Fall 2006 / Winter 2007
The Godfather of Wine
By Deborah Grossman
While not the godfather of wine, per se, Hollywood entertainment
mogul Francis Ford Coppola has worked diligently to further Wine
Country’s global stardom. This year, Coppola celebrates 31 years
in the wine industry—and a new winery in Sonoma.
He’s the creator of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and he
has pursued entrepreneurial interests ranging from a publishing
venture to adventure resorts in Belize and Guatemala.
Francis Ford Coppola, filmmaker, producer, screenwriter, is
not your archetypal Hollywood mogul. “These ventures don’t represent
businesses as much as my restless nature to have fun besides
making movies,” he says.
Coppola is also a lifelong wine lover, and since 1975, he and
his family have called Napa Valley home. Using profits from The
Godfather, Coppola settled in the Victorian house of Captain
Gustave Niebaum on the Inglenook Winery estate, which Niebaum
established in 1880. In 1978, he began producing a Bordeaux blend
using grapes from the vineyard he owned next to the house. “Since
I was studying Roman history at the time, I called the wine Rubicon,
after Caesar’s ‘No Surrender’ stand near Rome,” he says. Alluding
to the auditory value of his decision, the filmmaker smiles and
adds, “The name also sounds like ‘ruby’ or ‘red.’ ”
Coppola dubbed his wine-making company Niebaum-Coppola, acknowledging
the role of shipping magnate Niebaum in elevating Napa Valley
wines to the international stage with Inglenook vintages. In
1995, Coppola purchased the Inglenook chateau and surrounding
vineyards and reopened the winery as Niebaum-Coppola.
In March 2006, Coppola renamed the property Rubicon Estate,
after his flagship wine, and at the same time announced the launch
of a second winery in Geyserville, on the property that had been
home to Chateau Souverain. As much as Coppola loves Rutherford,
he says he feels a pull toward Sonoma. “Sonoma is a spectacularly
beautiful county, with many treasures,” he says. “It reminds
me of the innocence of Napa Valley when we first moved there.”
The exterior of the new property (which at press time had yet
to be named), with its mountain chalet appeal, will remain the
same. But Coppola is having his movie production designer completely
renovate the interior, creating a dynamic backdrop for the winery
and the director’s film interests.
Coppola, the Wine Man
As for his Wine Country pursuits, Coppola readily acknowledges
he’s not the wine-making expert. When asked about his direct
involvement with Rubicon, he targets his real passion: “I’m most
involved in the packaging, the presentation, and the labels.
Our Captain’s Reserve is the only label made of wood on the market.
I wanted to associate the wine with an antique compass that Captain
Niebaum may have used.”
Yet Coppola is well versed in the unique growing conditions
of his Rutherford vineyards on the slopes above the Napa River
plain. Here, his vines yield outstanding cabernet sauvignon and
merlot grapes for Rubicon. Coppola is also acutely aware of the
need to build a special team to produce his signature wine. To
that end, he leaves the winemaking to Scott McLeod. And in his
typically creative, nontraditional style, Coppola tapped a sommelier
rather than a winery operation professional to manage Rubicon
Estate. Coppola selected Larry Stone, an acclaimed sommelier
who has worked at four-star restaurants in Chicago and San Francisco.
With a seasoned understanding of what customers seek in world-class
wine experiences, Stone manages both the winery operation and
Rubicon Estate’s public areas have housed a mishmash of items
reflecting Coppola’s interests in art, history, and the written
word. Included are historic sailing paraphernalia and furniture
belonging to Captain Niebaum, the Tucker car from the eponymous
movie, Coppola’s Oscars, and a collection of early filmstrip
viewers called magic lanterns. Stone will oversee the preservation
of Niebaum heritage artifacts at Rubicon Estate, while the personal
moviemaking memorabilia will be relocated to the Geyserville
The two wineries are run as separate businesses: Rubicon Estate
is owned privately by the Coppola family; and a new company,
Francis Ford Coppola Presents LLC, owns the Geyserville winery
and Coppola’s other branded products.
