Photo: Courtesy of American Zoetrope
What made you want to get into winemaking?
We’re immigrants, Italian Americans, and I never really saw a table that didn’t have wine on it. My grandfather had seven sons, so I had all these colorful uncles, and they would tell stories about how during Prohibition the old man and his neighbors would bring in a boxcar of grapes from the Napa Valley and they would make wine in their tenement in Harlem.
How did you end up in Napa?
After the unpredictable success of The Godfather, we had a home in San Francisco, and I suggested we buy a summer house in the Napa Valley. The real estate agent told us, “This isn’t for you, but the Niebaum Estate is going to be auctioned, and it’s the most beautiful wine estate in the world.” It was part of this glorious place called Inglenook, and we went to look at it, and it was like a scene out of A Place in the Sun. I had never seen such beauty and affluent splendor. So I made an offer— and I didn’t get it.
But eventually you did.
The people who had succeeded in buying it planned to build 60 home sites on the mountain that went with it—which is where I’m sitting now—but that ran afoul of new Agricultural Preserve laws. So I went to them and said, “I thought you might want to sell the place,” and they said yes. I borrowed the money, and a month later I went off to make Apocalypse Now.
And when I came back after the grueling experience of Apocalypse Now, I was certain I was going to lose this paradise. I thought Apocalypse Now was going to cost me everything I had, but it didn’t. To this day it is still being seen and earning money, and because no one wanted it, I owned it—which in America is how you get lucky.
But before you knew the movie would succeed, you decided to make wine.
My wife said, “You have this wine estate, and people want to lease the [acres with] grapes. And I said, “Gee, if these grapes are so good, maybe we should make wine.” And she said, “What do you know about how to make wine?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know anything, but I don’t know anything about how to make movies, either!” [Top photo: Coppola crushing grapes in the 1970s with his sons, Gio and Roman.]
Just how good were Inglenook’s grapes and wines?
One day, out of nowhere, a car pulls up and out comes this gentleman and his wife, and he says, “Hi, I’m your neighbor, Robert Mondavi, and I wanted to congratulate you: You just bought the greatest wine estate in the Napa Valley.” I said, “You know, Mr. Mondavi, down in the basement, there’s a bunch of cases of old wine. Let’s go get one.” These bottles were from 1880, and we took one, brought it up to the kitchen, opened it up, and the perfume of this bottle of wine just permeated the entire room. Mondavi got all excited, and we drank it.
Any fun memories of your family in Napa?
There was a time during some bankruptcy or another that I went through, when the process server came on the estate to serve it, which they’re not technically allowed to do. Of course, I vanished, and my wife disappeared, and only my little 7-year-old daughter, Sofia, stood on the porch and said, “What are you doing here? You are not permitted to come. Go!”
You’ve watched the U.S. wine industry grow up, too.
I made a movie years ago called The Rain People, in which we drove across America in a caravan. We ate in restaurants throughout the United States. People were drinking beer and milk and Coca-Cola, whereas today they’re all drinking wine. The American public became wine drinkers during the time when I was newly in the wine business, and today the United States is the largest wine- buying market in the world.