How wine became Francis Ford Coppola's consuming passion

Francis Ford Coppola was in town recently to relaunch a wine label he spent more than 30 years revitalising. He tells Sarah Wong about his two great passions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 11:51am

Francis Ford Coppola has just spent a month in Beijing, an experience the 73-year-old film director found revelatory. "Chinese people are very much like Italians," he says.

Coppola is dismissive of the idea that Beijingers are obsessed with brands. Out buying a toothbrush one day, he found himself in a mall, surrounded shops such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. His first thought was that he might as well have been in Beverly Hills.

"You know, those brands bore me. At first I thought, 'So they can afford to buy a €1,800 (HK$18,000) wine so they can impress,'" he says. However, on another shopping trip he had a "key moment". In a coffee shop, he saw a television was displaying an insurance commercial depicting a regular family together with the grandparents, toasting with a glass of red wine at the table. It made him think: "That must mean something very important. Wine is not just a prestige thing. The scene in the commercial is about happiness. Using wine as part of the family will remain in the culture."

During his time in the capital, Coppola was also invited to many artists' homes and found further parallels with Italy and his own experience of growing up in an Italian-American family. Just as in his childhood, the Beijing gatherings often entailed eating vast meals and drinking wine with 18 other people, and children running around.

Sharply dressed, even for an 8.40am wine tasting and interview, Coppola talks about a love of wine that has led to his ownership and revitalisation of California's Inglenook winery. When he predicts an optimistic future for Chinese wine culture, where it will be "regular" people drinking wine much the same way as the wine culture evolved in America more than 20 years ago, he is no doubt hoping they will be drinking Inglenook wines.

Coppola was in Beijing, Hong Kong and Macau to relaunch a brand he has spent more than three decades revitalising. He describes it as "an old brand that was murdered. It is something new but really old". The epic story begins over a century ago. In 1880 Gustave Niebaum, a wealthy Finnish sea captain and entrepreneur, bought Inglenook farm in the Napa Valley, which was described by The San Francisco Examiner, in 1890, as "a spot of indescribable loveliness in the midst of charming surroundings". Niebaum had lofty ambitions. "I am going to make a California wine, if it can be made, that will be sought after by connoisseurs and will command as high a price as the famous French, German and Spanish wines, and I am prepared to spend all the money needed to accomplish that result."

By the time of Niebaum's death, in 1908, Inglenook had made Californian wines famous. The winery won 27 medals at the Paris Centennial Exposition and its wines were served in the White House to president Grover Cleveland. Under the management of John Daniel Jnr, Niebaum's grandnephew, the label's reputation grew. Its wines won the largest number of medals at San Francisco's Golden Gate International Exposition. The 1941 Inglenook cabernet sauvignon in later years won the accolade as the best ever made.

Inglenook's dark period began in 1964. Due to financial constraints, Daniel decided to sell the front of the property, and rights to the name, to the corporate giant Allied Grape Growers. The nature of the wine changed as mass-volume generic wines were produced, eroding the former great reputation of Inglenook. In 1969, Heublein, a large spirits company at the time, acquired Inglenook.

It was in 1972 that Coppola entered the picture. He was looking for a summer house for his family in Napa Valley and was shown the Niebaum mansion at the back of the property. His first attempt to buy it was unsuccessful. However, in 1975, using the proceeds from the first two Godfather films, he was able to fulfil his dream. "Two things sealed it for me" he says of his decision to buy the property. At the back was a lake, which evoked idyllic memories of a happy childhood in similar surroundings. In front of the house was a wooden swing under a huge tree, where he thought his then four-year-old daughter, Sofia, could play.

In 1995, Coppola was able to buy the front part of the property with the income from directing Bram Stoker's Dracula. The second part of his dream was fulfilled as the original property and its chateau were reunited.

The final piece of the puzzle slotted into place last year when Coppola bought back the rights to the Inglenook name and chateau image. He appointed Philippe Bascaules, formerly of Chateau Margaux, as general manager with a mission to realise the 130-year-old dream of Niebaum, John Daniel Jnr and Coppola by making the world's best wines and "realising the potential of the heritage".

Although wine has always been part of Coppola's life, he did not intend to go into the wine business in 1975. At first the grapes from the property were sold. But the thought occurred to him: "If the grapes are so famous, maybe instead of selling them we should make wine out of them." The idea led to the birth of Rubicon - a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.

As a child, growing up in an Italian family, he recalls "there was never a dinner table without wine on it. Wine was the traditional beverage. We kids would drink wine with lemon soda". He continued to learn about wine as a writer in France, where he was stunned by the quality of fine wines from Chateau Lafite and Domain de la Romanée-Conti.

Family is integral to the long-term success of the winery, Coppola says. "Wine work takes decades. You do not get results in a year or two or five. That's why it is so important to have succession. The children are now adults with children of their own. It is important that the family keeps it as a family estate and runs it."

He says that few families in the world are privileged enough to have a premier cru winery as part of their heritage and be able to live there. He hopes that the grandchildren who play there now can eventually become the custodians. "Few things in life have this appeal," he says.

Coppola's goal now that he owns the brand name is to produce a top-class wine to match it. He looks to Bordeaux as a reference point as he believes the French have set a benchmark.

"Everyone said the wine is miraculous. How can we have wines as beautiful? In the arts, when you read a novel by Flaubert, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, you think: 'If only I could write like that'. So it is good to have a demonstrative wine that we can do as well."

As for Inglenook's wine style, Coppola thinks in terms of a first growth and hopes that the wine will "become ever more elegant, which means lower alcohol, which means long finish, which means that the unique flavour of black fruit is there, and has silkiness, freshness".

Coppola is confident that Inglenook will not see a reversal of its fortunes and see the break-up of the property. He says the estate has no debt and the winery has always been profitable. The children are on the board and already effectively the owners. They understand it is Coppola's wish to keep the winery in the family.

Looking back on his investment track record, Coppola recalls: "Several times in life I tried to make investments. To make movies that I want to make, the films need to be self-financed. Every time I tried to make money in business I lost money. When I did not try and did something I loved, I made money.

"The fundamental lesson I learned in business is to pick something you love without the intention of it being profitable, and it will probably be profitable."

Cinema and wine are Coppola's two passions. When asked to choose between his great loves, he replies: "My first love in life is cinema. To pursue cinema, the most magical of art forms, is the central theme of my life. Wine is part of being alive. Food is necessary to all human beings. Wine is the queen of food."

Coppola seems a complete man. He is in "a good place in his movie career" and doing projects that he wants to do. In his wine career, he has completed a 37-year-old project in resurrecting a great Napa winery. However, his work is not yet done. When asked when he knows he has reached his goal, he replies: "You never know when you get there. You just approach."