You expected something less from Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather of film?
Coppola, who has spent 35 years proving he can also make award-winning wines (Niebaum-Coppola, now renamed Rubicon Estate, in Rutherford, Napa Valley), has just thrown down the wine gauntlet again.
Francis’ latest vision is of a slightly more rustic, slightly more fun, more casual, wine experience, which he has erected like a movie set in Sonoma County. In effect, he’s made the wine-thirsty public an offer it can’t refuse.
In 2006, Francis bought Souverain Winery from the Fosters group. He spent four years and millions of dollars to create what will become Sonoma’s definitive destination winery.
If you want live like Francis, here’s how you make such a dream come true:
In a rather large blender, combine the amusement parks of three continents –Coney Island from New York (where Francis spent summer days as a boy), Luna Park from Australia, and Tivoli Gardens from Copenhagen, Denmark; Pulse on High for 30 seconds. Pour mixture into a mould and let harden. What you get is Francis Coppola Winery in Geyserville, Sonoma County.
Here’s how the Director tells it himself:
“I’ve often felt that modern life tends to separate all the ages too much. In the old days, the children lived with the parents and the grandparents, and the family unit each gave one another something very valuable. So when we began to develop the idea for this winery, we thought it should be like a resort, basically a wine wonderland, a park of pleasure where people of all ages can enjoy the best things in life – food, wine, music, dancing, games, swimming and performances of all types. A place to celebrate the love of life."
Sonoma County’s newest winery is a keen blast for the senses. All of them. Wines to sniff, movie props to see (including the 1948 Tucker from the same-named film and the desk from The Godfather, both moved here from Rubicon Estate), and the deafening sound of the Coppola bottling line, where guests can see Francis’ favorite wines being bottled and labeled.
Much of the credit for the grounds, and the movie set-like design of the winery, goes to Dean Tavoularis, who in real life is… a set designer. He met Francis during the production of The Godfather and went on to design sets for more than a dozen other Coppola films.
Dean, who oversaw the design of the courtyard and fountain at Rubicon, has just done the same for the pool and grounds at Coppola and – are we surprised? – has given design direction for many of the extremely original, extremely colorful, and extremely memorable labels gracing many of the Coppola wines, examples of which include:
The winery is so new that not all the finishing touches are in place; they are building a swimming pool on the grounds where children can splash while their parents sip wines; there will be bocce courts, out-of-door chess and backgammon tables, cabanas, even a spa on site. In short, everything for families except sleepover accommodations, which are plentiful in nearby communities.
There’s even a fantastic restaurant on the property, called Rustic, Francis’ Favorites, where guests can experience Francis’ favorite homemade dishes. Prices are reasonable, the fare is good, and service is excellent. When did you ever hear anyone say that about a restaurant, which has been open less than three weeks?
There are more wine styles offered at the tasting bar than there are styles paraded down a runway fashion show in Milan. Coppola produces more than 40 different wines here under no fewer than nine different brands, or labels. The selection is mind-boggling. You need a knowledgeable guide as we had, Neal Coats, to detail the many differences of the wines poured.
The fruit for all the wines produced here is purchased off site. The corporate distinction is this: Rubicon Estate in Napa Valley ONLY produces wine made from estate-owned vineyards; Coppola in Geyserville ONLY produces wines whose grapes are out-sourced.
All the Coppola Sonoma-made wines I tasted are well made and represent great value. And just about every one of the 40 wines made here is available for tasting at one of the tasting bars in the main hall.
More amusing wine labels:
Each wine is named after a Coppola experience – such as “The Director’s Cut.”
Others are part of a sweet family story. “A Votre Sante,” for example, is a brand, which Francis created in memory of his grandmother, Maria Zasa.
She was an Italian, born in Tunisia at the time it was a French protectorate. As such, she spoke four languages – English, Italian, Arabic and French.
Francis recalls that with each sip of wine she always offered a toast in French: "À votre Santé!" (To your health!). To honor this family tradition, Coppola has developed a pair of wines, one a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, the other a Chardonnay, crafted in the French style with Dijon clones and Burgundian winemaking techniques.
I found these wines to be graceful, light, pastel-like pleasures on the palate, lower in alcohol than similar wines to which we have become accustomed.
My favorite wine of the afternoon tasting happens to be the most complex, best-made wine at the property, the 2006 Archimedes. This Bordeaux-style blend is 76 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley and 24 percent Cabernet Franc from Knights Valley. The wine, aged 24 months in French oak, is supple, richly textured, and has a sensual mouthfeel.
I scored one bottle 93 points, another bottle 94 points and bought some to take home, which tells you how much I really liked it.
How’d the wine get its name?
Francis the storyteller goes into high gear…
Archimedes was the Greek mathematician who, 2,000 years ago, established laws of physics, which are still viable today.
Francis’ grandfather Agostino so admired the intellect of Archimedes that he named his first son Archimedes. To honor his Uncle Archimedes, Francis created what I maintain will become the winery’s flagship wine.
Here’s what it looks like when a bottle of the inky purple majesty is decanted at tableside in the winery restaurant:
Oh, and of course, you can buy that fancy-dancy decanter at the winery gift shop after you fall in love with it.
Winemaking responsibilities fall on the shoulders of a remarkably talented, extremely friendly young man, Corey Beck, who previously made wine at Chateau Montelena, in Napa Valley, and who has been working with Francis since 1998.
Francis’ vision at Coppola Winery was to create a total package for visitors – wine AND food.
So after an hour sipping wines, guests may get hunger pangs; head to Rustic, Francis’ Favorites, the triple-worded, on-site dining room. Sit inside, near the wood-fired parilla, or grill, which Francis brought back from Argentina, or outside, on a sunlight patio, overlooking rolling hills of vines.
Our waiter confides that they experimented with all sorts of woods to fire the parilla, settling on a combination of mesquite, almond and olive for their high heat performance and flavoring characteristics.
Typical treats coming out of the kitchen:
Chicken Mattone, a variation of “brick chicken.” As Francis thinks the best version he ever tasted was at a restaurant on the outskirts of Rome, that chef’s recipe is what is followed here. Almost every waiter I asked “what is your favorite item on the menu?” answered “Chicken Mattone.”
Francis worked as a busboy at a Polynesian restaurant when he was at UCLA film school. He recalls that they served some habit-forming ribs, the secret of which was the balance of the sweet and savory elements of the sauce. He’s attempted to recapture his memory – and the dish – here.
The Rustic menu is large, the wine list favors Sonoma County wines in addition to offering all the Coppola wines. There is an ample beer selection and even the gins, vodkas and tequilas are highbrow and well thought out.
And leave it to Francis and his spirit-picking staff to offer the single best, single-malt Scotch made – the Ardbeg Uigedail.
When everything on the menu, when everything on the wine list, when everything at the winery is drilled down to this level of attention and perfection – you HAVE to have a great time here. Nothing is left to chance; Francis appears to personally be in control and HE will make sure that you are 100% happy when you leave his enchanted theme park for adults.
Or else…. Or else… if you leave displeased, I suspect that Francis fears he might wake up one morning with a severed horse’s head in his bed….
Coppola tasting room open daily 11am to 6pm.
RUSTIC, Francis's Favorites (restaurant) open daily 11am to 9pm.
Francis Coppola Winery, 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, CA. 95441
Or visit http://www.franciscoppolawinery.com