A little color went out of California wine last weekend with the passing at age 94 of Robert Mondavi, father of fume blanc and tireless pitchman for the glossy virtues of Napa Valley, its wine, and its way of life.
The eldest son of Italian immigrants who came to California during Prohibition with the bright idea of shipping fresh grapes back east to home winemakers, Mondavi became self-appointed ambassador-to-the-world for a resurgent California wine industry that he firmly believed – when few others did - could make wine to a world-class standard. He did it with a single-minded determination and relentless energy that left others exhausted and exasperated.
Along the way he built two showplace wineries, more or less single-handedly invented wine tourism, taught Americans that basic familiarity with wine was something everyone should aspire to.
Mondavi’s inclination to overreach was evident early on, when as a recent Stanford graduate he sought to persuade his successful but generally unambitious father, Cesare, to purchase the Charles Krug Winery, Napa’s oldest, then for sale. His father first resisted Robert’s pleas, but succumbed to his wife Rosa’s gentle prodding, and bought the venerable but shabby property in 1943.
From the outset , Robert was the sales guy, his more reticent – but no less stubborn – younger brother, Peter, the production guy. It was at Krug that the seeds of family discord, which were to have such a bitter harvest, were sown. Peter, like his father, seemed content to earn a good living making and selling mediocre wine. Robert was obsessed with moving ever upmarket.
Within a decade, Peter, jealous of Robert’s more glamorous life and angered by his prodigal spending, was wholly alienated. It probably didn’t help when Robert began pronouncing his name mon-dah-vee, rather than mon-day-vee, as the family had always done. When Rosa and Peter effectively relieved him of duties at Krug in 1966, Robert put together a group of investors and built a new winery under his own name on prime land just off Rt. 29. That event prompted a Trojan War of a lawsuit, initiated by his family, that lasted 10 years and extracted a heavy toll in money and emotional pain. Robert eventually won, and it was at this point, fueled by $10 million from the court-mandated sale of Krug, and a half-million dollars in damages, that the Mondavi machine went into high gear.
In 1979, Mondavi and Baron Phillippe de Rothschild, proprietor of first-growth Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux, brought New and Old Worlds together in their Opus One collaboration. It too required a magnificent edifice. Their first vintage sold, in advance, for $50 per bottle: an unheard of sum at the time.
Soon, Mondavi’s craggy features would be nearly as well known as that of his friend Julia Child. In 1993, the 80 year-old winemaker took his company public. The offering generated a $37 million windfall for the four primary shareholders: Robert, his sons Tim and Michael and daughter Marcia. By 2004 the company had been taken over by dissident shareholders and sold to Constellation Brands.
While it’s almost never the case that any one man is responsible for a revolution, a persuasive case can be made that no single individual did more than Robert Mondavi to convince Americans between the coasts that wine had a place at the table and that the quality of wine was something everyone should be able to judge for themselves by comparative tasting.
Hard to believe, maybe, but before Mondavi came along, winemakers rarely if ever tasted each other’s wines with an eye to education and self-improvement. The fact that this practice is considered perfectly routine today may well be the hard-driving immigrants’ son’s most enduring legacy.
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