By Kevin Nelson
Being a fan of wine and the movies, I headed with great anticipation up Highway 101 north into Sonoma past Santa Rosa and Healdsburg into the Alexander Valley. Just before the funky little wine country town of Geyserville, I turned off the highway and found what I was looking for: the gates leading me into the Francis Ford Coppola Winery.
Coppola is, of course, a big name for film fans and increasingly for wine and travel devotees as well. He is the five-time Academy Award director of such landmark films as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. He is also a winery owner and winemaker and the owner of resorts in Argentina, Belize, Guatemala and Italy. Home base for him is California and one of his holdings is the historic Inglenook Winery in Napa Valley, where he lives. The Geyserville winery is about an hour and a half north of San Francisco.
Parking in a dirt lot with olive trees, I climbed a flight of steps up into the main buildings and saw something I can’t recall seeing in any other Sonoma or Napa Valley winery: a spectacular resort-style swimming pool that could fit in just fine with the best of Miami or Las Vegas.
A fountain shoots jets of water over a section of the pool that connects its two parts—one part for small children and the other for adults and older kids. A row of elegant enclosed changing cabins line one end of the pool. Across on the other side is a small outdoor amphitheater with a gazebo-like building for music and performances. Next to the pool area is a bocce court.
It being a Monday morning in late October, the pool was empty with only a few people wandering about. “Usually it’s popping on the weekends,” a server explained to me. “Everything’s closed today.” The pool, which has a pool house bar and café that serves drinks and food, is open on weekends in the fall and is soon to shut down for the winter. But it will reopen in the spring and start popping again in the summer when it’s open every day and the sun heats up and it’s warm and toasty for lounging by the pool under blue cloudless skies. The winery and restaurant are open year-round.
Inside the main building, as you might expect, there are display cases full of Coppola movie memorabilia. One is devoted to Apocalypse Now with an impressive stack of skulls, a totem, headdress, cameras and photos related to the picture. Another display focuses on The Godfather and contains pictures of Coppola himself, stars Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, and the Best Picture and other Oscar statuettes Coppola won for the movie. My favorite pieces are the desk and chair used by Brando when, as Don Corleone, he uttered such deathless lines (penned by Coppola, I believe) as “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” The gleaming red Tucker automobile used in Tucker, starring Jeff Bridges, occupies a central place in the gallery and there are artifacts from other films as well.
Unlike many wineries, where you may only get small plates at a tasting or more limited dining service, Coppola Winery has a full-serve restaurant, Rustic, which advertises its wood-grilled meats made on an Argentine-style grill known as a parrilla. Its outdoor dining patio has a terrific view of Alexander Valley. For me it brought to mind sitting on the hilltop patio of Domaine Carneros and looking down across the Carneros region of southern Napa and Sonoma valleys. The Alexander Valley has a similar sort of landscape with vineyards stretching out across the land and trees and brown and green hills in the distance.
Today, though, being a solo operator for the day, I took a seat at the bar inside and ordered a pizza named after Coppola’s daughter Sofia (a Hollywood director and writer herself; her best known movie is Lost in Translation) and a glass of the winery’s Director’s Cut pinot noir.
The pizza had a little more greenery than I like (Sofia must really like arugula), but I enjoyed the taste. Also enjoyable was the pleasing pinot. A zinfandel-cabernet blend called, appropriately enough, “Cinema,” is the most popular wine sold on site, I was told.
While having lunch I struck up a conversation with the bartender. If you want to know what’s going on at a place, sit at the bar and talk to the bartender when he’s not busy. He’ll fill you in. I asked him how often Coppola came around to the property and he said about once a month. In the beginning, when the winery was just getting going, he came around more often to make sure things were proceeding as they should. These days it’s a little less because things are running pretty smooth now, he said.
One thing he recommended was buying the package deal for four if you’re going to use the pool. This includes four pool passes for the day and access to one of those stylish-looking private cabins with your own shower and other amenities (rate begins at $170). The individual day passes ($35 adults) are good for hanging out but without the comforts of a cabin.
In a little while a couple sat down next to me. The man explained they were from Iowa and had come to San Francisco for a weekend wedding, extending their trip a day so they could come up and taste some wine. Apparently a movie and wine fan too, he said he had been to Coppola’s Inglenook estate and I asked him how that winery compared to this one.
“Similar,” he said. “Inglenook has lots of rooms and nooks to drink wine, and there is movie memorabilia too.” Asked which one he prefers, he shrugged and said, “I like them both.”
In a region where hundreds of wineries are all seeking to distinguish themselves, one from another, the Coppola brand indisputably owns a certain space—the glamorous nexus between movies and wine. It has a cool creative vibe, food, wine, drinks, fun in the sun by the poolside. I’d say it’s worth a trip if you’re into any of those things. Overnight lodging and hotels can be found in nearby Geyserville or Healdsburg and Santa Rosa further down the road.