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:

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