Ford Coppola aims to be godfather of wine

To the patrons of America's neighbourhood supermarket chains, the name Francis Ford Coppola has become as synonymous with reasonably priced merlot as with such classic movies as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather. Now he is attempting to break into the rarefied circles of the international fine wine market.

In an act of reverse imperialism that is liable to set moustaches twitching across the rolling hillsides of Bordeaux, the film-maker has persuaded one of France's most revered winemakers to defect across the Atlantic to help reinvigorate his vineyard on the western slopes of Napa Valley in California.

Philippe Bascaules has, for the past 11 years, been estate director at Chateau Margaux, which was founded in the 12th century and has been producing the world's most expensive claret ever since.

He has said he will now begin running Coppola's estate this northern summer, in time to produce the 2011 vintage.

The move, which the Hollywood director dubbed "a dream come true", is part of an effort to return the vineyard, in the small town of Rutherford, to its glory days.

In the post-Prohibition era of the 1940s and 1950s, it was called Inglenook and produced some of the best-regarded wine in America.

Inglenook was eventually bought up by a multinational drinks company, which sold the original property and began using its famous name on mass-produced reds and whites. Today, a magnum of this version of Inglenook retails in off-licences for as little as US$6 ($7.60).

Coppola began acquiring parts of the original property in the 1970s, using profits from The Godfather.

He has gradually bought up the original vineyards and is once more making wine at the original Inglenook homestead.

Most of his current range of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, cabernet franc, merlot, and syrah wines are branded with a label which is headlined "Francis Ford Coppola" in capital letters. They sell for between US$10 and US$30 a bottle.

With the appointment of Bascaules, Coppola now intends to make a move upmarket. He will also be taking his name off many of the labels, having reacquired the Inglenook brand for an undisclosed sum from the Wine Group.

Coppola said that although the Inglenook name had been "trashed and ruined" by its association with budget plonk, it still held cachet among serious wine enthusiasts prepared to pay thousands of dollars for vintages predating its original sale.

He now wants to set about "invigorating the vineyards, planning a new state-of-the-art winemaking facility, and focusing on what it would take to achieve my goal of restoring this property into America's greatest wine estate".

Bascaules said: "I found the tasting of 1959 Inglenook astonishing with regard to its freshness and complexity, and when I tasted some samples of the 2009 vintage, I recognised the incredible potential of this property."

Although open-minded oenophiles have for years accepted that Californian varietals can, on a good year, surpass their French counterparts, big-name Gallic winemakers have enjoyed ups and downs in pursuing their trade there.

Prior to Bascaules, the best-known import was Christian Mouiex, who in 1983 left Chateau Petrus to establish a Napa winery called Dominus. He produced several underwhelming vintages, was forced to replant many vines and admitted it had taken two decades for him to make the vineyard realise its full potential.

- INDEPENDENT

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