By Audrey Pavia, Portraits by Monti Smith
Driving through picturesque, treelined Highway 128 on my way to the Coppola Family estate in Napa Valley, I flashed back to the first time I saw The Godfather. It was 1972, and I was 14 years old. I remember sitting in the theater with my parents, mesmerized by what was happening on screen. I was too young to understand that gripping storytelling, brilliant acting and a powerful score had all come together to create a film that was so compelling, it was impossible not to be moved by it. All I knew was that I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie for weeks afterward. Seeing The Godfather gave me a profound appreciation for the power of film—an appreciation I still have today. On this day at Mr. Coppola’s Rutherford estate, on the wraparound porch of the house he purchased decades ago with his earnings from The Godfather, we were preparing to talk about his line of Great Women Spirits, a collection of fine liquor dedicated to five special women in history. Given the effect Mr. Coppola’s work had on my artistic sensibilities, it’s not surprising I was both scared and excited about meeting him. So when I saw his red Tesla coming up the driveway, I could barely catch my breath.
My nerves were soon put at ease. It was clear within a matter of minutes that Mr. Coppola was a kind, down-to-earth man who was easy to talk to and who remembered what it was like to have nothing. As we sat on the beautiful porch, surrounded by a lush garden, I asked one of film’s greatest directors about Great Women, winemaking and the overlap between spirits and cinema.
Tell me about what motivated you to create Great Women Spirits.
Maybe 30 years ago, I read a book called Twelve Against the Gods by William Bolitho. It was a book of short 30-page biographies of 12 great men in history. I realized I could also come up with 12 great women in history, even though women of those times weren’t allowed to have books or an education in many cases. Many of them did their work in convents, because that was the only place where they could get access to learning. Even though it seems very topical in the moment to honor great women, this is something I’ve always wanted to do. What drew you to the story of Ada Lovelace, the inspiration for your gin? Ada Lovelace was really an interesting woman. She was the daughter of Lord Byron. She was raised with a sort of early feminist attitude, and as a very bright young girl was steered away from anything to do with art or poetry and steered toward science and mathematics. She married William King, who became the first Earl of Lovelace, and she became the Countess of Lovelace. Her interest in mathematics led her to a man named Charles Babbage, who had built the first mechanical computer known as the Analytic Engine. This was a huge mechanical device that could do calculations. Ada provided patronage, but was also the one who wrote the programs because she was a mathematics expert. In a sense, she was the first programmer to invent the algorithm. She’s just an incredibly important woman that few people know even existed. She can stand shoulder to shoulder with any man in terms of achievements that have affected the modern world. In fact, to me the two most important names in the whole world of computing are Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing.
Tell us about the brandy in your Great Women Spirits line.
Brandy was the first beverage that our company thought of making because there was not really a go-to brandy out there. There are great cognacs, which is a form of brandy, but to me there wasn’t really a brandy that was not a cognac that you would reach for.
There was an Italian brandy called Stock. It’s very old. I wanted to make something that would have the flavor profile of Stock. I decided to call our brandy Agnesi because Maria Gaetana Agnesi was an extraordinary 18th century Italian mathematician. She had to operate out of a convent because as a young girl, she wanted to learn. She wanted to study, and in those days, they just wanted to marry girls off. They didn’t even allow them access to books in many situations, but in a convent, Agnesi could get her hands on books.
You also have a potato vodka in the line.
I wanted to make a Polish-style potato vodka, and to me, one of the most wonderful women on earth is the Countess Maria Walewska. Her story was so moving to me. When Napoleon and his armies went to Poland, he was greeted as a liberator because Poland had always been under the tough heel of Russia. When Napoleon came in, the Poles anticipated being liberated. The Polish people had a wonderful aristocracy and tradition in music and other things. They had a very extraordinary culture. The idea that they could get out from under the heel of Russia was so exciting to them that people came to the streets and cheered Napoleon as he was coming.
Napoleon was what I would call “girl crazy.” [laughs] He saw this maiden kneeling by the road with a big basket of flowers for him. He was really struck by this girl. Then he goes into Warsaw to a bigger fanfare. The entire nobility was presented to Napoleon. Then he meets a man and a beautiful woman, the Count Walewska and his wife, Maria. He can’t believe his eyes, because it seems to him it’s the same girl. Indeed it was. She was a tremendous Polish patriot and very passionate. She had gone in the dress of a simple maiden to welcome the man she felt would be the liberator of Poland. In fact, she was the Countess Walewska, married to an important nobleman.
Napolean immediately said, “I must have dinner with the Countess Walewska.” But she said, “As a woman, I can’t go have dinner with the general. If he wants to invite my husband, I will go.” Nothing Napoleon could do would convince her to dine with him—she was that loyal to her husband. Finally, her husband said, “Please Maria, have dinner with Napoleon, for the future of Poland.” Finally, the Count Walewska divorced her so she would be free to not violate her idea of loyalty. She did have dinner with Napoleon, and she did in fact really and truly fall in love with him. What I love about the story is just how she was impossible to seduce because of this idea of loyalty in her mind. Just as loyal as she had been to her husband, that’s how loyal she became to Napoleon. I wanted to commemorate that with a vodka that was loyal to the idea of Polish potato vodka.
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