When his filmmaking exploits threatened to ruin him, it was Francis Ford Coppola’s winemaking venture that saved the day. Thirty years on it’s doing better than ever and he’s back making his own
films, as he tells James Mottram
Size has always been everything to Francis Ford Coppola.
Famed for grandiose epics, from The Godfather trilogy to his Vietnam War meditation Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s reputation as a filmmaker is as gargantuan as his girth. This is never more obvious
than when we meet in his penthouse hotel suite. Shortly after I enter, there’s a knock at the door and a large bunch of flowers is delivered, a present from the organisers of the Rome Film Festival
where Coppola is about to unveil Youth Without Youth, his first film for a decade. ‘Aren’t they lovely?’ coos his PR. Sitting at a desk, hunched over his Apple laptop, Coppola assumes a look of
mock disgust. ‘But I can’t eat them!’ he cries.
Dressed in an orange shirt and grey suit trousers straining at the waist, Coppola clearly hasn’t lost his sense of humour (or his appetite), even if he’s lost his way of late. His last film was
1997’s The Rainmaker, a by-numbers John Grisham adaptation that came hot on the heels of the wretched man-child fable Jack. ‘I didn’t write them,’ he says, defensively. The only bright point for
Coppola was that by doing them, he had finally wrested himself free of the crippling debts that had hamstrung him for nearly two decades. It was then that he resolved to return to the sort of
personal filmmaking for which he was once renowned.
If Coppola was no longer a director for hire, it didn’t make things any easier. Planned projects, such as his Pinocchio film and an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, failed to come to
fruition, while his long-gestating New York-set science fiction film Megalopolis became impossible to fund after the events of 9/11. ‘I did feel frustrated,’ he admits, ‘I just thought, “What kind
of career can I have at this point?” I didn’t want to be a Hollywood director. I had done, for 10 years, one movie after another to pay off the debt. I wanted to make personal films but nobody
wanted to sponsor me to do that. I didn’t know where my place was.’
Curiously, he found it during the course of researching Megalopolis, when he came across Youth Without Youth, a novel by Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade. It’s a Faustian tale about one Dominic
Matei, a suicidal linguistics professor who regains his youth after being struck by a bolt of lightning on the eve of the Second World War. Coppola no doubt identified with a protagonist who had
spent years failing to finish his magnum opus. Yet if there’s a sense that Coppola is as obsessed with his legacy as Dominic (played in the film by Tim Roth), he claims he’s at ease with the ageing
process. ‘It is a little disappointing to see your legs are not as strong, but I like the idea of growing old,’ he says.
Now 68, Coppola could certainly retire in the knowledge that he has made an indelible impact on cinema. Much of this is down to The Godfather, his stunning 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo’s Mafia
potboiler. ‘The Godfather changed my life, for better or worse,’ he reflects. ‘It definitely made me have an older man’s film career when I was 29.’ Together with its 1974 sequel, The Godfather
Part II, it not only changed the Hollywood landscape but won Coppola five Academy Awards. ‘I didn’t expect to be that kind of a success. Suddenly I had a little money – I never had any money before
– and my life went another way.’
It afforded Coppola the chance to invest in a winemaking business that has proved to be much more than a sideline. In 1975, he bought what was then called the Inglenook Estate in Napa Valley,
California. At the time, he was looking for just a couple of acres of vines so he could produce wine by the foot method ‘and pretend I was my grandfather’, as he puts it. Yet swiftly realising the
esteemed history of the estate, he decided to produce wine commercially. Renaming it Niebaum-Coppola, it produced the first vintage of Rubicon in 1978, after Coppola borrowed money from his mother
to buy equipment and hire a winemaker.
If this was the humble beginning of what would become a hugely successful venture, at the time it had a far more immediate use for Coppola, who was midway through the torturous filming of
Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. As shown by Eleanor Coppola, his wife of some 44 years, in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, everything from set-busting typhoons to a heart attack for leading
man Martin Sheen sent the film way over budget and schedule. Needing to pump in $25 million of his own money to keep the project afloat, Coppola was forced to mortgage his Napa Valley estate – a
decision he labelled his own ‘idiodyssey’.
