By Natalie MacLean
On CTV’s The Social, we we chat about winemaking movie stars … can you guess who made which wine?
When I think of the Oscars, I think wine. Why? For many film industry luminaries, conspicuous consumption such as owning a yacht or even a restaurant is so 2013. These days, if you really want to show some class, you own a winery. There’s no better photo opp than one with you and your trophy wife or boy toy pruning the vines or pressing the grapes.
That’s why movie actors, directors and producers are getting their hands dirty, and buying vineyards. Big names hopping on the winery bandwagon include Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Neill, Dan Ackroyd, Gérard Depardieu, Steven Seagal, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Some stars are intimately involved with the winemaking process, while others just lend their names and sign the cheques.
The first celebrity winemaker (if you don’t count the miracle at the wedding at Cana) was director Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, he and his family were living in San Francisco, and he was searching for a country place to spend the weekends. That was when Coppola discovered the Inglenook winery in Rutherford, in the Napa Valley. With the proceeds from The Godfather, Part II, he bought the 1,600-acre estate for $2.5 million. He renamed the property Niebaum-Coppola, after himself and its founder, the Finnish-born sea captain Gustave Niebaum.
Coppola restored the estate to its grandeur, sparing no expense. That’s no surprise given that several of his films went wildly over their budgets—Apocalypse Now, for instance, by $30 million. The 39,000-square-foot winery features a winding staircase of carved wood from Belize, gorgeous stained-glass windows and a computerized water fountain in the courtyard.
A new winery in Sonoma houses a museum of Coppola’s film achievements, which includes his Oscar trophies, Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather, the platoon boat from Apocalypse Now, the maroon car from Tucker and the vampire’s cape from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The estate’s winemaking memorabilia goes back to 1879 and the gift shop features a house line of olive oils, vinegars and sun-dried tomatoes wine such as Francis Coppola Director’s Cut.
Coppola’s love of wine dated back to his childhood. An Italian-American, he had always drunk wine with meals—even growing up, when it was mixed with ginger ale or lemon soda. In 1965, when he went to Paris as a young man to write the screenplay for Is Paris Burning?, fellow writer Gore Vidal introduced him to the fine wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Later in life, he developed the desire to make his own wine for family and friends.
Coppola made his first wine, Rubicon, in 1978. Coppola is a devotee of Roman history and so he named the red blend after the Italian river Julius Caesar crossed in 49 B.C. to start the civil war: Rubicon. Other than this flagship brand, Coppola also produces mass-market labels called the Coppola Diamond Collection and Rosso & Bianco. His daughter, Sofia, an accomplished director in her own right who created Lost in Translation and other films, has also created her own wine, a prosecco-style sparkling white that breaks with tradition in that it’s sold in soda-sized cans (www.sofiamini.com). Coppola’s son Roman, also a director, bottles a reserve syrah made from grapes on the family property.
Over the years, Coppola has bought up neighboring vineyards, bringing his holdings to their current 235 cultivated acres, all farmed organically and producing more than 250,000 cases of wine a year. At first, Coppola’s films supported the winery; now it’s the other way around. Although he’s intimately involved in the winemaking operation, he still has a full-time winemaker and staff for the production of his wines.
Coppola has also teamed up with some friends in the movie business to make wine. In 1990, at a harvest party at the estate, Coppola was chatting with fellow-director, George Lucas, whose 1973 film, American Graffiti, he had produced. Lucas mentioned that the grapes on his own property were ready to pick, but that he had no winemaking facilities. So from then on, Coppola made the wine for Lucas, who gave out the bottles as corporate gifts and poured them at his film events. In 2004, they decided to use grapes from both properties to create Lucas Skywalker Ranch chardonnay and a merlot. The wines are sold only from the winery and its web site (www.niebaum-coppola.com).
Of course, Coppola and Lucas aren’t the only directors and producers to make their own wine. New Zealand-based Michael Seresin, for instance, director of such films as Midnight Express, Fame, Angela’s Ashes and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, makes a wonderful sauvignon blanc at his Marlborough winery. It’s crisp, herbal and loaded with delicious grapefruit aromas.
John Lasseter, director of such popular computer-animated films as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc., owns fifty acres in Glen Ellen, California and produces a variety of wines under the Lasseter Family label. But until his operation gets larger, he makes his wine at the winery owned by a friend: comedian Tommy Smothers. The Smothers Brothers may have spent decades making people laugh, but their wine is no joke. In fact, the two have been making wine for more than twenty years under the Remick Ridge label.Several actors have also recast themselves as winemakers. Sam Neill, who has starred in blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Dead Calm, The Piano and The Omen, makes a top-notch pinot noir at his Two Paddocks Winery—a five-acre estate in New Zealand’s rugged Central Otago area.
