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Wine is a family affair for Francis Ford Coppola

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Francis Ford Coppola (right) with winemaker Corey Beck at AFI Theater and Culture Center, Silver Spring, Md. March 4, 2014 (Photo: Chuck Fazio)

When each of his grandchildren was born, Francis Ford Coppola wrote them a song. He crafted each heartfelt ditty especially for each child, with  details about her name or personality. The acclaimed director and winery proprietor puts a similar emphasis on family when it comes to his wine business, calling on his family members for inspiration and even to design labels and marketing campaigns.  Coppola sat down to discuss his success in the wine business during an event Tuesday night at the AFI Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md.

Coppola’s family has a history of winemaking in America, beginning in New York’s Italian Harlem, where “my grandfather would get together with some of the paisan from the neighborhood …. and they would order maybe half a boxcar of grapes from the Napa Valley, no doubt from Cesare Mondavi, who was Robert Mondavi’s father and was in the business of supplying grapes for the immigrants around the country to make their own wine,” Coppola said.

In 1975, he and his wife purchased the Niebaum estate in Rutherford, Calif., which was the former site of one of America’s most illustrious wine producers, Inglenook. Inspired by the region’s passion for wine and the impressive collection of aged Inglenook bottles still in the basement, the Coppolas began to make wine, enlisting the help of a neighbor and eventually calling on influential winemaker André Tchelistcheff, who was considered a mentor by many in the wine community, including Robert Mondavi.

Coppola smiled as he told the story of Mondavi visiting his home after hearing about his burgeoning winemaking operation. “Mr. Mondavi came and I said ‘there’s still some wine down in the basement’ … we took it up into the kitchen and opened it up and the aroma of this wine just filled the room and he started hysterically jumping up and down and saying ‘See, see? It’s true! If you age the wine we can make wine as great as any wine in France.”

The Coppola brand, originally called Niebaum-Coppola, has since grown to become an empire, producing award-winning wines that garner acclaim from both critics and casual wine drinkers. Coppola said he simply sells the wines he likes to drink and insisted, “I am not a winemaker.”

Winemaking decisions are left up to general manager and director of winemaking Corey Beck, but the inspiration for wines has always come from Coppola’s family. The brand’s best-selling Rosso & Bianco table wines were inspired by the style of wine enjoyed by Coppola’s grandfather, and the Edizione Pennino line extension pays homage to his mother’s side of the family, the Penninos. “Like many things — what was done just once to make wine like my grandpa did or to make Edizione Pennino for my grandmother — people liked it so we kept making it,” he said.

In 1999 Coppola released the sparkling Sofia Blanc de Blanc to commemorate the marriage of his daughter Sofia, and the line now includes three still wines and Sofia Mini, a canned sparkling wine packaged with a straw. Two years ago Coppola honored his wife, Eleanor, with an eponymous wine for which she designed a textile-inspired label.

Coppola admitted that he never got around to writing a song for his eldest granddaughter, Gia, until she was in her 20s, but when he did it was about “the girl who loved beverages.” The young director is following in her grandfather’s footsteps in more ways than one, and is not only the inspiration but a driving creative force behind Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s forthcoming offering, a collection of low-alcohol, screw top wines named Gia.