How impressive is your personal wine collection at home?
I have a good cellar. My first son, Sam, was born in 2006 so I’ve collected all of the great wines of 2006 that I love and have stuffed them in my cellar. We make a reserve wine at the winery that I named after him, so Sam has his own wine! My second son Nick was born in ’08 and I did the same for him. Hopefully some day they’ll appreciate it.
You’re going to have to get a lock on that cellar before their teenage years!
There is no lock on it right now but there will definitely be a lock on it as they get older, absolutely.
Luckily for us you ordered the bottle for this evening, Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Sofia Chardonnay. Do you ever find yourself critiquing other’s wine selections?
I have no preconceived notions of somebody’s order. Not everyone starts out drinking high-end, expensive wines. I was in Japan this year and there were still a lot of people who mix Coca-Cola with their wine.
Is your job as picturesque as we’d like to imagine working on a vineyard would be?
During harvest it’s a very stressful time as you only have eight weeks to get all of your fruit [for the year]. The growers work all year for that one paycheck so everyone is stressed out and watching the weather, wondering if it’s going to rain, if it’s going to be too hot — there are so many variables. Another factor is scheduling the picking crews because of the labor shortage. Often times we have to wait to pick until we can get a crew. I would say the best part of my job is visiting a vineyard first thing in the morning at 5:30 a.m. There is this layer of fog, everything is crisp and you’re walking through the vineyard tasting these beautiful, exploding grapes. That’s when you make the decision right there to say, ‘Okay we’re picking. This is it,’ and once you make that decision there is no turning back, you have to live with it for as long as that wine is out. You only have one opportunity to get it right.
How did you first fall in love with wine?
I grew up in an Italian family and Sunday dinners were very important. My grandfather was the vineyard manager at Chateau Montelena for twenty-some years. I would always look forward to Sunday dinners knowing I was going to get a tiny bit of red wine in my water. As I got older there was less and less water and more red wine! When I was 12 I started working in the vineyard every summer but it was so much more to me than just work. It was where my grandfather taught me how to drive a truck and a tractor and at lunchtime we would go fishing at the pond. He was very influential in my life. When I started thinking about what I wanted to do in life I kept going back to what I was happiest doing. Fortunately I found that early in life. After I graduated from University of California at Davis I went to work at Chateau Montelena for five years and then started with the Coppolas in ’98.
What has it been like working for such an iconic Hollywood family like the Coppolas?
That is a great question. I began working with Francis and Eleanor 15 years ago. When I started Francis said my first job was to make a sparkling wine for his daughter’s wedding the following year. I was like, ‘Wow, okay no pressure!’ so we came out with the Sofia Blanc de Blancs in ’99 for Sofia’s wedding. We made about 200 cases, a very small production for her wedding but the family and everyone loved it so much that we started making it for the consumer. Since then we’ve introduced the Sofia mini, which is in the can. Francis was always trying to push the envelope in terms of packaging and he had sent me this email — I saved it and I’ll never forget it — that said he was thinking of putting the regular Sofia in a can. I sent him a really well thought out response stating all of the reasons it wasn’t going to work and he sent me back one sentence saying, ‘Do not be the road block to creativity.’ That was when I thought, you know what? This is his winery. All of my conventional beliefs on how wine should be consumed with a cork and bottle and everything doesn’t matter, there is no conventional way. So we made that happen.
Has any of the glamour of the film industry overlapped with the day-to-day operations in the vineyards?
He’s really good friends with George Lucas, he lives close by. When we were at Inglenook [Estate] in Rutherford, Napa at the back of the property was one of his studios so when he was making movies in the late ’90s and having people come in and read scripts there were always people coming back.
From working with him so closely, how would you describe Francis Ford Coppola?
The one thing I will say about Francis, which I really want people to know, is that he didn’t get in the business trying to make money as a celebrity getting into wine. He got into it because of his Italian heritage in the early ’70s when there was no money to be made. The winery never made money for years, the film industry supported the winery and fortunately now the winery helps support his film career. When I met Francis I thought it was really fascinating because he got in a businesses he was truly passionate about. Film of course took him a very long way and that was able to give him an opportunity to invest in wine, resorts and the food business, all things he loves to do. He loves to eat, travel, drink wine and he makes money from it.
Do you still enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day?
Even more so. Typically I’ll start the night off with a glass of beer and the reason for that is on my non-harvest day the winemaking team and I might taste 30 to 40 wines so by the end of the day I just want something different.
What would you consider the biggest mistake people make when picking out a wine?
Consumers think a $50 bottle should taste so much better than a $15 bottle when quite honestly there are some wonderful, beautiful wines out there for $15. People need to educate themselves with the appellations. If you like pinot noir, you should taste [wines from] Russian River Valley and Oregon. If you like cabernets, focus on Napa Valley and Bourdeux.
How did the chardonnay we are drinking now come to be?
Sofia loves Chablis so we did a Chablis tasting together and said, ‘Okay, how can we create a wine from California that has a similar profile?’ She lives in New York so over the course of last year I was sending her samples back and forth labeled A, B and C and she would email me and say, ‘I loved C. C is the right direction,’ and then I would take C and build off of that. She really was hands-on in selecting the profile and everything about this wine and that’s what I love about it.
What wine would you pair with Chicago?
Cabernet. The first thing I think of in Chicago is great meats! Chicago is my favorite city to come to, it’s the greatest city. You have New York where it’s so European–focused and of course San Francisco and L.A. are very California–focused but as we get into the Midwest I love that you are still very big into California wine. This is one of our largest markets in terms of cities and that makes me happy.
Any secret hangover cures if we drink too much wine?
First of all make sure the wine you’re drinking isn’t overly sweet. There are a lot of sweet wines and it goes down very easy and the next thing you know you’re like, ‘Wow there goes three glasses of wine before 8 o’clock!’ The sugar and the alcohol make a recipe for a really bad hangover. My philosophy is for every glass of wine have a glass of water.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Winston Churchill. My grandfather was in World War II and I’ve always been so fascinated with how they handled things on the British side. We’d have a cigar and a glass of wine.
Photography by Neal Agustin
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