It’s the country’s most southerly wine region and one of its fastest growing. Whereas most of New Zealand has a maritime climate, the Central Otago is continental. Its warm, dry summers, and the differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures extend the growing season and allow a long ripening. All of Neill’s grapes are hand-picked and then fermented in whole bunches to give the wine a solid structure, but with a seductive underpinning of aromas and silky texture.
Like Coppola, Neill’s passion is generational. His parents moved from Northern Ireland to New Zealand when he only three years old. His father ran a wine importing business and made a popular brandy called Beehive. Neill attributes its success to its simple and easy-to-pronounce name—something he kept in mind when naming his own winery.Actor Fess Parker was best known in the 1950s for playing frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Unlike the characters he played, Parker had a passion for wine. In 1987, he bought a 714-acre ranch, north of Santa Barbara, in the Santa Ynez Valley. It was a beautiful spot: flanked by vineyards on both sides and with towering mountains in the background. (Perhaps that’s why the winery was featured in the movie Sideways.)
More to the point, the soil was excellent and the winery expanded rapidly. As his daughter Ashley, now executive vice president, observed, her Texan-born father “couldn’t do anything small.” Today, his son Eli is president of Fess Parker Winery, which produces chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and viognier.
Of course, the French have a longer history when it comes to making wine. Gérard Depardieu, the colossus of French cinema who made his name in movies such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Jean de Florette and Green Card, is one of the most passionate winemakers on the international scene. In fact, his passport gives his occupation as “acteur-vigneron.”
He bought his first property, Château de Tigné in France’s Loire Valley, in 1982. Today, Depardieu owns more than twenty vineyards in France, Italy, Spain, America, Morocco and Algeria. Such breadth of ownership isn’t surprising for a man of famously enormous appetites. When he visits a friend’s house for dinner, Depardieu has been known to take an entire case of wine along. He’s now published his own cookbook, Ma Cuisine, full of meaty recipes and he owns a restaurant in Paris, La Fontaine Gaillon.
He’s serious about making good wine: not only is he involved in its production, but he has also hired the superstar Bordeaux wine consultant Michel Rolland. In 2004, he partnered with the multi-millionaire Bernard Magrez, who owns both Château Pape-Clément in Bordeaux and the giant spirits company William Pitters.
The two men bought the two-hectare vineyard of Château Gadet in the northern Haut-Médoc village of St-Seurin-de-Cadourne. Depardieu’s status as an iconic Frenchman gives him entrée into places that are off-limits to other winemakers. He was able to buy land in the Languedoc region of southern France, even though the area’s vintners bitterly opposed any attempts by foreign conglomerates to do so. (The late California wine giant Robert Mondavi, for one, got the brush off from the townspeople. But locals felt that Depardieu was one of them. The whole affaire Languedoc, with its bitter protests, is captured in the excellent documentary Mondovino.)
Here in Canada, we have several actor-winemakers on our own doorstep. Television producer and filmmaker, Seaton McLean, the founder of Alliance Atlantis Communications—and his actress wife Sonja Smits, of Street Legal fame—are two of the five owners of Closson Chase Vineyards in Prince Edward County. One of Canada’s newest wine regions, the County (located on Ontario’s scenic Bay of Quinte, near Belleville) has soils that are similar to those in Burgundy, France. The area is booming: there are now more than 35 wineries there.
In 1998, MacLean, Smits and partners bought the Closson Chase land and uprooted 17 of the 50 acres of existing corn fields to plant French-imported vines. They hired one of Canada’s most talented winemakers, Deborah Paskus. The project got off on a rocky start.
In 2002, the first acre was just two weeks away from harvest when swallows ate all the grapes and in 2003, raccoons did the job with just five days to go before picking. The 2005 was the first vintage made entirely from their own grapes: 20 percent pinot noir and 80 percent chardonnay. They hope to build up to 4,000 cases a year—a small but respectable production.Another Canadian actor, comedian Dan Aykroyd, invested $1 million in Niagara Cellars. Located in Canada’s most established wine region, the company includes four established wineries: Thomas & Vaughan, East Dell Estates, Lakeview Estates and Birchwood Estates and created his own label, Dan Aykroyd Cellars.
The Ottawa native famous for his roles in The Blues Brothers, Ghost Busters and Saturday Night Live, got the idea from Francis Ford Coppola when he visited the latter’s winery. Ackroyd plans to use his high profile to promote Canadian wines in the U.S. He also plans to sell the wines through his ten House of Blues restaurants across America.
More recently, Brad Pitt and Angelina have launched their own rose from Provence called Miraval Rosé. It’s a seriously great wine made by the respected Rhone house of Perrin. Director James Cameron, of Avatar-fame, has also just purchased the BC Winery, Beaufort.
With so many movie celebrities getting their hands sticky, it’s hard to know what we may see next on offer from the Dallas Buyers Wine Club: Chardonnay for Her? DiCaprio Cabernet Unreserved? Captain Phillips Cabernet Franc? Gravity: 12 Years Oak Aged?
Posted with permission of CTV.