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October 1, 2014

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Exclusive: Francis Ford Coppola talks ‘The Godfather,’ wine and filmmaking

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Bellagio

Journalist Robin Leach, filmmaker and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola and chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Bellagio on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013.

Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Bellagio

Filmmaker and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola and chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Bellagio on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola never realized that his passion for wine would become a nearly 40-year dream in the making. It took the first 18 years just to assemble the land in California’s wine country. Now he’s brought back to life the 133-year history of the Inglenook Estate.

Guests at the Bellagio this weekend for the first of the Epicurean Epicenter 2013 series had the opportunity to be among the first to savor Francis’ five vintages. They were paired with a four-course masterpiece dinner created by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who flew in from New York and checked in at his Prime Steakhouse at the resort.

One food critic who attended the private Tuscany Kitchen event told me: “It was the best meal Jean-Georges ever cooked. With the magnificent wines from Coppola, this was a dinner to remember for a lifetime. Superb doesn’t even begin to do justice.”

Said Jean-Georges: “This is a privilege, and the exclusive menu will be truly memorable. I am confident this will be one unforgettable evening.” Francis, his Managing Director Philippe Bascaules and Bellagio Director of Wine Jason Smith paired the wines.

Said Jason: “These 2009 wines are the first to be released from the property under the Inglenook name since 1964.” Ana Marie Mormando, VP of Food & Beverage at the Bellagio, added: “We strive to deliver extraordinary culinary experiences pairing our world-renowned chefs with the world’s finest winemakers.”

The story of Francis’ re-creation is fascinating with more twists and turns than one of his movies. Gustave Niebaum was the first custodian of the Inglenook Estate in 1873 and vowed to spare no expense in his quest to produce wines that would be the best in the world. Inglenook won 27 medals at the Paris exhibition in 1888 and 19 gold medals in San Francisco in 1915. His successor John Daniel Jr. achieved similar fame, and his 1941 Inglenook is still ranked as one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons ever produced.

Inglenook fell into a decade of decline until the Coppola family in 1975 purchased the first part of the land: 1,560 acres. Francis and Eleanor first visited it in 1972 and fell in love with its natural beauty set against the backdrop of Mount St. John. They were looking for a cottage getaway from their San Francisco home to remind him of childhood at his grandfather’s basement winemaking.

Francis Ford Coppola

It was the beginning of a 38-year project to tirelessly piece together land and buildings to restore the historical estate to its former glory. Winemaking returned to the chateau in 2002. Last year, Francis finally secured the rights to the Inglenook name and the use of the chateau image. The Inglenook Estate is complete for the first time since 1964.

Francis is far more than a celebrity winemaker; his passion and understanding are beyond measure. It was an honor, a privilege and a rare treat in my 50 years of journalism to sit with him for our exclusive interview.

“Forty years ago, I didn’t realize that it was going to be that long of an undertaking,” Francis told me at the Bellagio. “Quite honestly, I wouldn’t have imagined it was going to be possible. It took the first 18 years just to unite most of the land together. It wasn’t something I seriously thought I was going to be able to do.

“I didn’t have the money to start with; then, I only got the necessary money to do it as I made the movies. I was 30 when I made ‘The Godfather” -- I started making movies 50 years ago. It was where we called home. I didn’t anticipate that I was going to be in the wine business.

Francis Ford Coppola

“Then another opportunity came to buy the vineyards on the right, and that was really costly, but I did it. We built the winemaking facility in the chateau, so wine was made there again. Only last year, I was able to buy the Inglenook trademark back, so it could be called again what it was always called.

“The hardest part than doing the growing and the wines was the luck that these people would sell. Big, well-heeled international companies, for them to want to sell a piece of property just because it had once been part of that dimension, that was the hard part.”

I asked the revered and Oscar-winning filmmaker of “The Godfather” trilogy if there was a correlation between filmmaker and winemaker: “Obviously, that is something that I have thought about. They are similar in that the process of each is in three parts.

“The first part is the gathering of the raw material. In the case of wine, that is gathering and growing the grapes, and in the case of the screenplay, that is getting all these pieces and scenes and fragments that are eventually going to make up the film.

Click to enlarge photo

Francis Ford Coppola attends the red carpet grand opening of Cirque du Soleil's "Zarkana" at Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

“The second part is the making of it, so in the film, you clip those pieces, edit it together, and you begin to try to make something that approaches what the final will look like. And in wine, you gather the grapes, and some are good and not good, just like in the film. Then you have to try to use skill to maximize what the harvest is.

“The third phase is the finishing. The finishing is a full one-third of it; it is not just finishing it, it is all of the refining, defining, detail and bottle age, blending, design of the package. And in film, it is the music, the color correction and the titles, the effects and all of that. It breaks down pretty evenly into three phases. I have a hunch that any art form falls into those categories.”

I had to ask if it was possible for him to say which he found more satisfying, making movies or drinking his wines: “Without a doubt, I was born to want to make cinema, but the kind of cinema I want to make is not like commercial movies, which I enjoy myself, but I wanted to be the kind of filmmaker who wrote original work, sort of like a novelist would who deals with who we are and our times or our relationships.

“Few people have that privilege because obviously film is an extremely expensive undertaking. For me, also, when you make a film, it is like asking a question, and when you make it, you kind of see the answer. Imagine going to a financier saying I want to make a film, but I don’t know the answer; it’s a question.

“I am still making movies. I have completed three smaller films that were original stories, and now I am going to undertake a big, ambitious one that I am just in the process of writing now. It has a working title, but I don’t want to announce it as such. It is an original screenplay of ambitious proportion. It deals with a period from the mid ’20s through into the late ’70s. It is an interesting period in America and in the world. It is three generations of a family who lived through that time frame -- but they are not gangsters!”

Francis Ford Coppola

We talked candidly about the lack of great movies today: “The emphasis on movies now is great profits. To make great movies, there is an element of risk. You have to say, ‘Well, I am going to make this film, and it is not really a sure thing.’ These days, the industry has moved away from that. In the old days, the big heads of the studio were moviemakers. They loved show business. People like Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, they made commercial films, but they dreamed of making something that would be considered a great film like William Wyler’s ‘Best Years of Our Life.’ They made wonderful films.”

“The Godfather” was released in 1972: “The money that I earned for the first ‘Godfather’ is how I was able to buy the estate. It wasn’t expensive in those days; it didn’t cost more than a house in Beverly Hills. It was 15 years later that the wine business really took off when they began to really talk about the health benefits. The American public fell in love with wine.

“The amount of people drinking wine today is massive as to the amount of people drinking wine in 1970, but I never saw a table in my life that didn’t have wine on it because we were Italian-Americans. Many immigrants brought the tradition of wine with them here. Even during Prohibition, you were allowed to make your own wine if you drank it at home.

Before we wrapped, I asked Francis if he could make “The Godfather” today: “The time a movie is made is unique, not only from the talent that is available but if the public was ready for it. That book was so popular.

“It was a total uphill for me then. The studio didn’t want to do it. The ‘Godfather’ couldn’t have been made when it was made. They didn’t want to spend the money, and they didn’t like the way I was doing it. I came very close to getting fired, very close, like two days away from getting fired. Film is like all art. It is based on risk.

“Now it is part of a history, and it gave birth to the most beautiful wines in the world. Let’s toast!”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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