Francis Ford Coppola December 2007

I’m sitting across from Francis Ford Coppola in Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena, California. A white, open-necked shirt replaces his trademark Hawaiian shirt, showing off a tan enhanced by a recent trip to Belize. I am struck by his large hands – as expressive as his eyes, which peer at me through his dark-framed eyeglasses. He swirls the ruby red wine in his glass and lifts it to the light reverently. Then he turns to me and says how much he liked my short story in the current issue of his literary magazine, Zoetrope.

If only this were true. In fact, I am sitting across from Coppola, in the same restaurant, but I am not with him. He is talking at a nearby table in a relaxed, confidential manner with a dark-haired woman who, though it’s been a while since I’ve seen her in Stallone’s Rocky, or Coppola’s Godfather movies, I’m positive its his sister Talia Shire.

Other than an occasional discreet glance, I am so in awe of this famous movie director I resist the urge to look his way or sidle over there and tell him how much I admire his work, blah, blah, blah – that just hearing the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now still makes me shiver. there’s no need to bother him. I am content to be on this side of heaven, the Napa Valley, where coincidentally my husband, son and I have taken a wine tour earlier in the day at the Niebaum-Coppola Winery.

That was several years ago. Since then, it has been renamed The Rubicon Estate after Coppola’s flagship wine. I can still recall the beautiful setting, like a carefully chosen movie location – well worth the tour.

In fact, when the Coppolas first saw the elegant Niebaum house, Eleanor said, “It was like a movie set.” They purchased it, as well as the John Daniel wine estate, in 1975 and in 1995 acquired the rest of Inglenook, including the massive Niebaum-built chateau. This reunited the most historically significant contiguous vineyard lands in the Napa Valley.

Throughout Eleanor’s second book, Notes on a Life, published this year, she gives sensuously detailed descriptions of the sights, sounds and aromatic smells from the vineyards, plants and wildlife living on the surrounding land. But it’s hardly surprising that this couple, married for over 40 years, both with aesthete tastes, would live in a locale that was anything short of exquisite.

Like everything he’s involved with, Coppola has totally immersed himself creativly, passionately and financially in the wine business, producing many fine wines the estate is now known for, such as Rubicon and Cask Cabernet. As he once said, “If you own a great race horse, you have to race it.”

Rubicon Estate is completely separate from Coppola’s other winery, Rosso & Bianco, in Sonoma County. A variety of different wines produced at that winery are distributed under the Francis Ford Coppola Presents brand and include Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Series, Director’s Cut, and Sofia sparkling wine. These are well priced and intended for everyday consumption. “I’ve always wanted to give the public value,” says Coppola.

While Coppola is totally involved with the making of his wines, other celebraties are increasingly associated with the wine business, to varying degrees of involvement. Celebrity “Iron Chef” Mario Batali owns 14 restaurants at last count, and has authored stacks of cookbooks. Known for his orange suspenders and Croc footwear, this ebullient personality exudes his love for food and wine. Along with longtime friends and business partners Lidia and Joe Bastianich, Batali owns La Mozza, a 100-acre property in the Maremma region of Tuscany.

Actress Lorraine Bracco, best known for her role ias Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos, developed her love of wine in France where she lived for 10 years. Calling herself “a big Opus girl,” she’s not yet involved in the production of Bracco Wines but selects the ones she loves from various Italian vineyards.  The lineup includes Pinot Grigio, Montepulciano, Amarone and Barolo.

And then there’s marketing lifestyle maven Martha Stewart, whose Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has forged a partnership with E. & J. Gallo Winery to develop a brand of wines under the label Martha Stewart Vintage. Three Sonoma County wines – a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – are available in six U.S. cities and online at For those who rely on Martha’s taste for everything from a bath towel to a house, wine is natural extension of her MSO empire.

Entrepreneur extraordinaire and British billionaire Richard Branson has teamed up with Richard Forman Corp. to produce Virgin Wines. Using a typically irreverent motto, “Unscrew it, let’s do it,” Branson wants to de-snob the wine business with low-cost wines, including some in a four pack, and all with screw top bottles.

Entertainers, too, have gotten into the wine business. Singer Barry Manilow, who, in addition to writing the songs the whole world sings, may pour the wine many of us will drink through his affiliation with White Crane Winery.

Finally, there are those who, like Paul Newman, lend their name to products whose profits go to various charities worldwide, like his Hole in the Wall Gang camp he founded for children with cancer or other life-threatening conditions. Newman’s Own organic products have raised over $200,000,000 for charity, and it wouldn’t be surprising if women, in particular, flock to buy his California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

(Have you heard the story of the middle-aged woman who goes into an ice cream parlor and does a double take on seeing Paul Newman seated nearby? Acting cool, she purchases her ice cream cone at the counter and doesn’t even glance his way when leaving the store. Outside, she realizes she doesn’t have the cone, so she goes back inside, whereupon Newman says with a slow smile, “It’s in your purse.”)

The list of celebraties lending their name to wine soley to benefit charities includes baseball superstar Ken Griffey, Jr. His Junior Cabernet Sauvignon was released earlier this year through Charity Wines, which also promotes wines for other sports celebrities like Dan Marino. While Griffey doesn’t claim to be a wine connoisseur, the wine draws awareness to his Ken Griffey, Jr. Family Foundation, which raises money for various children’s causes.

What all those celebrities have in common, whether they own vineyards or not, is a passion for what they do and a passion for life. Here’s a toast to them and wine lovers everywhere.