Thursday, February 11, 2016

Winery as department store, with make-up

 From The Far Side of Eden:


      The final price was just over nine million dollars. Heublein would take back about half that amount in a note; Francis’s cash would all come from Dracula.
      After a day in San Francisco with the lawyers, when it was a done deal, Skupny drove up to the old carriage house through a setting little changed in a century. Navalle Creek, lined with stone by Chinese laborers, wound down to the broad plain of Rutherford. He told the winemaker, “A year from now we won’t be able to remember what this was like,” and called the staff into the library above the stable and told them, ”Everything’s going to change.”
     The final agreement was six inches thick; Skupny’s hand grew tired signing it. Francis didn’t get the Inglenook name, but he got everything else he wanted—vineyards, property, architecture, Rubicon . . . tutti.
       He told the winemaker, “A year from now we won’t be able to remember what this was like,” and called the staff into the library above the stable and told them, ”Everything’s going to change.”
The final agreement was six inches thick; Skupny’s hand grew tired signing it. Francis didn’t get the Inglenook name, but he got everything else he wanted—vineyards, property, architecture, Rubicon... tutti.
     The logo was redesigned and all labels made similar. That was the fun part. Francis constantly came up with creative ideas: a rum from Belize to be stored in old Rubicon barrels, a grappa from Oregon, bottled water from a spring up on the mountain. Not all of it worked out. Any profits were to go to the mother ship, Zoetrope, but meanwhile there were huge expenses involved—renovating old Inglenook, replanting, redesigning. The money had to come from somewhere, and it had to come fast.
     When the winery was stripped, before all the new equipment went in, Francis threw a party and invited everybody in Rutherford, St. Helena, and Oakville. The comedian Don Novello was the master of ceremonies. There was a battle of the bands, fireworks, and two cakes—one for the Coppolas’ acquisition of the Niebaum house, the other for the acquisition of the winery—both devoured.
     Francis hired Dick Maher, a short, feisty former Marine who drank soda from a customized Howitzer shell. Maher was supposed to build the business, to go from zero to sixty in about a year. He had a long, spotty history in the wine business. While working for Heublein, Maher had been the brand manager of the cola-flavored bubbly wine called I Love You, and while working for Seagram had earned a reputation as a corporate ass-kicker, capable of either affability or unpleasantness, whichever was required. Maher had headed up Christian Brothers after it was bought by Grand Metropolitan, another swallowing-up of an old Napa property by the alien conglomerate.
     Maher hired a winery manager not from the wine business but from a large retailing company, and the writing was on the wall, Skupny thought. In addition, Francis always had some guru type around, first a studio guy, then a young economist, then somebody else idea-oriented, enthusiastic. This person would say, “I’ve been thinking about something, Francis. Why don’t you . . .” And Skupny would think, “Who the hell owns this place, anyway?”
     Traveling with Francis was great fun. He was a world-class gourmand, a consumer of life. In New York, Skupny watched Francis being interviewed by Charlie Rose and five other journalists. Francis taught Skupny the importance of the journalistic file, by which he meant any newspaper or magazine story that became part of the public record. He taught Skupny to make sure he was always the source of a story, never the story, a crucial distinction. Francis was, of course, always the story.
     Together they staged a Niebaum-Coppola celebration party at the Four Seasons, and it sold out. Francis sat up on the dais, surrounded by ingenues, and confided to Skupny, “I feel like a Roman emperor.
     Skupny concentrated on the the “hospitality” issues, getting customers into the chateau while the renovation was being done. Everything was to be “related”; synergy was the high concept. For instance, guests at Francis’s lodge in Belize would watch Francis’s movies while drinking Francis’s wine. Gift packets at Niebaum-Coppola might include a Coppola movie and a Coppola wine of the same vintage, along with a Niebaum-Coppola T-shirt.
     There were things they couldn't do legally, part of the controversial winery definition passed a few years before that prevented the sale at wineries of anything unrelated to wine. But historical structures had a great advantage, one that would prove decisive: whatever had been sold before, whatever had been done, was grandfathered—that is, exempt.
     Skupny was told, as he later recalled it, “to access the rights to everything ever sold here, to establish precedents.” He pored over all the old Inglenook inventories. There had been a cheese deli then, so they could sell cheese now. A knife had been used to cut the cheese in the old days, so presumably today they could also sell cutlery. That was the idea. But where, Skupny wondered, were the limits?

