyards in Napa Valley and is the daughter of John Daniel, who owned Inglenook at its apex from 1939 to 1969 before selling it to a corporate suitor, considers Coppola a friend. She clearly has an interest as she gushes, “Inglenook is the stuff of magic, and to see it drift and falter after the sale by my father was heartbreaking. In exact reverse, it is thrilling to see the property coalesced with a maestro at the helm.”
Lail, who as a child played among the giant casks at Inglenook, is unequivocal about Coppola surmounting the obstacles. “Francis has everything he needs to succeed,” she says. “His view of Inglenook was to put all the pieces together and then set out to create a new Inglenook for the 21st century and beyond. … [It] took a long time, but his determination and vision never wavered.”
Others aren’t as enthusiastic. One who seems sour on Coppola’s attempts at redeeming Inglenook is James Conaway, author of three books on the plight of Napa and its denizens. He worries that Coppola has concentrated too much on ostentatious architecture at the estate and labels him a “lifestyle vintner.”
“He doesn’t make the wine, does he?” Conaway says. “That makes him a lifestyle vintner by definition: Somebody who wants to have the vintners’ life and let somebody else do all the work — and made his money elsewhere.”
Coppola argues that his philosophy and goals are nothing like that of a lifestyle vintner. “It is very important to understand the Coppola family does not use Inglenook to provide income for us to live,” he says. “So I’m not a lifestyle vintner, I don’t get any money out of Inglenook, I put money into it. I live off of movies that I made 40 years ago. … Our goals are very similar to a European family that owns a first-growth. We are proud of it, we love it, we live here, we revel in this beauty. We consider ourselves custodians of it.”
Another skeptic is Mike Richmond, who ran several California wineries over his 45-year career. He was weaned on Inglenook’s rieslings and charbonos. “That winery has always held a special place in my heart. In a way, it is the reason I am in the wine business,” he says in an email. However, “I am reasonably certain that Francis Ford Coppola’s wine empire has complex origins fraught with daunting financial woes that presumably were finally resolved.
“As to restoring Inglenook to its former glory, I have serious doubts,” Richmond says. “The industry has changed and the role of wine in America has changed. It would be a noble gesture honoring the history of California wine, but its time has passed. … I can’t imagine it ever becoming financially successful or enjoying the prestige of its former glory.”
A PLAN FOR TRANSFORMATION
Bordelais winemaker Philippe Bascaules, hired by Coppola to transform Inglenook, is much more optimistic, not surprisingly. “For me, it’s a change as to how to manage the vineyard,” he says during a tasting inside a dark, wood-paneled room at the chateau.
Bascaules, who also is managing director of Chateau Margaux — one of the great wineries of the world — serves as director of winemaking at Inglenook, visiting a half dozen times a year. He is overseeing the replanting of parts of the 235 acres of Inglenook’s vineyards.
When he arrived in Napa Valley in 2012, “I didn’t know anything,” he concedes. “The wines tasted too alcoholic, they were too ripe; different from Bordeaux. I didn’t understand, in the Napa Valley they wanted to pick late, but the grapes weren’t ripe enough. I want to change the viticulture so the grapes will be on time.”
Those are frank comments that can only come from a man who is newly arrived from another wine universe. No doubt, Coppola’s decision to bring in an outsider has rankled the entrenched Napa Valley establishment.
One of the valley’s most revered winemakers, Dick Peterson, is one of those skeptical of imported winemakers like Bascaules. “In the past, bringing in established winemakers from Bordeaux hasn’t worked very well because the climate and culture there is so different from Napa Valley; [those] imported winemakers have had to start all over, which cost them several years,” Peterson says. “It hasn’t been easy for established European winemakers to drop old prejudices in favor of what’s necessary in Napa.”
But Coppola is resolute in his support of Bascaules. His 50-year plan for Inglenook includes six points about how to go about building a great winery estate. One requires there to be an owner with the financial wherewithal, to which he says, “I don’t think in terms of money, I’m not the slightest bit interested in money.”
Another requirement, as he counts off on his fingers “is that the winemaker is someone who has made what is acknowledged to be great wine. … So we have, of course, Philippe Bascaules.”
Coppola continues his litany: “The owners have to be an interesting story and have to be willing to do anything to make great wine. We have a story that rivals a telenovela. With the company being bought up, by being ripped apart, by being sold off, by the name being sold off to a supermarket brand. … The owner is very important because the owner has to be willing to do anything beyond the immediate financial gain, and has to be willing to do anything to make the wine just even a tiny bit greater.”
Peterson, the winemaster in the late 1960s at BV Vineyards, is a believer in Coppola’s promotional prowess and the legacy of the Inglenook brand. However, he says, “That was so long ago that most of today’s wine drinkers may not even remember what Inglenook used to be. All they’ve ever seen is big volumes and big sales pushes. Whether that can be reset by anyone — even a great marketer like Francis Ford Coppola — is unlikely.”
John Skupny, who worked closely with Coppola as his general manager in the early 1990s, also is uncertain that Coppola can pull off the resurrection of Inglenook.
“He may be chasing history that cannot be replicated,” he says. “I believe one cannot replicate the wines that were made from what most agree defines the golden age of Inglenook.”
A TASTE FOR RISK
Sitting by the oak tree, Coppola returns in conversation to the suggestion that he’s merely a lifestyle vintner. “When Conaway says I’m like a lifestyle vintner, he’s right,” he finally concedes. “I don’t know anything about [wine]. I know how to drink wine and I know how to cook. He’s right, I don’t make the wine, but I make the resources and the direction. That’s all a movie director does — you don’t do the acting, actors do the acting. … But you set the stage and you give the goals, and that’s all I’ve done here. The goal is to make as great a wine from this property as we can possibly make.”
Coppola prefers the word “risk,” as opposed to something like audacity, in describing the task in front of him in restoring Inglenook to its former glory. “You cannot make great art unless you’re a friend of risk,” Coppola says. “Any more than you can make babies without sex, risk is the key element. Risk was what happened with this tree. Look, I won. The tree is alive. It was a risk that was well taken. Inglenook is all in one piece now, and it’s called Inglenook. So risk is not something to fear. …
“This is such a blessing this place, there isn’t a day that goes by that my wife and I say, what a beautiful place this is,” Coppola says. “How lucky are we that we get to live here for a while, or our kids can come and live here? How fortunate are we?”
In his journalistic career, Alan Goldfarb has interviewed such disparate characters as Rupert Murdoch, Kenneth Starr, Rick Barry and Robert Mondavi.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated from the print version with current retail prices of the cabernet sauvignon and Rubicon wines, a description of a tasting room, and clarification of Coppola’s ownership of Virginia Dare.