If all Francis Ford Coppola ever did for us was to make the "Godfather" movies, that would have been enough. But he has done so much more, especially for those of us in the wine country.
Francis and his wife, Eleanor, bought the historic old Inglenook winery in Rutherford in 1975, when it was in decline, and over the next few decades, returned the property to its former glory.
In 2006, the Coppolas purchased the former Chateau Souverain winery in Geyserville and turned the staid old property into the Francis Ford Coppola Winery: a lively venue for wine, fun, music, games (bocce!), swimming, movie memorabilia, and — in the Italian tradition — food.
As you enter the main building, you see before you one of the 51 Tucker automobiles ever made. You make your way past two bars serving beer, liquor, cocktails, and the winery's wines with a smattering from other producers.
And there is the hostess' stand that leads into a large, high-ceilinged restaurant called Rustic, subtitled, "Francis's Favorites." There's a patio outside for when the weather is clement with a killer view down through the Alexander Valley.
Yes, it's all Francis, all the time, but he pours so much of himself into this place, in such a warm and light-hearted way, that it's fine. And he feeds you with the Italian passion for life.
It's hard not to feel a little bit more alive when you leave than when you walked in.
Having said that, many but not every dish hits the kind of mark he's aiming for. Take, for instance, a cup of Nonna's Anchovies ($8 *). These are anchovy filets from Chile with bones so prickly that I was afraid to swallow my first bite for fear of getting a bone stuck in my throat. Though they are tossed with garlic, olive oil and Italian parsley, and served with a French baguette, they are scary.
On the other hand, much of the menu is just fine — or, as in the case of the Spaghetti Pomodoro ($12 *** 1/2), even better than fine. Perfect sugo, basil threads, and spaghetti one tick larger in diameter than vermicelli. There's no bitey garlic, so the kids will love it. So simple, but so, so good.
And there's a wood-fired oven. The Mushroom and Salsiccia Pizza ($18 ***) is a tour de force of sliced mushrooms and house-made Italian sausage on a thin pizza crust so tender it collapses as you bite it. The cheese is bubbled brown. No tomato sauce.
The room also features an Argentine-style parrilla — a wood-burning grill. The meats come with chimichurri sauce. You can get filet, porterhouse, and chops. Rack of Lamb Madame Bali ($30 ***) was from a young lamb. Eight generous ribs were rubbed with a spice mix and grilled rare (although it was ordered medium rare), and was tender and succulent with the flavors of the charred crust.
On Tuesday nights, dinner is served "a tavola" or family style. It costs $35 a head for adults and $15 for children under 12.
You don't order. The kitchen prepares food and sends it out.
There's also a tasting menu for $79 per person that includes an appetizer; a salad of your choice; an entr? choice of rack of lamb, lemon chicken, N.Y. strip steak, or grilled salmon; and a dessert choice. All courses come with a pairing with one of the house wines. These are all well made and reasonably priced.