Napa’s Inglenook winery: the rebuilding of an American dream

Francis Ford Coppola’s films have passed into legend, but the director is most proud of making Inglenook great again

Words by Adam Lechmere

The story of Inglenook is so quintessentially American it should be set to music. First there was a Finnish fur-trader of fabulous wealth who founded a magnificent Napa estate and made world-famous wines, then Prohibition, then decline as a faceless corporation almost ruins everything; then comes the brash young movie director staking his fortune on a dream and the rebirth of a California icon. Francis Ford Coppola is a story teller above all else, and (apart from The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, of course) this is his best story.

Coppola made his first purchase of part of the Inglenook estate in 1975 on the proceeds of The Godfather, and over the next 30-odd years set about buying the rest – the splendid winery built by the sea-captain and fur trader Gustave Niebaum, the mansion on the hill, the excellent vineyards on Napa’s Rutherford Bench. It had all been in the hands of various owners (Heublein, Canandaigua, Constellation). Heublein had turned the label into a jug wine brand; latterly, the huge Wine Group bought the trademark.

Coppola was sensible of Inglenook’s history. Niebaum was a visionary who built the first gravity-flow winery in America in 1879; his wines were lauded as far afield as Paris. Inglenook was much loved in Napa, even as its successive owners wrecked its reputation. One of Coppola’s first acts was highly symbolic: he demolished the ugly grey shed that disfigured the front of the property (thereby endearing himself to everyone). He called his estate Niebaum-Coppola in honour of its founder. In 2011 he bought the trademark from the Wine Group for a mighty sum – he will only say the name cost him as much as the entire estate. The figure of $14m is understood to be within range.

Inside the Inglenook winery
Inside the Inglenook winery
The Inglenook mansion
The mansion

Coppola was in London last month with his head of sales Todd DeVincenzi. He’s lost a lot of weight since I saw him a few years ago (“You don’t see many 80-year-old fat men” he says with the ghost of a chuckle). In 2011 he was a burly, if ageing figure, hearty, serenading his wife Elinor at the dinner table, serving up T-bone steak he insisted on cooking himself. Then, as now, I looked at him with some awe. This was the man who persuaded Marlon Brando (just about unemployable at that stage of his life) out of his Tahitian exile to play Vito Corleone – the studio preferred Laurence Olivier, Robert Mitchum or Sinatra. Coppola’s movies have passed into legend. The actors he directed were stars themselves – Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall – but they revered Brando, and they revered Coppola for making Paramount cast him.

The director’s just as imposing now but physically he’s spare and elderly. He still has the raconteur’s skill of making a yarn he’s told a hundred times sound fresh. I love the one about the bottles the Wine Group left behind in the Niebaum mansion. Apocalypse Now had soaked up most of Coppola’s fortune and the purchase price didn’t include the wine in the cellars. So he helped himself to a 100-year-old bottle every now and then. “One day there was a knock on the door and it was Robert Mondavi.” The Father of Napa congratulated the director on his purchase.  “So I asked him if he wanted to try some wine. He said ‘Sure’.”

A beat.

“So I stole another bottle.”

They opened the wine – possibly an 1886 –  and “the perfume rocked the room.” Mondavi said, “You see? Of course Napa can produce wines that age beautifully. You just have to leave them for long enough.” Coppola already knew he had some of the best vineland in Napa (Hugh Johnson dubs Rutherford “the Pauillac of Napa”; Inglenook’s benchland, the narrow, beautifully-drained alluvial strip that backs the property, is the best part of that appellation). A 1951 Rutherford Pinot Noir that Coppola gave me over dinner is still one of the best Napa wines I’ve ever tasted. There’s no Pinot there now, of course. In commercial terms this is Cabernet land and you’d be crazy to plant anything else. Inglenook does produce an excellent white, Blancaneaux, from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.

Inglenook wines
Inglenook winery
Inglenook winery

Coppola now owns 1700 acres (700ha), with 235 acres (95ha) planted. He’s building a new winery for the 2020 vintage that will have fermenters enough to break the vineyards down into more than 120 parcels. Philippe Bascaules, the managing director of Chateau Margaux, is fully involved with every vintage as consultant. Coppola poached Bascaules in 2011 (he claims, with a New York shrug, that he wouldn’t have dreamed of pinching Margaux’s then winemaker – “it was the agency who contacted him”); then Margaux poached him back…

Now Inglenook takes its place again at the top table. Coppola loves what he has built. “I’ve done so many interesting things in my life but what I’m most proud of is saving Inglenook, and making it beautiful again. I’m more proud of that than anything I’ve done.”

Talking of films (and Brad Pitt in this case, not Brando) the eminent critic David Thompson said “There has always been a strain of American acting that is resolute, simple and content to trust a known self.” I don’t want to stretch it too far (no one wants to be told his wines are simple) but I’ve always thought the best Napa wines have that unpretentious authority that says, this is what the land produces. Bascaules is producing wines of lushness and perfume, that young are full of sap and herb, and as they age deepen to rich dark cherry and plum, and scented Napa garrigue. You feel, yes, only this part of the world could produce this wine. To think of one of these bottles coming out of Bordeaux would be as hard to imagine as Frank Sinatra playing Vito Corleone.