“One of the most insidious myths in American wine culture is that a wine is good if you like it. Liking a wine has nothing to do with whether it is good. Liking a wine has to do with liking that wine, period.”
—Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible
In 1971, as part of preproduction on The Godfather, writer-director Francis Ford Coppola gathered the cast and crew at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, and set the mood for the movie by hosting a feast. So that’s where we’ll begin this article: at a party in a courtyard outside of a condominium building in the Chicago neighborhood of Andersonville, where I and my Dissolve friends have assembled around a patio table to drink several bottles of Coppola wines. We knock back one of the winery’s cheaper bottles: a pinot grigio that tastes a little watery. We put a good dent in a cabernet sauvignon that is pleasingly robust. We even have a go at some cans of Sofia Mini, a sparkling white that comes with a telescoping straw, just like a child’s juicebox. We’re movie buffs, not wine connoisseurs, so we compare notes on the wines like enthusiastic amateurs, wondering whether Coppola’s wines do as well as they do because of the famous name on the label—or, conversely, whether some people underrate them because they don’t trust their maker’s motivations.
And then there’s this question: Does it matter, really, if these wines are objectively “good?” Perhaps the wine is just an excuse for something else. A conversation. A family gathering. A chance to be outside. An experience.
It’s not that unlikely that Coppola became a vintner, though it’s something of a surprise that he’s been so successful at it, and for so long. The path of Coppola’s life has been marked by moments of cocky overreach, beginning with his days as a student at Hofstra University, where he bulled his way through the drama department and mounted some of the most ambitious, impressive productions the college had ever seen. (In Michael Schumacher’s biography Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker’s Life, fellow Hofstra alum Joel Oliansky says, “My take on him then was exactly what my take on him is today: He’s incredibly talented and incredibly pretentious; he doesn’t know what he’s doing half the time and the other half of the time he’s brilliant.”) Coppola’s combination of hustle and willfulness continued during his days at UCLA, where he pretended to be more experienced at making movies than he actually was, and picked up extra cash shooting “nudie cuties” and working for Roger Corman, while the rest of his classmates were making inscrutable art films for audiences consisting of other film students. Throughout the early part of Coppola’s filmmaking career, he developed a reputation as a talented young man with a knack for getting things done—usually because he didn’t bother to wait for anyone’s permission.
Coppola’s boldest move back then was to try building a non-Hollywood home for his moviemaking friends, in the form of the San Francisco-based independent studio American Zoetrope. Once the plan was in motion, Coppola found that he didn’t have the capital or connections to make it viable; what he mainly had was a line of patter strong enough to convince people that Zoetrope could change the industry. When the studio started to founder financially, Coppola took a job he didn’t want initially: directing an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel The Godfather, about two generations of a New York mafia family, led first by the shrewd, sensitive Vito Corleone, then by his much colder, less lovable son Michael. As with that party he threw before shooting started, The Godfather proved that Coppola knew how to bring people together onscreen, and create a sense of community so strong that even ruthless killers became sympathetic.
“These are, unapologetically, California wines, linked to their land and culture.”
When The Godfather became a huge hit, Coppola was inundated with opportunities to do everything from directing theater to taking over the publication of San Francisco’s City magazine, and he said yes to too many of these offers, distracting himself and irritating his supporters at a time when he could’ve been more focused on making and promoting The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II. He took a chance on some of these ventures because was convinced he could do something great. In other cases, he thought—often wrongly—that he was making a shrewd investment, which would net him so much income that he could spend the rest of his life making tiny, unprofitable art films.
After the second Godfather, Coppola bought a portion of the Inglenook vineyard in Napa Valley in 1975, which some of his critics regarded as another bit of hubristic folly. Instead, Coppola initially treated winemaking more as a hobby than as a business. Then his wines began attracting international attention, and after Coppola had a rare box-office hit with his 1992 version of Dracula, he bought the rest of the estate, turning it into a thriving business, generating revenue from wine and tourism. In an interview with Forbes, Coppola marveled at how this whole venture has worked out, saying, “Usually, when I was younger, whenever I embarked on an idea to make money, the opposite happened. These later businesses evolved out of things that I loved or was interested in—and that made all the difference.”
At the risk of overreaching, I’d argue that directing movies and making wine have a lot in common. In The Wine Bible, award-winning critic Karen MacNeil writes about the qualities that make a great wine, citing integration, expressiveness, complexity, and varietal character. These are similar to the elements that a good director controls or utilizes on a set: managing the cast and the crew; finding a way to tell the story visually that engages viewers and serves the theme; pruning away the parts of the film that may keep its true character from coming through; knowing how to get the best from colleagues, either by barely squeezing them (and collecting what vintners might call the “free run”) or introducing some stress (which MacNeil calls “essential” in winemaking). Technology matters in both fields, too. Coppola’s pioneering use of “video assist”—which at one point in his career had him directing movies from inside of a trailer, to his actors’ consternation—is not unlike the move in winemaking toward temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks, which sacrifices some earthy, hand-crafted tradition for the sake of greater control and consistency.
But MacNeil also writes about “connectedness,” describing the bond between a particular kind of grape and the ground where it grows. As a vintner, Coppola has grasped that. Reading the labels of Coppola’s wines is like reading a gustatory map of California. Where some wineries suggest a general pairing with grilled meat or sharp cheese, the Coppola cabernet sauvignon recommends steak tacos, while the zinfandel offers a suggested pairing of lentil stew, and the sauvignon blanc goes specifically with goat cheese. These are, unapologetically, California wines, linked to their land and culture.