Coppola’s restless imagination manifests in the unique guest
experiences at each winery. Guest visits to Rubicon Estate (which
requires a $25 tasting fee) include five tastes and a general
tour of the chateau, museum, and winery. For an additional cost,
other tours are available, including a private tasting as well
as an in-depth look at the wine-making facilities, a vineyard
tour, and an introduction to the acclaimed cabernet sauvignon
clone 29 grapes used in Rubicon wine.
Coppola’s vision for the Geyserville winery comprises a Wine
Country tourist destination and a haven for neighbors to relax
with their kids. To that end, some of the tastings are free,
and kid-centric activities are plentiful. The winery offers an
on-site restaurant that emphasizes local ingredients, and during
the summer the winery hosts Friday Geyserville Neighbors’ Market,
featuring local vendors and live music. In addition to the movie
memorabilia display, the winery store stocks an eclectic set
of Coppola products, from Mammarella pasta to his favorite brands
of pencils and journals.
The wines sold at the properties are unique too. Coppola is
intensely proud—and knowledgeable—about his flagship Rubicon
wine, which sells for $110 a bottle and has the faint aroma of
violets, a special characteristic imparted by the Rutherford
land and climate. “Our team upholds the heritage, tradition,
and culture of California winemaking,” he says. “We make the
wine in the exact winery so the gravity flow is gentle to the
grapes—in the same way it was made 150 years ago.”
At the Rubicon Estate tasting room, you can purchase Rubicon;
Captain’s Reserve; Blancaneaux, a white Rhône blend from estate
vineyards; and several other estate varietals, including Edizione
Pennino Zinfandel, named in tribute to Coppola’s maternal grandfather.
At the Geyserville winery, you’ll find limited quantities of
Skywalker Ranch Chardonnay, made from Marin County grapes in
collaboration with George Lucas. Or you can buy the sparkling
wine named for Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, and sold in cans. Coppola’s
value wines include his Diamond label line, which sells for about
$15 per bottle. And of course you can find the first wine to
be produced in Geyserville—the Francis Coppola Diamond Collection
Black Label Claret 2004. Reflecting his commitment to Sonoma,
Coppola released his first Sonoma Russian River
Valley appellation wine, FC Reserve Viognier, last summer. It
is available only at the winery and via his online store at www.ffcpresents.com.
A Straightforward Approach
Coppola does not employ a superficial approach in either his
moviemaking or his wine production. Spurred on by his wife, Eleanor,
and her interest in gardening, Coppola has made sure that his
estate vineyards are certified organic and that all Rubicon Estate
wine is made from certifiably organic grapes.
He surrounds himself with perfectionists as well. In addition
to selecting only the best grapes, Coppola’s fastidious team
wanted to ensure that the wine be presented in a superlative
way. To that end, they invited Georg Riedel, the Austrian glassmaker,
to define the perfect stemware for Rubicon pourings. (Riedel
and his wine-making team, top sommeliers, and wine critics, selected
the Sommeliers glass line.) As Riedel explains, “The glass is
the loudspeaker for the music of wine. It helps bring out the
symphony of flavors.”
No wonder Coppola supported this glass-selection exercise: His
movies play to all the senses, from the visual drama of The Godfather
to the mysterious music of Apocalypse Now. Wine appreciation,
in his value system, isn’t about gulping down a beverage.
“My grandfather made wine in his basement in New York City,”
he says. “He had seven sons who would hunt down grapes to make
wine. We always had wine on the table. There was no taboo on
alcohol. That’s why Zinfandel is so enjoyable to me today: The
fruit flavors, the intoxicating aromas, the lush feel of the
wine reminds me of Italian dinners with family. And that’s why
I like to serve Rubicon with a big T-bone steak in the company
of Eleanor and a few other couples.
“We need a new word for ‘lifestyle,’ ” he adds. “Maybe we should
call it the art of living.”
1991 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford
(800) 782-4266, (707) 968-1100
Open daily from 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Francis Ford Coppola Winery
400 Souverain Rd., Geyserville
Open daily from 11 a.m.