This is a whole new way of seeing wine touring: The winery as an entertainment center, a destination for family fun and, yes, a playground for parents and their children. In a way, it’s astonishing that it took this long to figure it out. What’s not astonishing is that it took a visionary Hollywood director to do so, a man who, at the core of his existence, is a “family” man in every broad and good sense of that characterization.
Some years ago, I had an assignment to write a feature on director/winemaker Francis Ford Coppola for The Robb Report
, a slick, upscale “luxury” magazine catering to owners of Rolls Royce automobiles, private planes, boats, fancy watches and the like. I didn’t quite know what to expect from the director of pretty much everything from Peggy Sue Got Married
to Apocalypse Now
I certainly didn’t expect to attend the burial of his favorite dog, Yojimbo, and a down-home pasta and chicken dinner cooked by Francis himself. He cooked for me and his wife Eleanor—a chicken dish honoring Martin Scorcese’s mother (olive oil, garlic, oregano, “drown it all in lemon juice”)—in the spacious and well-equipped kitchen of the Gustave Niebaum House on the old Inglenook wine estate (founded by the Finnish sea captain in 1879 and purchased for rehabilitation by Coppola in 1975, it’s now called Rubicon Estate
We talked about film, wine and his “vacation home” in Belize (turns out to also be a very upscale resort for his friends and colleagues). But what we mostly talked about was his Italian heritage and its focus on family and food. Good stuff, indeed. “My love of cooking, essentially, came from my love of eating!” he said with a hearty laugh. “When I was in college, I had no money, so I’d call mom, and say, ‘How do you make that pasta I love?’ I had to cook for myself so that I could eat well.”
As he prepared our meal, I noticed he was dicing the onions by hand. “It just doesn’t taste the same when you throw ’em in a Cuisinart. Mom’s side of the family came from Naples, and she was a great cook. Dad’s side came from the arch in the boot of Italy, Basilicata.” (Coppola’s middle name, by the way, came from growing up in Detroit. His father worked for the Ford Motor Company. As a kid, Francis was a “boy scientist” and has always been a friend of new technology, to the point of once developing his own method for color television.)
For the last few years, Coppola and his associates have been tuned into the slow and meticulous rehab of the former Souverain of Alexander Valley Winery, turning it into a destination “resort” that focuses on, yep, family and food. (OK, there’s a little wine thrown in there too, for good measure.)
“Francis knows that people like to be entertained,” explains Corey Beck, general manager and winemaker at Francis Ford Coppola Winery
. “Goodness knows he knows how to entertain people. As you mentioned, his Italian heritage plays a big part of it, but mostly it’s that he likes to see people having fun. And he sees no good reason why people can’t have fun at a winery. Why should a winery be any different from any other destination?”
Rhetorical question, to be sure, but one that’s never really been asked—or answered so brilliantly—as at the newly reopened Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Food, fun and wine—it’s all there. (Along with the original Tucker auto from the film of the same name, Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather
and some of Coppola’s Oscars.)
Let’s start with the swimming pool. If there’s another winery that has a good-sized swimming pool—3,600 square feet—that’s open to all visitors, well, I’m not aware of it. “There are public changing rooms, as well as 28 private cabanas—cabines in Italian—that can be rented, for those who want to swim here,” says Beck, who grew up in the wine business and, after the briefest notion of doing something else with his life, chose wine.
“For years, kids have skipped around the fountain at Rubicon, begging their parents to let them jump in and splash around,” says Coppola. “Somehow, that stayed in my mind when we were talking about the elements we wanted here at this winery.” Pool passes include towels and certified lifeguards on duty at all times (the pool opens daily at 11 a.m.).
In addition to the swimming pool are, of course, bocce ball courts. “Bocce is the Italian form of lawn bowling,” says Beck. “We have four regulation courts on the west side of the property. The courts are professionally done, so much so that we’ll be able to handle regional competitions for the pros. Alongside the lawns are game tables for card and board games: chess, checkers, backgammon, all available free of charge to our guests. We’ll also have a variety of events designed specifically for kids, including smoothie tastings and our annual Easter egg hunt.”
Then there are the restaurants, two to be specific. The 62-seat main restaurant—situated in the east building where the former restaurant was and featuring an exquisite overlook of the Alexander Valley proper (the terrace boasts another 62 seats)—is called Rustic. Subtitled “Francis’s Favorites,” the cuisine hones in on recipes gleaned from Coppola’s travels. An Argentine grill, called a parrilla, is designed to offer a true South American culinary experience, but European cuisines are also highlighted, especially Neapolitan-style pizzas and traditional Italian family recipes that feature seasonal foodstuffs grown in the estate’s organic herb and vegetable gardens.
The second restaurant, at poolside, is the Pool Café. Here the focus is on summer fare—hot dogs and burgers, as well as gelato, salads and paninis. These may be enjoyed picnic style in the park or at the Café’s counter seating.
In good taste
Beck himself grew up immersed in the culture of wine and food. Says Beck, “My grandfather was John Rolleri. He was the vineyard manager at Chateau Montelena [the Calistoga winery whose 1973 Chardonnay won the famed “Paris Tasting” of 1976] for 17 years. I grew up on his 800-acre Knights Valley ranch [the same property that Joe Montana now has on the market], and spent my summers driving a tractor in the fields. I remember starting when I was about 12 tears old. Grandpa had grapes, walnuts and prunes. He was a farmer. It didn’t seem quite as romantic then as it does now,” he says with a rueful laugh. “But I certainly grew to respect what he did.”