As a filmmaker, Coppola has had a tendency to try and force that connectedness. The flipside to his youthful, “Let’s just get the project started, and then the money and inspiration will come” plan is that sometimes he’s bled cash by venturing onto a set with unfinished scripts. Genius alone can’t make something grow where the conditions aren’t favorable.
Then again, that’s also what makes a Coppola film. Unlike some of the other major filmmakers of his generation, Coppola doesn’t have a signature style, or even a set of obvious recurring themes. But his films still feel personal, even if his stamp is just in the bullheaded ways they were made.
Coppola’s first real feature film, 1966’s You’re A Big Boy Now—his first not as a gun for hire, in other words—turned a novel by British writer David Benedictus into a freeform New York movie, showing how one young man’s innocence is crushed in a city filled with temptation. In making You’re A Big Boy Now, Coppola showed less interest in creating something that would hold together as a piece of storytelling, and more interest in capturing the feel of the times, in individual scenes that are inventive and true. It’s the same approach he took with his first wholly original film as a writer-director, 1969’s The Rain People, which started with a loose idea about a young wife (played by Shirley Knight) who hits the road when she suddenly realizes she wants nothing to do with middle-class respectability. But Coppola started shooting without knowing exactly what the movie would be, and the result is more like a diary of the production itself, dotted with bracing moments where Coppola ditches the script altogether and tries to express the characters’ loneliness through off-kilter images, captured in the moment. Even one of Coppola’s biggest disasters—the 1982 musical One From The Heart—overcomes its underbaked dialogue and its meandering story about a philandering married couple by making astonishing use of lighting affects to bring a spark of magic to the mundane.
At his best, Coppola has turned his intuitive, go-big approach into powerful works of art. His masterpiece, 1974’s The Conversation, keeps the dialogue to a minimum save for a few memorably fumbling exchanges, using images and ambient sound to get inside the paranoia of surveillance expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman (who was reportedly flustered on the set by Coppola’s penchant for rewriting on the fly). Coppola then spent much of the rest of the 1970s—and much of the rest of his personal fortune—commandeering the old dream of his Zoetrope protégés George Lucas and John Milius to make an experimental Vietnam War film called Apocalypse Now, refashioning Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart Of Darkness into the story of an insane army colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando) setting up his own dictatorship in the wilds of Cambodia. A decade later, Coppola re-teamed with Lucas to make another long-gestating project, Tucker: The Man And His Dream, an ebullient story about an American failure: visionary auto-designer Preston Tucker.
Each of these three films were in the works for years before Coppola got a chance to make them, and in each case, they turned out differently than originally envisioned, because circumstances changed, and because Coppola changed. By the time he made Tucker, for example, Coppola had endured such a long stretch of bad luck that the film was practically an autobiography. Like Coppola, the real Tucker was a charismatic dreamer, who used his know-how and confidence to persuade people to invest in his car of the future, only to learn that he’d over-promised. One of the recurring motifs of Coppola’s films are these imposing figureheads of undeniable talent, who then get in over their heads. Preston Tucker. Colonel Kurtz. Harry Caul. These are men who owe their success in large degree to having developed a reputation, which then enables them to persuade and provoke, regardless of whether they can deliver.
Is it gauche to ask whether the culture of oenophiles is similarly influenced by perception? MacNeil would say no, arguing that there’s an objective worth to a wine. Earlier this year though, the website Priceonomics published an article called “Is Wine Bullshit?” that presented some data from various studies showing that wine-tasters are apt to be fooled by anything from the name on the label to the color of the wine into believing that what they’re drinking is something other than it actually is. With wine, this article seems to say, the narrative matters as much as the taste.
Coppola would probably be on both sides of this argument. In the recent documentary Red Obsession, he talks about drinking a Bordeaux bottled in Napoleon’s time, and he waxes rhapsodic about how “wine tells a story,” about the land, the weather, and its maker’s ideals. But he also believes the flavor of all of this is inherent in the wine itself.
I confess to being drawn to the ideal that the quality of a motion picture isn’t limited to its evident technical accomplishment and storytelling, but also to what it documents about who made it, and where, and when, and why. Consider Coppola’s most recent film, the retro-horror homage Twixt. It’s a mess of a movie, yet fascinatingly from-the-gut in the way it grapples with the creative stagnation of a famous writer, and shows how that writer handles a personal tragedy similar to the one Coppola experienced when his son Gio died in a boating accident. Even The Godfather—Coppola’s most popular, accessible film—reflects its maker, from something as specific as Coppola using his own daughter Sofia in the christening scene at the end of the film to something as general as his willingness to accept some of the creative compromises that came with taking the job for its much-needed payday.
Maybe there’s too much reliance on background information in this take on Coppola’s work. Or maybe, to take Coppola’s point of view, there’s a lot of faith required in the film to hold and express these qualities that are in many ways ineffable. But then, one advantage to approaching a filmmaker with a body of work as imposing as Coppola’s, considering the man and his flaws as much as what’s on screen, is that the opinion can be refined with more knowledge and exposure. The films get better with age.
Next month: Spike Lee, video director.