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Film Director's Estate in Napa Valley : Coppola Gaining Recognition as a First-Class Vintner With Two Wines

February 13, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Film maker Francis Coppola has earned his stripes as a top Hollywood producer. Diligently and without nearly as much fanfare, he is fast becoming a top vintner at his Niebaum Coppola estate at Rutherford in the Napa Valley.

Premier claret-like Cabernet Sauvignon vintages, 1978 and 1979, released under the name Rubicon, are outstanding, representing model tastes of "Rutherford Dust," the affectionate name given to the characteristic earthy flavor of the region. Both wines show cherry-like overtones, a characteristic long evident in the old elegant Cabernets made at the turn of the century by Gustave Niebaum, founder of the estate and Inglenook Vineyards in 1879. It also frequently is found in the wines of Beaulieu's Private Reserve and Caymus Cabernets.

Bouquet Is Sheer Perfume

Both Coppola bottles are exquisite and worthy of cellaring. The '78, with an additional year of bottle age, is easily the more complex with a silky, intense flavor, considerable finish and length. Its bouquet is sheer perfume. As a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Cabernet Franc and 2% Merlot, it can't be labeled Cabernet Sauvignon as it doesn't have the required 75% Cabernet grapes. Coppola prefers blending to a desired taste and style, hence the proprietary name, Rubicon. The wine was aged in 1,200-gallon French oak casks for 20 months and then in 60-gallon oak barrels for 12 months.

The '79, also fragrant in nose, is supple and shows a bit of not unattractive wood. A blend of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon and 18% Cabernet Franc, entirely from the estate, it is aged in 1,000-gallon French oak casks 12 to 18 months, and then 60-gallon French oak barrels 10 to 14 months. It was then bottle-aged until its release in 1985. Both wines feature lovely silkiness that, given additional time, develops into the most elegant of styles.

Coppola purchased the 1,500-acre estate in 1975 and lives in the old Victorian Niebaum house. The property, according to the winery's consultant, renown wine maker Andre Tchelistcheff, contains some of the valley's truly exceptional grapes. About 83 acres are in cultivation, while an additional 25 acres will be planted this year. Coppola's purchase was motivated by childhood memories of his grandfather's home wine making in Italy.

Committed to producing wines strictly from the estate, he has turned Niebaum's historic carriage house into a modern boutique-style winery. The upper levels of the house contain Coppola's extensive book and film library, an electronic and computerized research facility, and a state-of-the-art motion picture sound studio.

Notwithstanding America's love for white wine these days, Coppola is dedicated to making the best of reds. He said: "When I first considered how the wine should be made (in 1978), I conceived my wine as a claret-blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I demanded of my wine maker that it be full, rich and would live 100 years."

Russ Turner, formerly a wine maker at Mayacamas Vineyards, was Coppola's wine maker from 1978 to 1983. Today, with the assistance of Tchelistcheff, young Steven Beresina is wine maker in charge. He worked for five years under Walter Schug, veteran wine maker at Joseph Phelps.

While the wine makers must be given their due for the fine '78 and '79, an additional accolade should go to Rafael Rodriquez, the caretaker of the Niebaum/Coppola vineyards since 1976. With more than 30 years of experience in the growing of and handling of vineyards, almost all spent in Inglenook's and Niebaum's vineyards, he has produced vines that are prime and the wines show it.

Coppola's silky wine style continues with the later vintages of 1980, '81, '82, '83 and '84. As is often the case, a good vineyard will assert its own legacy of style and there is little a wine maker can do except enjoy it. Indeed, the taste is reminiscent of some of the old Inglenooks from the '40s and '50s. Don't expect all to be as good as the 1978 and 1979, as they represent exceptional years, but it is clear that the subsequent years show the "Rutherford Dust" tastes of yesteryear.

The wines will be in limited supply because of low production, fewer than 3,000 cases. Tchelistcheff is not unhappy with the low production, a factor that he believes will help make the wines "continually identifiable, more so than any other wines today." Production will increase as additional acreage matures.

Expect the 1981, a blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Cabernet Franc and 2% Merlot, to be released in 1986. A bit hot from its 13.8% alcohol, it should develop nicely, continuing the cherry-taste theme, but without the intensity of the '78. About 3,500 cases of 750-milliliter bottles were produced, whereas 211 cases are magnums.

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