Francis Ford Coppola, creator of Apocalypse Now and the Godfather films, has confounded the sceptics by building one of the most successful wine businesses in the Napa Valley. As Coppola eyes the European market, David Robertson visits the Niebaum- Coppola winery to find how.

Famous names like Mondavi and Beringer have been associated with the Californian wine industry for generations but there is a new name aiming to create its own dynasty: Coppola.

Francis Ford Coppola, 63, is the multi-Oscar winning director of classics like the Godfather and Apocalypse Now. But he is also the owner of one of the Napa Valley's cornerstone vineyards, founded in 1887 by Gustave Niebaum. The Niebaum-Coppola winery is a stunning 1600 acre site in the heart of Napa with the imposing Inglenook Chateaux at the heart of the property.

But unlike other entertainment led wine ventures the Niebaum-Coppola winery is not a plaything for one of Hollywood's elite. It produces up to 30,000 cases a year and has a reputation for making some of the finest wines in Napa.

Coppola's wines, which include a Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah and claret, are sold in supermarkets and liquor stores across the US although many consumers do not automatically link the name on the bottle with the famous director, says director of wine making Scott McLeod. Coppola wines have yet to crack the European market.

"It surprises me how many people don't know the connection but sometimes we get people asking what a Hollywood guy is doing running a winery," says McLeod. "People go in thinking negative things because Francis is not a wine guy but a lot of people in Napa are like that. Everyone comes from somewhere else."

According to McLeod the process of wine making at Niebaum-Coppola has not been distracted by its famous owner but there is no doubt that he has had a major influence on the tourist-friendly environment at the ivy-covered Inglenook Chateaux. This is the most interesting and stunning stop in the Napa Valley and has become a Mecca for the region's visitors.

A 90-minute tour of the winery and chateaux costs $20 and a four-glass wine tasting US$7.50 - which is on the expensive side for Napa but the servings are sensible and the engraved glass is a souvenir. Visitors are free to wander around the Coppola-related exhibits, which include the three Oscars he won for the Godfather Part Two.

There is a Palm D'or from Cannes won for Apocalypse Now and costumes from Dracula. Also on display is a desk from the Godfather, a car from the film Tucker and Colonel Kilgore's surfboard from Apocalypse Now.

"Francis said to me that wine is an entertainment," says McLeod. "We're competing for the same dollar as the movie industry. We should keep that in mind. "We have such a wonderful thing here. The Napa corridor is very busy, especially at the weekend. We have 200,000 visitors a year which in terms of marketing is a great way to create impressions. Not all the visitors are necessarily the type to go out and buy a Rubicon [a top of the range Coppola wine] but it all helps."

Coppola bought most of the Niebaum winery in 1975 with profits from the Godfather and completed the acquisition in 1995 with money he made from Dracula.

"It's all show business," Coppola told ABC television on a recent tour of his winery. "As in movie making you start out with some raw material, in the case of wine it's the grapes.

"I am somewhat astonished [about the success of the wine business]. For years the movie company supported the wine company but now the wine company supports the movie company. Thanks to the winery I can finance it [new movies] myself."

Despite its success the Coppola winery has no plans to expand. It does buy in some grape production from other areas but this is mostly to fill out varietal ranges - like the Zinfandel.

"We don't wish to grow," says McLeod. "Our mission is to be one of the great Napa Valley wineries. The other wines [like the Zinfandel] are important in generating cash flow but our focus is quality rather than getting big."

But there is some frustration at not being able to get its products into Europe because of the competition in the £7.50 range. "If you put in brokerage fees we are not priced to be competitive in Europe," adds McLeod. "This is a very big category in Europe and it is very difficult for a Californian table wine to compete against all the Italian and French wines."

As a tourist destination the Niebaum-Coppola winery is the most interesting in the Napa Valley but Hollywood Francis has sensibly not got in the way of what really matters: making great wine. If he can resist the temptation to turn his property into Coppola World, the world's first wine-based theme park, perhaps the Coppola name will join the other great Californian brands in generations to come.