  To order the first book, Napa:

Saturday, February 6, 2016

How to buy a historic winery cheap... if you're a movie director

 The Far Side of Eden dealt with many of the issues now playing out on a large scale in Napa Valley. Earlier related postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.  
                                                               The Prize
    John Skupny worked for Caymus Vineyards and there earned a reputation as an effective, straightforward, pleasant administrator, a blond Californian with a degree in fine arts and that rarity among winery managers, a sense of humor. Down there by the Napa River, a few stones’ throw from Inglenook, he had dealt with the irascible old Charley Wagner and his son, Chuck, and with Randy Dunn, fresh out of Davis and not yet on the heights of Howell Mountain, and had learned most everything about power cabernets, from production to marketing to the delicate managing of myth and reality.
     Skupny went to work for Francis in 1992, before the Inglenook winery was purchased. Niebaum-Coppola had some assets in addition to the vineyards that had come with the house, including a good winemaker, Tony Soter, of Spottswoode fame, a new press, and a determination on the part of the owner to develop a more elegant style of cabernet. Liabilities included limited working facilities—the wine was made where carriages had once stood, and it shared storage space upstairs with reels of film—and a lot of inky, older Rubicon that badly needed selling.
     Wine had to be moved through an old-boy network of distributors, the narrow part of the hourglass. The producer was on top and the consumer on the bottom, and the old boys in the middle didn’t like aged wine without stellar rankings by Robert Parker or Wine Spectator. Skupny’s challenge was to find someone willing to bet that Rubicon would improve and, until it did, to move the present inventory. Francis was gracious when Skupny brought the distributors and big names in the trade by the house, entertaining them, making them feel special. And Skupny pointed out that Niebaum-Coppola intended to increase the quality of the wine while cutting production, making the wine rare and raising the price at the same time.
     Production of Rubicon went down to two thousand cases, very small, but that meant another Coppola brand had to be invented to broaden the market. A wine consultant and the new winemaker sat down together and fashioned something from cabernet franc and merlot, and they called it Francis Coppola Family Wine. Skupny put it out for eighteen dollars a bottle, and it sold like crazy during a recession. They also decided to make a brand of zinfandel called Paternino, a tribute to Francis’s Italian grandfather. The winery had trouble with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms because there was to be a picture of the Statue of Liberty on the bottle, but the label was finally approved because, Skupny thought, the BATF got preoccupied with Branch Davidians down in Waco.
     At that point wine was small potatoes in Francis’s larger financial basket. But he told Skupny he wanted to be on first base if Heublein ever decided to sell Inglenook, the regal chateau standing out there to the east facing Highway 29, and they could move into the big time. Skupny knew Heublein’s history and all the baggage it carried in the valley, symbolized by the big, ugly storage facility built in front of the winery shortly after Heublein acquired it, spoiling the view from the highway. He knew Heublein could never recover from decades of bad decisions and that someday the corporation would have to unload a property also burdened by an unhappy family history.
      Niebaum’s great-grandnephew, John Daniel, a conservative pillar of rectitude, had been married to a woman known variously as beautiful, talented, and destructive. Her name was Betty, and she had made much of John Daniel’s life miserable. Her hatred of the winery contributed to his decision to dump the family heirloom in the sixties; in Daniel’s eyes, Heublein soon devalued the Inglenook name, which had been carefully made into a symbol of excellence, by producing a great deal of cheap wine and plastering it with that proud name. Daniel had refused to sell any wine that was not first rate, a standard that had prevented him from ever making a profit, and otherwise hewed to the line laid down by Niebaum in bygone times. After selling out he had to watch an invasive corporation use out-of-valley grapes to fill jugs—sacrilege, in his view, and a possible factor in Daniel’s subsequent suicide.
     John Skupny knew all this. He knew that the corporation would now like to unload Inglenook, but assumed the price would be unapproachable by an independent operator like Coppola, even with his occasionally massive cash flows. But Skupny, like others in the valley, dreamed of the old chateau’s passing again to “local” control, and feared its being taken over by another corporation more ambitious than Heublein.
     One night in 1994 he received a call from a friend in the “One night in 1994 he received a call from a friend in the business who told him, “Your worst nightmare is about to be realized. Heublein’s being sold to Canandaigua.”
     Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing had just come out. Francis had seen it, and Skupny thought he was influenced by the notion of doing the right thing. Francis invited everybody to meet on his porch late one morning, to sit out there as if on the deck of a crenelated white ship sailing through a sea of vineyards, all very cordial and low-key. But the Heublein people were tight with information. If they agreed to sell, they would still demand the right to buy grapes from the prized Inglenook terroir, and that Francis replant the vineyard. Also, they would demand a lease-back on the ugly storage facility out front, to house their barrels.
     They wouldn’t come up with a dollar amount and wanted Francis to make an offer. He and Skupny thought they were being used to push up the price while Heublein shopped Inglenook around among other potential buyers. Francis came up with another strategy—preemption. The chief financial officer of Zoetrope, Francis’s company headquartered in San Francisco, part of the Coppola team, worked out how Inglenook would fit in with Francis’s other businesses, while the staff in Rutherford studied the inventories provided by Heublein. And the attorney who acted as Francis’s guardian had to be convinced that it was all a good idea.
     At last a purchase agreement was produced, and Francis wrote a check for a million dollars in the little house near the stable that served as his office. Skupny walked the check over to the big house so Eleanor could countersign it, then walked it back again. Francis was giddy, Skupny would remember. He asked if Skupny played poker, and when he answered yes, Francis said, “Good.”
     Skupny delivered the purchase agreement and the check to Heublein. The next day the guy called and said okay, and Skupny got into his car and drove over to Inglenook and stood out in the courtyard, under the massive façade overgrown with ivy, and called Francis on his cell phone. Skupny told him, “It’s yours.”