After graduating from Calistoga High School in 1988, he started college at Sonoma State University. “I thought I wanted to be a football player. I was a running back but, at my size and speed, it wasn’t really all that likely a bet. But when I was there, I did get to play with Larry Allen, the All-Pro lineman who had such a good career with the Dallas Cowboys.” So he transferred to UC Davis, finished there in 1993 and was hired at…yep, Chateau Montelena.
“I’d cherished all the time I’d spent with my grandfather, and getting to work with the Barrett family was a very special opportunity. You have to understand, my grandfather had helped source the grapes for the wine that won the Paris tasting, and fully half of the fruit for that wine came from Sonoma County, from Alexander Valley. I still have a bottle of that wine—it was made by winemaker Mike Grgich—and it’s still in excellent condition.”
Beck says that what makes wine interesting to him is that close connection to the land, to Nature (capital “n”). “I love to watch the process of how a grapevine grows and how it responds to the workers’ care and attention. I love to walk the vineyard at seven in the morning, stopping to taste the fruit and assess just how close we are to picking the grapes at the peak of their flavor potential.”
For this article, I asked Coppola why food was so important to him in the winery setting. He told me, “I remember wine at the dinner table at my earliest life, my happiest recollection of my family—my uncles, aunts, grandparents all together and happy—and wine was there. A meal is at the center of the family activity, and wine is at the center of a meal. It seemed appropriate and logical to me that my winery be a place that the family could enjoy together with no one excluded
[italics mine], with activities for all ages and the pleasure of spending a great day together.”
With his Francis Ford Coppola Winery, the man has utterly redefined how and why we visit a winery. The notion of winery as entertainment center has now been put forth in the most family-friendly manner possible. I, for one, say huzza and hurrah.
A Short History of the Two Souverains
The original Souverain was built on Deer Park Road (on Howell Mountain, above St. Helena) in 1945 by former Armour Meat ad man J. Leland Stewart, who became one of the most unrecognized hillside vineyard proponents in Napa Valley history. Those of us who remember his wines remain dazzled to this day. In 1970, Stewart “retired” and sold the name to Pillsbury, who built a “new” Souverain on a slope above Rutherford (now Rutherford Hill Winery, owned for a time by the primary partners of Freemark Abbey). The old winery went in 1972 to one-time commercial pilot Tom Burgess, who makes dense mountain Cabernet Sauvignons.
In 1972, Pillsbury, in a wild and precipitous expansion mood, decided to build a second Souverain, this in the northern Alexander Valley. The John Marsh Davis design featured twin, hop kiln-like towers to honor the one-time top Sonoma County crop. The winemaker was the brilliant Bill Bonetti (before he was with Gallo and Charles Krug; he later made Sonoma-Cutrer). But the economy went south, Pillsbury was overextended and both Souverains went on the market at bargain prices. A grower consortium took over the Alexander Valley version for a time before the facility was finally rescued by Coppola.
And the wines are good, too!
Chardonnay 2009 Monterey, Diamond Collection:
Fresh and open, with bright peach and apricot fruit that’s fleshy, forthright and easy to access. The texture is round and there may be a little residual sugar that punches up the fruit, but that’s all to the good.
Chardonnay 2008 Russian River Valley, Saralee’s Vineyard:
Here’s your basic upper-end Chardonnay, with plenty of barrel fermentation and all the cream and hazelnut that goes with the territory. There’s also that rich, crème brulée and pie crust buttery quality that only adds to the complexity and allure of this lovely wine. All that at a price that’s a fraction of what others might charge for comparable quality and complexity.
Pinot Noir 2008 Monterey, Diamond Collection:
Light and fruity, with black cherry and a hint of almond meat. Fairly simple and straightforward.
Pinot Noir 2008 Sonoma Coast, Director’s Cut:
Lean but not severe, with red cherry and strawberry jam fruit and a nice hit of nutmeg spiciness.
Merlot 2008 California, Diamond Collection:
Smokey, with lively black currant fruit and iodine spices; a little of that cigar humidor aroma for extra kick.
Zinfandel 2008 Dry Creek Valley, Director’s Cut:
Full-on briar patch “bramble” (read “wild”), with raspberry and strawberry fruit and camphor and clove spiciness. Really possesses a zingy presence.
Syrah 2007 Dry Creek Valley Reserve, Mount’s Vineyard:
Full cloak of ripe plum and aromatic cola character; thick tannin and peppermint spice.
Cinéma 2007 Sonoma County:
Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc, there’s tar and bell pepper up front, with narrow menthol exposition. This wine still has plenty of sharp edges, so put it in a dark corner of your cellar…and wait a decade or so.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 California, Diamond Collection “Claret”:
Supple and fluid texture, with plenty of cassis and blackberry up front and a nice dollop of menthol spice in the middle to round things out.
Petite Sirah 2007 CA Diamond Collection:
Smokey plum fruit that spreads out on the palate like a velveteen cloak. Hints of raspberry and boysenberry intermingle artfully. “This is my personal favorite wine to make,” says Beck with a disarming grin. “This was my grandfather’s favorite grape and, because it had been a passion of his, I, too, developed a fondness for the varietal. The trick is to get it off the skins before it ferments dry. That way the tannin doesn’t overwhelm. Petite Sirah is a variety that so speaks of the earth. It’s what I call a ‘winter wine,’ since it goes great next to a fire, with a wedge of cheddar. Not to mention the fact that it gives you the silky texture of Syrah, the juiciness of Zinfandel, and weight and depth of Cabernet Sauvignon. What more could you want?”
Hinkle is the author of nine wine books, including
Alligator Dreams, Good Wine: The New Basics, and
The Architecture of Wine. You can reach him at