Robert Mondavi Winery

Read Here’s to You, Mr. Mondavi

How can an American wine blogger not write about Mondavi? Mondavi was to American wine what Henry Ford was to automobiles, what Howard Hughes was to aviation, what Steve Jobs was to technology- a visionary.

True visionaries are rare. They can look into the future and view a world where their seemingly impossible dreams are a reality. Mondavi had a vision for Napa Valley wine. He strongly believed, despite the naysayers, that American wine could one day approach the quality of French wine.

Mondavi’s life story was similar to a Hollywood drama (as a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his story on the big screen someday). He was born into an Italian American family in 1913 and was introduced to wine at a young age, as his mother would give him small portions of wine mixed with water.

The Mondavi family moved to California when Robert was ten years old. Cesare Mondavi, the family patriarch, set up a business in Lodi that shipped grapes back to the Midwest and East Coast. Robert later decided that he wanted a future in the wine business and soon found himself in the Napa Valley. He spotted a great opportunity when Charles Krug, the oldest winery still in operation in the Napa Valley (and still is), was up for sale. He convinced his father to purchase Krug and the winery soon became a family affair.

After Cesare Mondavi passed away, Robert and his brother Peter developed philosophical differences about the future of Krug. Robert’s visits to France had enhanced his appreciation of fine wine. He knew that Californian wine could approach the quality of French wine, but it would take a lot of work and money to accomplish the feat. It would mean investing in innovative equipment and relentless promotion of Californian wine. Peter was more risk-averse and did not agree with the direction that Robert wanted to take with Krug.

Tension amongst the brothers built up over time and culminated when they got into a fistfight at a family gathering. The decision was made that Robert would leave Krug. He was in his fifties and unemployed. Never the type to give up or give in, Mondavi founded the now famous Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966.

The Robert Mondavi Winery was at the forefront of innovation in the American wine industry. Factors such as identifying top vineyard sites, better control over the fermentation process, the commitment to using top quality French oak, and lowering yields were implemented by Mondavi and became standards across the Napa Valley. Mondavi was not shy about promoting the quality of Napa Valley wines. He was constantly traveling across the country and to Europe to talk with anyone that would listen about the improvements being made and the increasing quality of the wine.

People were beginning to listen. Steven Spurrier’s 1976 tasting event would showcase the quality of Californian wines. Ironically, the Robert Mondavi Winery did not have any wines featured in the event. I don’t think that bothered Mondavi too much. From what I’ve gathered in reading several of his interviews and accounts, he was just happy that the Napa Valley wines showed well. I whole-heartedly believe him.

The thing that I admire the most about Mondavi was how he embraced and mentored other members of the Napa Valley wine community. He was always lending a hand, whether it was giving advice, allowing other wineries to use his facilities in times of need, or demonstrating how new innovations could improve wine quality.

Fate can be cruel for visionaries. Mondavi’s ambition and drive had him constantly looking to expand the Mondavi empire. In order to raise additional capital, the decision was made to make the Robert Mondavi Corporation a publicly traded company. Mondavi was wary about making this move, sensing it could cause problems down the road. He was right. Company struggles and internal spats led to the ultimate sale of the Robert Mondavi Corporation and therefore, the Robert Mondavi Winery, to Constellation Brands. “The” Napa Valley winery was no longer owned by “the” first family of Californian wine.

When thinking about Mondavi’s life, I am reminded of a scene from the movie Troy. Achilles, played by Brad Pitt, goes to visit his mother, Thetis, for advice as to whether he should join the Greek campaign against Troy. Thetis, a goddess with the ability to see into the future, advises him that if he stays in Greece and does not join the war efforts, he will raise a family, be remembered for a few generations, and then be forgotten.  If he goes to Troy, he will achieve immortal glory and be remembered forever, but it will cost him his life. Achilles decides to go to Troy, choosing glory and in turn, death.

Robert Mondavi did not have the advantage of receiving counsel from an oracle to learn what his fate would be. If he had, I’m guessing that his choices would have been laid out similar to the following:

  1. Stay at Charles Krug and create good wines in a wine region that is locally respected.
  2. Lead the charge that would put the Napa Valley on the world’s wine map but endure a family feud and ultimately lose the winery carrying your name.

Sadly, I did not get the chance to meet Mr. Mondavi but something tells me that he would pick the latter choice everyday of the week and twice on Sunday.

Robert Mondavi passed away in 2008. His sons, Tim and Michael, are each undertaking their own successful wine ventures. The Robert Mondavi Winery remains a Napa Valley institution. As for Robert Mondavi the man, his name will never be forgotten in the Napa Valley or in the American wine industry.

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