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Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week

Niebaum-Coppola Winery

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: The urge to call Niebaum-Coppola Estate Vineyards and Winery and ask if they have Sofia in a can is almost killing me. Because the answer is yes, they do. And plenty of club kids are happy to let her out, poor dear.

No need for translation. "Sofia" is the namesake Blanc de Blancs (that's a sparkling white wine to you and me) created for daughter and director Sofia Coppola as a coming-of-age gift from daddy. All dolled up in a shiny pink can, the blushing spritzers are making waves on the lounge circuit, accessorized with a tiny telescoping straw and fitting conveniently in even the tiniest of Prada satchels.

Vibe: Haven't you guessed it? Niebaum-Coppola is all about star power. Starting in the mid-1800s, the winery was run by Gustave Niebaum, a brash bully of a man who vowed to make California wines great, at any financial cost. He succeeded, making legendary wines throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And the legacy has continued. Director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) purchased the winery 25 years ago and sunk millions into producing his own namesake wines while showcasing his family's movie memorabilia in a grand palatial estate only Hollywood could have dreamed up.

Watch the Washingtons: Not all of us can afford the glamorous life. Many Napa wineries charge a premium for tasting, including Niebaum-Coppola, commanding $8.50 for standard tasting and $20 for reserve tasting. Ouch. We committed the $8.50, which includes a swanky logo glass and four hearty 1 oz. pours. To get a sneak sip of the new 2002 Skywalker Ranch Viandante del Cielo Marin County Chardonnay ($30)--featuring George Lucas' own grapes--we skipped the pricey reserve tasting and asked for a pour in the wines-by-the-glass room ($5). You can also taste Sofia's Blanc de Blancs, but we coughed up the $5 for a can of our own and popped it open later that evening. You can also score a free coffee or espresso when you buy a copy of Coppola's respected storytelling zine Zoetrope.

Mouth value: Unlike other superstar wineries, the wine is actually pretty darn good, garnering plenty of accolades. The 2002 Director's Reserve Chardonnay ($22) is smooth yet sassy--you can definitely taste the vanilla and toast flavors. The 2001 Director's Reserve Merlot ($34) and Cabernet Sauvignon ($34) are lusty little plucks, with the Merlot being our standout favorite. The winery's flagship wine, Rubicon, is released in mid-March and is highly prized.

Don't miss: Head up the million dollar staircase to see Coppola's Hollywood memorabilia.

Five-second snob: We got the skinny on French vs. American oak barrels, both used by the winery. The two oaks are different species and thicknesses, and are constructed differently. French oak typically lets the wine breathe more and is described as more elegant in flavor, running upward of $600 a barrel. American oak barrels command only about half the price and are sometimes used for spicier wines like Shiraz and Zinfandel. Barrels last from three to five years before being replaced, and the newness of a barrel can make a big difference in the flavor of the wine (newer barrels imparting stronger flavors).

Spot: Niebaum-Coppola Estate Vineyards and Winery, 1991 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford. Open daily, 10am-5pm. 707.968.1100.

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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