‘In making a film I like to put myself in a situation that parallels what the story is about,’ he shrugs now. ‘Apocalypse Now is clearly a wild movie that almost got away from us in the same way
that the Vietnam War got away from the Americans.’ When it finally emerged in 1979, the film was hailed by critics, winning a share of the Palme d’Or in Cannes with Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin
Drum. Yet the experience evidently taught Coppola little. His next film, One From The Heart, a highly stylised 1982 Las Vegas-set musical, went millions over budget and forced him to file for
In financial free-fall, Coppola saw the floundering of his long-held plans for his production company American Zoetrope, formed in 1969 with the intention of offering a ‘new version of the
Hollywood studio system’. Not that it dented his spirit; Coppola has always been attracted to dreamers and those who reach for the sky, like Preston Tucker, the real-life car manufacturer at the
heart of 1988’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. ‘I think it’s good to be overly ambitious,’ he argues. ‘I think it’s better to be overly ambitious and fail, than to be under-ambitious and succeed in
a mundane way. I’ve been very fortunate. I failed upward in my life!’
The 1980s were difficult for Coppola: flops, like jazz-era gangster film The Cotton Club, were followed by sell-outs, such as the limp second sequel, The Godfather Part III. So broke that he filed
no taxes for three years, by 1992 Coppola listed his personal deficit at $98m. Yet gradually he began to reach solvency, thanks to his wine business, as well as a chain of hotel resorts in Belize
and a range of cigars.
Four years ago Coppola decided to split his wine production in two. Niebaum-Coppola was renamed the Rubicon Estate Winery – after Coppola’s flagship wine – focusing its energies solely on its
estate wines, which total about 15,000 cases a year. Meanwhile, he needed to find a new location for his non-estate brands that led his company to become, as he estimates, ‘the 10th- or
12th-largest wine producer in America’.
In 2006 he bought the Chateau Souverain facility in Sonoma County, 30 miles from San Francisco. Re-named the Francis Coppola Winery, it’s now home to the Francis Coppola Diamond Series wines and
the Coppola Presents entry-level blends Rosso and Bianco, producing over a million cases a year. ‘It’s a big company, with 600 employees,’ says Coppola. ‘I’m pretty much the chief – especially in
terms of the inspiration, what kinds of wines we make, how they look and what the label’s like.’
Coppola hardly seemed set to be a captain of industry in his youth. Born in Detroit, but raised all over the US due to his father’s work as a flautist, he was a ‘lonely kid’, not helped by a bout
of polio that confined him to bed for a year at the age of eight. His only joy was studying science. ‘I was terrible at math, but I could grasp science, and I used to love reading about the lives
of the scientists. I wanted to be a scientist or an inventor.’ This may explain why he doesn’t see his winemaking as merely commercial. The company is about to launch a programme for young students
to learn more about viniculture from across the world.
Fittingly, Coppola named his Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine Sofia Mini, after his 36-year-old daughter, who first came to public attention with her much-maligned performance in The Godfather Part
III. More recently, Sofia has taken over the family business – and not just because she and her older brother Roman were given the keys to American Zoetrope by their father. At a time when Coppola
Snr was inactive, her three films, including 2003’s Lost in Translation, marked her out as a director of note. ‘You would know she made a film even if it didn’t have her name on it,’ he beams.
‘That’s the most beautiful thing – in film and wine, we call it terroir. You know where it’s from just by drinking it.’
BACK TO BASICS
Sofia’s success encouraged her father to abandon his plans for Megalopolis and return to low-budget filmmaking with Youth Without Youth. ‘I did say, “Well, if Sofia went off to Japan to make Lost
in Translation on a lower budget, certainly I can.”’ Freed by the success of his entrepreneurial activities, Coppola was able to self-fund the film, which he shot in Romania. In many ways, it took
him back to his early filmmaking days in the 1960s, when he trained under low-budget legend Roger Corman. The irony was not lost on Coppola. ‘Here’s a story of an older man who gets to live his
life and become young again, and here I was going to make the film like a student filmmaker.’
In particular, the production recalled The Rain People, his affecting 1969 road movie about a runaway housewife. Back then, the equipment was all carried in just one van and Coppola did the same
for Youth Without Youth. ‘We went back and built this truck again – a more modern version but still one truck,’ he says. Energised by the experience, he’s planning his next film, Tetro, a
father-and-sons story set in Buenos Aires. ‘I just want to make one movie after another while I can still walk,’ he says. ‘It’s a wonderful feeling. I feel like I’m doing what I wanted to do when I
was 18.’ It seems Coppola has recaptured his youth after all.
LIFE & VINES: a brief history of Coppola Wines
Francis Ford Coppola’s
winemaking enterprises have gone from strength to strength since 1975, when he bought the Niebaum mansion and part of the Inglenook vineyards in California’s Napa Valley, renaming them the
Niebaum-Coppola Estate. His original intention was not to make wine, but Coppola was persuaded by legendary winemaker Robert Mondavi, who told him about the history of the vineyard.
Inglenook was founded in 1880 by Gustave Niebaum, who wanted to make wines to rival those of the great French producers of the day. His successors made some of the best wines of the 1940s and
1950s, including the 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been declared one of the world’s 10 greatest wines. Given this history, Mondavi was convinced great wines could be made at the
Coppola’s first vintage in 1977 was a family affair, based on the traditions of his grandfather Agostino, who used to make wine in the basement of his New York apartment. Looking for something a
bit fancier for the 1978 vintage, Coppola called on André Tchelistcheff, a Russian émigré who arrived in Napa in 1937 and wrote most of the rulebook when it came to winemaking in the region.
Tchelistcheff was to stay with Nieubaum-Coppola until 1990, developing Rubicon, a Cabernet Sauvignon blend that is now one of Coppola’s three estate wines.
In 1995 Coppola purchased the remaining Inglenook vineyards, and in 2002 he resurrected Gustave Niebaum’s original winery site as the Rubicon Winery. Today, winemaker Scott McLeod is responsible
for producing Rubicon, Cask Cabernet (a 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon) and Edizione Pennino Zinfandel, which are all farmed organically.
In 2006 Coppola opened the Francis Coppola winery in Sonoma County. It produces a wide variety of wines, starting with Francis Ford Coppola Presents Rosso and Bianco, made for everyday consumption.
The Bianco is Pinot Grigio sourced from Clarksburg and Monterey Counties, while the Rosso is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Diamond Collection wines represent different growing areas of California. ‘I would say these wines illustrate the true varietal character of the regions as well as the grapes themselves,’ says
winemaker and winery manager Corey Beck.
Coppola also wanted to create a more premium Director’s Cut range. ‘Francis asked me to identify the best regions of Sonoma County and start sourcing grapes from the best growers in those areas,’
explains Beck. ‘This is how we came up with our Russian River Chardonnay, Dry Creek Zinfandel, Alexander Valley Cabernet and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir,’ he adds.
Although not a trained winemaker, Coppola is clearly the driving creative force behind his wines. ‘Francis loves to create and all of our packaging and winery ideas start with him,’ says Beck. ‘I
appreciate Francis’s palate because he knows what he likes and he drinks wines from all over the world.’
Two to try
Director’s Cut Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2005
Aromas of chocolate cherry liqueurs lead to an easy-drinking palate of smooth black cherry fruit with soft ripe tannins.
£17, Sussex Wine Co, 01323 431143
Diamond Collection Red Label Zinfandel 2004
An accessible Zin with an attractive spicy berry nose and a touch of toasty vanilla. Dark cassis, cherry and plum fruit feature on the palate with chocolate notes and nicely judged tannins to
round it out.
£12, Wimbledon Wine Cellars, 020 8540 9979
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2008