Coppola spirits away Godfather of French wine to US vineyard

Hollywood director's move to reinvigorate Napa Valley estate a 'dream come true'

Los Angeles

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 personal vineyard on the western slopes of Napa Valley in California.

Philippe Bascaules has for the past 11 years been estate director at Château Margaux, which was founded in the 12th century and has been producing the world's most expensive claret ever since. He has announced that he will begin running Mr Coppola's estate this 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 brought 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 $6.

Mr Coppola began acquiring parts of the original property in the 1970s, using profits from The Godfather. He has gradually bought up the original vineyards, bit by bit, and is once more making wine at the original Inglenook château.

Most of his current range of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, cabernet franc, merlot, and syrahs are branded with a label which is headlined "Francis Ford Coppola" in capital letters. They are generally regarded as reliable and sell to aspirational shoppers for between $10 and $30 a bottle.

With the appointment of Mr Basacules, Mr Coppola now intends to make a move upmarket. Though his name will remain on many of the labels, some of the finest wines will revert to their historic name: he recently reacquired the Inglenook brand for an undisclosed sum from the Wine Group, a large company which has in recent years controlled it.

In a statement, the film-maker said that although the Inglenook name had been "trashed and ruined" by its association with budget plonk, it still holds cachet among serious wine enthusiasts, who are prepared to pay thousands of dollars for vintages which predate 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".

Mr Bascaules said: "I was charmed by the beauty of the estate and its unique environment. 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."

Whether it will enjoy instant success remains to be seen. 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 Mr Bascaules, the best-known import was Christian Mouiex, who in 1983 left Château Pétrus to establish a Napa winery called Dominus. He produced several underwhelming vintages, was forced to replant many vines, and recently admitted that it had taken two decades for him to make the vineyard realise its full potential.

Famed for their viticulture

Gérard Depardieu

The French actor has been making wine since the early 1980s. He is deeply involved with the winemaking process at his vineyards, even listing his occupation on his passport as "vigneron", or wine grower.

Sir Cliff Richard

Sir Cliff's Vida Nova red is a big seller in Waitrose. But in a blind taste-test on Gordon Ramsay's Channel 4 show The F Word in 2006, he was duped into describing it as "tainted and insipid". He added: "That's rubbish. I wouldn't pay for that."

David Ginola

It seems that the retired French footballer has brought his deft touch on the pitch to winemaking. His Coste Brulade rosé won a silver award at the 2008 International Wine Challenge and was praised for its "gentle strawberry fruit flavours with a hint of minerality".

Mick Hucknall

As owner of the Il Cantante winery in Catania, Sicily, the singer has been involved in winemaking for 10 years. And it's not simply reds – he and winemaker Salvo Foti produce Il Cantante Bianco too.

Olivia Newton–John

Founded with Pat Farrar, her Koala Blue Wines label has been putting out wine since 1983. It currently sells a Chardonnay and a Shiraz.

Sting

The singer launched his own red wine in 2009. His estate in Tuscany produces a Chianti and a Tuscan red which are made using traditional methods and using no pesticides.

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