The first volume, Napa: The Story of an American Eden, is available at:
To order Napa:

Monday, February 1, 2016

Don Corleone's desk: 2

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.   
(see also:   
                                      Grand Illusions                                                                                      

     Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, had already purchased the old Inglenook winery from the Heublein Corporation. “Francis brought in specialists from the films,” the  tour guide added, and had concept drawings for the staircase done by the production designer who worked on Apocalypse Now and The Godfather. The display cases for his wine, on sale, were designed by a movie conceptualizer, and those for his T-shirts by yet another.
     “There have been so many changes”—the removal of the modest fountain once out front to a nearby hillside, the parking of a red Tucker, star of another of Coppola’s films, in the second-floor gift shop until the finishing of the Memorabilia Room, a showcase of cinematic marginalia. Fifteen woodworkers had been brought in from Nevada just to build the winery’s central staircase and were living in the winery’s shell. The three-story modified Gothic edifice hummed.
     Out in the courtyard, men were putting the final touches on a concrete reflecting pool and pergola. Nearby sat the gunboat that appeared in Apocalypse Now, its plywood showing through flaking gray paint, to be redone and moved into some undecided public viewing space. Francis—it was the sanctioned reference for employees—had rechristened grand old Inglenook chateau “Niebaum-Coppola,” thus associating the early symbol of the valley’s ability to produce fine wine with the new owner’s unrelated vocation.
     This was to be symbolized by placing Don Corleone’s desk across the entrance hall from Gustave Niebaum’s oak-paneled Captain’s Room. Costumes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula were to be draped on mannequins arranged on the stairs, the guide added, to greet visitors who made their way to the second floor on risers made of poisonwood imported from Belize, where Coppola owned a resort.                                           
     The balustrades would be of Belizian jobillo, the carved fruit bowls on the newel posts of Belizian granadilla. The design would be “Europeanish,” said the master carpenter, an imposing bearded figure in new Carhartt coveralls. “We got the concept and sort of massaged it . . . We opted to do it all by hand because, when Francis looks at it, he wants to be able to see the craftsmanship.”                                          


