One of the most legendary figures in film history, Francis Ford Coppola was always willing to risk everything for the sake of his movies. Apocalypse Now nearly destroyed him personally and professionally while One From the Heart brought him close to financial ruin.
Fortunately, in 1975 he chose to invest his earnings from his first two Oscar-winning Godfather movies to buy 1500 acres in California’s Napa Valley including 200 acres that had once belonged to the fabled Inglenook vineyards, created by Finnish mogul Gustave Niebaum in the 1870s.
It was the wisest investment that the Hollywood director would ever make, and Coppola’s wine business has since gone on to reap a vast fortune. Led by its flagship Director’s Cut and Coppola Claret Cabernet Sauvignon vintages, the estate produces some of the top-selling premium wines in America. In January, the Coppola estate signed a three-year deal to become the official and exclusive wine sponsor to the Oscars beginning in February. The landmark contract also covers the prestigious Governor’s Ball which is the official Oscars’ after-party and comes on the heels of a similar deal by which the Coppola estate is also the official wine supplier to Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival
Today, the Coppola estate is estimated to be worth over $300 million and it’s a remarkable achievement for the 77-year-old filmmaker who has earned five Oscars during his illustrious career, including those for director and screenwriter for The Godfather Part II. Ironically, he only purchased the Napa Valley estate because he was looking for a “nice cottage” in the countryside where his family could spend their summers away from their main home in San Francisco.
”It was like a dream, that whole period,” Coppola recalled. “We had a big home in San Francisco and I suggested to my wife that we buy a little summer house so the kids can go swimming and climb trees. I said, ‘Let’s buy it in the Napa Valley because it’s only an hour away, and then we could also have an acre of grapes and every year with the boys we’ll stomp the grapes.’…I never imagined turning the property into a major winery or having my own label.”
Over the last four decades, Coppola has poured over $100 million into acquiring some of the finest wine acreages in California and becoming one of the top vintners in the industry. In 2011 he has expanded his operations into the Sonoma Valley where the Frances Ford Coppola Winery includes a vast theme park modelled after Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and features two restaurants, a movie theatre (including many mementoes and props from Coppola’s films), public swimming pool, wine bar, café, two restaurants, a park, and 28 rental cabins.
Said Coppola: “I wanted to turn it into this joyous wine wonderland where families could come and enjoy the experience of great wine, food, music, and the pleasure of being in one of the most beautiful areas anywhere on earth. I come from a big, lively family where life was meant to be savoured. This is the kind of atmosphere we’ve tried to create here.”
Meanwhile, the Coppola collection of wines ranks amongst the best in the highly competitive California wine region. Formerly grouped under the label Rubicon and now renamed Inglewood after he purchased the rights to the historic name in 2011, Coppola has realised a dream by creating his own private family domain. Growing up in an Italian-American family household where Chianti and Nero d’Avola was drunk every evening at suppertime and whose grandfather made wine in his basement, Coppola has always associated drinking wine with the happiness that comes from family gatherings.
Francis Ford Coppola was born in 1939 in Detroit, Michigan where his father Carmine was a talented flautist who studied at Julliard and played on a weekly radio show called the ‘The Ford Sunday Evening Hour’ (hence Francis’s middle name) while also performing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
”When I was a little kid, happiness was when my uncles, my aunts, my cousins and all the others came around to our house. We would have dinner and they were drinking wine and there was apple juice – that was happiness. I always associated happiness with family, liking each other, getting along, happy to see that everyone’s healthy, little kids are having fun, (and) no one’s mad at anybody.”
His family then returned to New York and the young Coppola grew up first in Queen’s and then Long Island. Deeply proud of his father, Frances would later hire him to compose the scores for all three Godfather films as well as Apocalypse Now.
But the ultimate story of Francis Ford Coppola’s transformation from film titan into wine mogul is worthy of a movie on its own. It plays out like a glorious saga that began when Gustave Niebaum launched the Inglenook Estate in 1873 and vowed to invest every cent he had to make the finest wines in the world. Inglenook won 27 medals at the Paris exhibition in 1888 and 19 gold medals in San Francisco in 1915.
Later, under his successor, John Daniel Niebaum Jr. the 1941 Inglenook is still regarded by wine experts as one of the greatest Cabernet Sauvignons of the last century. Coppola had always wanted to try the vintage since buying the estate but for various reasons could never find a bottle for sale. Finally, he found one in 2012: “I bought a bottle at auction for nearly $25,000 and drank it with some of my best friends. It was probably one of the greatest wines that I’ve ever tasted and ever will taste.”
The Inglenook Estate was virtually bankrupt by the early 70s, however, and in a state of chronic disrepair when Francis and Eleanor Coppola first visited the property in 1972 and immediately fell in love with its natural beauty set against the backdrop of Mount St. John.
After purchasing most of the estate property, including the house and much of the surrounding acreage, Coppola began a four-decade-long process of accumulating the best wine-producing prime acreage in the adjacent area as part of restoring the celebrated Inglenook estate to its former glory.
The initial acquisition of the 1500 acres included the Inglewood mansion and the slopes leading up Mount St. John but significantly did not include the coveted and historic chateau nor or the vineyards along Highway 29.
”I didn’t realize that it was going to be that long of an undertaking,” Coppola recalled. “Quite honestly, I wouldn’t have imagined it was going to be possible…to unite most of the land together. It wasn’t something I seriously thought I was going to be able to do.”
It would take 20 years and the substantial profits he earned from his 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula before Coppola was able to raise the money to buy the adjacent property to complete the restoration of the Inglewood estate (which Coppola called Rubicon until he was able to buy the original name).
He added: “I only got the necessary money to (complete the estate) it as I made more movies…Then another opportunity came to buy the vineyards on the right, and that was really costly, but I did it. We built the winemaking facility in the chateau, so we started making wine there again. (Then) I was able to buy the Inglenook trademark back (in 2011), so it could be called again what it was always called.”
He regards both filmmaking and winemaking as “art forms” in their own right and has an interesting way of drawing parallels between his two passions in life.
”The process is the same, with three stages. In film, you gather the source material. That’s the research or the story material or the writing. The gathering in wine is the gathering of the grapes. The second phase in film is, you take what you’ve gathered, which some days was good, some days was bad, and through the editing you assemble, just as in wine you taste the different lots and then you assemble what you think is the best wine. Then you have the third phase, which is the entire process of finishing, which in film is all the sound and mix and colour correction and finally taking it to the audience. In wine, it’s the same thing, the fining and the ageing and the bottle ageing and ultimately putting it into the package.”
It is the height of irony that Coppola regards his film career as the least successful part of his life. The days when he could command massive budgets in Hollywood are long gone, and his most recent films Twixt (2011) and Tetro (2009) were both critical and commercial failures, although the former project was in many respects a subconscious homage to the tragic death of his son Gian Carlo (Gio) in a Maryland boating accident in 1986.
He realised while shooting Twixt that “it was time to own up to the fact that deep down in my heart I felt responsible because I could have gone (on the boating trip with his son), (Gio) wanted me to go.
”Every parent feels that they’re responsible for whatever might happen to their kid, but I didn’t realise how much I felt personally responsible for what happened (to Gio)…I should have been there.”
Though he has perhaps never truly recovered from his son’s death, he regards his fall from grace in Hollywood with almost cold disregard.
”I am less anxious to have a successful career. There were times when I was anxious because I had children, I needed to support them and I was worried. Even in the past, people said, ‘You make successful films.’ But my films were never successful. Apocalypse Now was a big worry and it took a long time (to make a profit).”
Added Coppola: “The American critics never have in the past and probably won’t in the future like my work until later. That the only film that I ever made that got a good critical response was The Godfather and even that had people who criticized it for the fact that it romanticised the Mafia… All my other work: Godfather II, The Conversation, Rumble Fish, certainly One From The Heart. Apocalypse Now were all put down by the critics…My films do better over time. Ten years later people said better things about them.”
“I wanted to turn it into this joyous wine wonderland where families could come and enjoy the experience of great wine, food, music, and the pleasure of being in one of the most beautiful areas anywhere on earth.”
– Francis Ford Coppola
When it comes to wine, however, he has always enjoyed every aspect of his lifelong love affair with the grape. As soon as he started earning some serious money as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Coppola started collecting some of the world’s most famous vintages thanks to Gore Vidal.
”When I was 23 I became a screenwriter, and they sent me to Paris to write a script called Is Paris Burning? I collaborated with Gore Vidal on that. And Gore Vidal was an urbane man and knew a lot about wine. That’s when I began collecting.”
Over the course of the Coppola estate’s evolution and expansion, great care has been taken to keep a distinct balance between its high-end super-premium wines and more commercial vintages. Coppola’s 2013 Archimedes and Eleanor (named after his wife) vintages sell for $90 and $65 respectively, while the long-running and massively popular Coppola Diamond Black Label Claret retails for a modest $21 and has earned consistently good scores from critics.
Last year, the Coppola estate has also released three mass-market wines which – not unsurprisingly – are names after classic films – King Kong (Cab Sauv), Jaws (Chardonnay), and The Wizard of Oz (Merlot).
Even though his wine business may have eclipsed his film career from a business standpoint, Coppola still sees each enterprise as having its own unique character. Auteur filmmaking, where the director writes his own material and “brings his own distinctive vision” to each film, is similar to the way great wines have their “own personality and individuality” that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.
It’s this firm belief in “terroir” which is why Coppola was so determined to recapture the 19th century magic of the Niebaum estate and why he believes that the same principles apply to filmmakers. “My daughter Sofia makes unique films (such as the award-winning Lost in Translation) which only she is capable of making and that’s how I feel about great wines. There’s something so special about the soil and the climate and the vines that grow in a particular place that can’t be reproduced elsewhere.”
Coppola sees his mission today as fulfilling the legacy of one of the world’s most historic vineyards and carrying out the master plan first laid out by Gustave Niebaum himself.
“My only goal is to realize the potential of the fruit that’s grown there. In the days of Niebaum, there were wines made there that were considered great. All that began 120 years ago. I think we’d say that we’re arguably the only Napa Valley wine that can let you taste a great wine from 120 years ago.”