On the Vine

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Among the great figures of American wine, none stands out like Robert Mondavi.

Growing up in California during Prohibition, part of an Italian immigrant family whose fruit packing business sent grapes to the East Coast for home winemakers, he excelled in high school and made Phi Beta Kappa studying economics at Stanford University. In 1943, when (at his urging) his parents acquired the Napa Valley’s historic Charles Krug Winery, he and his younger brother Peter joined the family business there.

As time went on, Robert Mondavi developed his own, progressive ideas about how to run the winery, resulting in a jealous feud with his brother, who supported the more conservative Old World practices of their parents. By 1965, after his father died and his mother sided with his brother, this feud escalated to a physical battle, and Robert left Krug (later suing his family for his share in that company) to found his own winery, in his own name.

I remember well the significant differences between the wines of Charles Krug and Robert Mondavi by the 1970s. In the winter of 1974, I used to look forward to Thursday nights, when, at the end of a long day of pruning at my own vineyard in Cutchogue (two years before we had our own wine to drink), my husband and I would drink a jug of C.K. Mondavi’s blended red wine while we watched the popular TV show, “Kung Fu.” The wine and the TV show fell into the same category: anaesthetizing plonk.

In the same year, for our own edification, we tasted Robert Mondavi’s revolutionary Fumé Blanc, which we copied stylistically in making our own wine from sauvignon blanc grapes two years later. This particular varietal had gained a bad reputation in California, as it was generally made in a sweet and oxidized style.

After traveling in France, Mondavi realized that the French Pouilly Fumé was a far superior style, made from the same grape but barrel fermented, dry, and fresh. He called his version Fumé Blanc (an Americanized ordering of the French words), and made a huge success of it, setting a new standard for sauvignon.

In fact, Mondavi revolutionized almost every aspect of the wine industry, developing cold fermentation, barrel aging, the use of stainless steel, cellar sanitation, controlled malo-lactic fermentation, innovative bottle closures, etcetera, etcetera. His winery, with its iconic archway, broad vista, gardens and demonstration kitchen, became the epicenter of Napa Valley tourism, soon defining agritourism at its best. The explosion of American premium wines through the 1970s was propelled by the creation of Opus One, Mondavi’s joint project with Baron Phillippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux’s Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

Mondavi always pushed his business to the limits, overextending to the point where he periodically lost (and regained) control of it. His ambition may have been fuelled by his ego, but all along the way, his business practices were driven by his notion that what benefited the industry as a whole would benefit Mondavi. He always shared his innovations; there were no secrets in his methods—he just did them first, and often better than anyone else.

Mondavi’s own children (Michael, Tim, and, to a lesser extent, Marcia) joined his business. In 1980, Mondavi divorced his first wife and married Margrit Biever, a vivacious Swiss artist who had come to work in the winery’s shop in 1967. Margrit, a diminutive woman with an enormous smile, became the engine behind the brand’s identification with art and music, bringing exhibitions and concerts to the winery.

The Robert Mondavi Winery was finally sold to Constellation Brands (the world’s largest wine company) in 2004. I had heard many people who knew him say (in the solemn, hushed tones people use to describe catastrophes) that after suffering a stroke, Robert could no longer communicate and was wheelchair-bound. On a recent trip to the Napa Valley, I was therefore elated to find that, while he is undeniably limited, this 95-year-old pillar of the wine industry can still express, with his eyes and smile, the joie de vivre that took him so far in his chosen profession.

With mutual friends who have known the Mondavis for many years, I had the great pleasure of seeing the Mondavi Winery’s new oak fermentation room, led by Margrit herself, with an intimate lunch at Robert and Magrit’s home on top of Wappo Hill, overlooking the valley whose prosperity derives from their personal efforts. Magrit served her own homemade asparagus soup, with fresh Dungeness crabs and strawberry currant tarts to follow.

We drank a sublime Fumé Blanc from To Kalon, Mondavi’s oldest vineyard, and a fragile, 24-year-old Mondavi Pinot Noir. The table was set with pots of fresh lily of the valley; each of us had place cards hand decorated by Magrit. All the while, as Magrit busied herself with our lunch, she attended to Robert, holding his hand, stroking his head, and helping him eat (and drink) the meal. We addressed our comments to him, and his eyes flashed when we discussed topics that interested him. His face glowed with happiness and pleasure in being part of our conversation.

At the entrance to the Mondavis’ house there is a plaque carved with the words “amor vincit omnia”: love conquers all. I left there feeling that this is the true secret behind Robert Mondavi’s success in business, as in life.

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