     The tasting room on the second floor would be fitted with movie screens for a “multimedia tasting experience,” including a film about Niebaum-Coppola. There was more than one Tucker available for viewing, and a large trove of movie paraphernalia elsewhere on the property, ready to be brought forward when the exhibits needed refreshing. Visitors would pay to get a tour of the winery, and pay again for the tasting and for some souvenir from what promised to be a large trove of wine-related products, and some very distantly related.
       If the valley’s stunning, often jarring new architecture symbolized the remove between new arrivals and locals, so had the historical buildings when they first went up. Inglenook was, in contemporary parlance, a nineteenth-century steroid structure that once reigned over a gorgeous, totally rural landscape dedicated to the creation of one idealized product—wine—and modeled on Old World antecedents. Designed by a Vermonter, Hamden Mclntyre, who was not an architect but a talented builder with an eye for classical form, Inglenook had belonged to the wealthy Niebaum, seafarer and fur trader, and for more than a century had reflected the aspirations and vulnerabilities of a New World Eden.
     Now Napa Valley ranked second only to Disneyland in popularity among tourists. Most of the five million annual visitors were accustomed to spending more than five dollars for distraction, and at Niebaum-Coppola they would certainly have the chance. Selling T-shirts and wine was a common practice all over the valley—some other historical structures, notably Beringer, had also been burnished beyond the luster of their former selves—but at Niebaum-Coppola, née Inglenook, this commerce took on heightened intensity.
     A patina of the past appealed to visitors who wanted a brush with wine culture and a few mementos but none of the scruffiness associated with true agriculture. There were many devices in the valley for luring visitors—Sterling’s ski lift, Mondavi’s concerts—and winery tours had become increasingly important as avenues to further profits from direct sales of wine and clothing. Niebaum-Coppola was in a unique position to capitalize on another—the most—romantic California industry, movies.
     Inglenook’s intransigent stone and towering symmetry resisted this reinterpretation, however. The winery’s proportions had been carefully worked out as functional, if not beautiful, and the renovations struck some old-timers as incongruous. No wine was to be made here; the alterations all suggested crowd control, and the imperial reflecting pool would mirror a structure devoted as much to Hollywood as to Bordeaux.
     Francis told a newspaper reporter that in planning the retrofit he had tried to imagine what Gustave Niebaum would do, but Niebaum had allowed no tourism and no deviation from the narrow path of a great wine estate. He had strode through the winery in a pair of white gloves, searching for dirt, and the idea that this traditionalist would have allowed costumes from a melodrama to be placed on a theatrical central staircase, or would erect a movie prop in the shadow of hard-wrought Victorian sensibilities, was absurd. But today no one seemed to care.                                                  

    Francis and his wife, Eleanor, had already purchased and moved into Niebaum’s house when they acquired Inglenook. A lovely Victorian with Eastlake influences and a broad wraparound porch reminiscent of a ship’s deck, the house sat a quarter of a mile west of the old winery. Francis had wanted a retreat from the pressures of filmmaking, or so he told people at the time, and he wanted to make a little wine from his own vineyard, a reminder that his father had once pursued the same hobby in a Brooklyn basement. 
     In the Niebaum house the Coppolas entertained lavishly, using what they referred to as “natural” servers, people from the valley who dispensed food with a smile. Most of the arrangements were made by outsiders, and restaurants in San Francisco were often paid to come to Rutherford and prepare feasts, from Italian to Moroccan, and caterers brought in. Everything had to look just so, the same factotum system that surrounded the making of films prevailing at these events. More than one person was on hand to make sure the candles on the porch were lighted at precisely the right moment and spaced properly to assure “continuity” in every detail, and make sure everything seemed spontaneous.
    The pay was good, the labor unending and exhausting. Some locals were thrilled by the presence of celebrities like Madonna and George Lukas, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Anthony Hopkins once stopped by the kitchen before departing and, seeing some leftover fava beans, slipped into his role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The thrilled kitchen workers watched Hopkins disappear into the darkness and felt a tinge of fear even as they laughed at the idea of a cannibal in the house built by the conservative, strait-laced Niebaum.
    When Eleanor had women friends over, Francis insisted on being included, the center of attention, and the guests found him childish, if winning. His financial difficulties were often discussed by acquaintances and by staff. Francis used the house, with its ancient, overspreading live oak out front, to impress potential investors in movies and other enterprises. Strangers were immersed in family activities as if they belonged, Francis himself cooking the pasta, everything abbondanza: food, wine, talk, Napa Valley bounty of all sorts ladled up in a kitchen that had served the relatively meager needs of the Niebaums and their heirs, the “Daniels.
    The renovations in the house, like those in the winery, showed how much California and the world had changed in a century. Francis had used the old stable to make the first vintages of Niebaum-Coppola wine, which he called Rubicon, the beginning of the methodical transformation of a movie director into a founder’s spiritual heir, and after he bought the winery, too, he needed all the help he could get.

To order Napa: