Sep 3, 2010

Winery Visits: Francis Ford Coppola Winery

I predict that the new Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley will start a trend for what may come to be known as “Lifestyle Wineries.” This isn’t just a winery: it’s a Destination. And it’s one that the entire family can enjoy.

Creating a family-friendly winery was paramount to Coppola. “I read recently in Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility a description of a wonderful estate and its ‘pleasure grounds,’" he said recently. "It is perhaps the best phrase to describe what we’re creating…a wine wonderland, a park of pleasure where people of all ages can enjoy all the best things in life—food, wine, music, dancing, games, swimming and performances of all types. A place to celebrate the love of life.”

From now through fall, this latest Coppola production is having a "Dress Rehearsal." A few parts of the “Pleasure Grounds” aren’t yet open, but most of it is up and running in style. It's a good time to come, because many activities that will charge a fee next year are free from now through the end of 2010.

 Dining on the Terrace  (Credit: Bonnie Kamin)

I was there two nights ago for a media launch and came away thoroughly impressed at the way this gigantic undertaking has succeeded. With so many elements involved—wine tasting bars, a full-service restaurant and two casual eateries, entertainment venues, recreational facilities—something could easily have gone wrong or at least turned out to be disappointing. But that hasn't happened. Not by a long shot.

 Pizza Luigino with View  (Credit: Bonnie Kamin)

We dined on the restaurant's terrace (the restaurant's official name: Rustic, Francis’s Favorites). Plate after plate of perfectly-prepared food kept arriving at the table: Braciole with Rigatoni in Meat Ragu, Mrs. Scorcese's Lemon Chicken, Cho Cho Salad, Pizza Luigino, Pine Nut Tart, Chocolate Mousse al "Francis Francis." Each dish  has a personal history; for instance, Martin Scorcese's mother used to serve the lemon chicken dish decades ago to the two young men. The food was paired with Coppola's excellent wines (and, yes, the long-awaited Archimedes lives up to its hype).

From the patio, grape fields extended endlessly into the surround of Alexander Valley. As we dined the sun set, the skies darkened, the stars came out. When it was full-on night we saw only a scattering of lights up and down the valley floor. It was, truly, a rustic setting.

  Vineyards, Coppola Winery  (Credit: Bonnie Kamin)

To Coppola, the most important idea behind this new venture is that “it’s for families…I am a very big believer in keeping the family together: the children who are playing and learning, the father and mother...and the elders, who are very much part of the family. In modern life they all get separated. It is my desire to bring them all together to enjoy life together. That is the basis of the human family. My venture seeks to bring all the components of the family together because they're all welcome.”

Coppola drew on the talents of Academy Award-winning production designer Dean Tavoularis to help design the winery, which manages to possess both a modern sensibility and a fantastical quality. The winery is constructed in such a way that it seems to embrace the huge courtyard, where the swimming pools and other recreational activities reside.

 Me talking with Coppola winemaker Corey Beck  (Credit: Bonnie Kamin)

But make no mistake: this is definitely a winery and a wine production facility. Yet it's so much more. You can come to taste the wines and leave, but chances are that you’ll stick around to enjoy the many other diversions, which include:
  • Two swimming pools connected by a water-jet “swim through,” for a combined 3,600 square feet; certified lifeguards are on duty.
  • Cabines—28 Euro-styled personal changing rooms—can be rented for the day, giving visitors a secure and private place to store personal items, change clothes, etc. Each cabine has its own shower and comes with a reserved poolside chaise lounge.
  • The Pavilion, inspired by the band shell in The Godfather, Part II, is the “stage” for various forms of musical and theatrical performances, seminars, star-gazing evenings, and so on.
  • Fun & Games include four Bocce Ball courts surrounded by landscaped lawns; and dedicated tables for backgammon, chess, and checkers.
  • Kids’ entertainment and events are frequently on the agenda. At the ongoing Smoothie Tastings, kids learn to identify different flavors and aromas in their smoothies (all receive prizes at the end). Events throughout the year include the Vineyard Easter Egg Hunt, an Earth Day celebration, a Petite Picasso art happening, and a Harvest/Halloween Carnival. Also on the agenda: stage performances geared to children.
  • The Movie Gallery displays major items from Coppola’s film career: five Academy Award statuettes, Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather, and the original 1948 Tucker automobile used in Tucker: The Man and His Dream.
  • Plenty of winery tours, wine seminars and educational classes, winemaker for a day blending seminar, etc.
 1948 Tucker Automobile  (Credit: Bonnie Kamin)
As for wine and food:
  • Wine tastings are reasonably priced (and for Coppola’s Rosso & BIanco brand, tastings are free). The “Family Tasting” lets you sample 3 wines for $5, while the “Neighbors Tasting” is $10 for four higher-end wines. A taste of the limited production Archimedes is $4. With a Wine Family Membership, bottles can be purchased at steep discount (e.g., Archimedes for $35 instead of $60, Francis Ford Coppola Presents Rosso Shiraz for $8.40 instead of $12).
  • The main restaurant, Rustic, seats guests inside the dining room or on the terrace overlooking gorgeous Alexander Valley. The menu is international, with an emphasis on Italian recipes and foods prepared on the Argentine parilla grill. On Sunday evenings the restaurant serves “a tavola” – that is, family style. Rustic also gives options for wine-and-food pairing.
  • The open-sided Pool CafĂ© offers simple fare: salads, paninis, etc.
  • The full-service Rustic Bar serves everything from aperitifs and wine to cocktails and espresso.
The best way to sum up the new Francis Ford Coppola Winery is to once again defer to it's creator. When asked how he wanted people to think about the winery, Coppola said that it should be "a pleasure to anticipate, a pleasure to visit, and a pleasure to remember."

That sure works for me!

 And he makes movies, too!  (Credit: Bonnie Kamin)

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