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The Making of Mondavi

Brett Anderson

The rumor about town was that the Mondavis had a cellar full of wine. It was a scandal, whispered the good citizens of Virginia, Minnesota. Someone should notify the authorities.

Someone did. And one day, when Robert Mondavi was not yet 10, a battalion of police officers gathered at the door of his parents’ home, which doubled as a boarding house for Italian immigrants like the Mondavis themselves. The hatchet-bearing defenders of the Volstead Act (as the National Prohibition Act of 1919 was then commonly known) marched indignantly down into the cellar, where they raised their axes to the barrels stored there. But before the deed was done, this irresistible force encountered another, still more irresistible: Momma Rosa.

 

As Mondavi was to recall years later in his memoir, Harvests of Joy (Harcourt Brace, 1998), “Now just you wait a minute,” she cried. “We have a right to have this wine. It isn’t all for us; we have boarders here and we’re housing most of this wine for them!”

Prohibition law permitted each family to make 200 gallons of wine for their own consumption, and Mondavi’s father, Cesare, had exercised this entitlement liberally. The son of peasants from Sassoferrato, a small farming town in Italy’s heartland, he had preserved the tradition of making wine for the family table when he emigrated to America in 1906, and he took great care in selecting his grapes—primarily zinfandel, but also muscat, carignane, and others. The results were eccentric, earthy, according to Mondavi; the mystique of this autumn ritual formed his earliest impressions of winemaking. And of course, Cesare’s labors were not wasted on his boarders, for whom the wine was a staple—“liquid food,” as Mondavi fondly describes it.


Fortunately for the boarders—mostly miners—Momma Rosa had a head harder than the iron ore they chipped from the earth. Her son was never quite certain how she persuaded the officers to retreat, but the precious barrels were spared—a fact that would have greater implications for the young Mondavi than he could have imagined then. Indeed, when Cesare, a respected local businessman, began to make regular trips to California to buy quality grapes to produce these “family” wines, the path to the Golden State opened, and Robert began a journey that would lead to another sleepy, rural town, where, along with a handful of other entrepreneurs, he would become an integral part of one of the most remarkable creative and commercial successes in history, transforming American perceptions of winemaking. That town, of course, was Napa.

Like Louis M. Martini, John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook, and Georges de Latour of Beaulieu Vineyards before him, Mondavi recognized the unique attributes of climate and soil that this agricultural haven possessed and saw in its boisterous bulk wines the potential for greatness. With magnificent single-mindedness, he studied how great wines were made in California and abroad, and applied this knowledge to developing innovative techniques that would coax from the varietals grown in Napa their own apotheoses of flavor.

 

“[Robert] Mondavi is the icon of the valley as far as winemaking is concerned,” says Jack Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars. “It goes beyond the valley, beyond the state to the world at large. No one in the wine world does not know who he is and what he has done. It’s not just Napa Valley, it’s the whole world.”

Adds fellow vintner John Shafer, “From the beginning, he has been promoting [the notion that] California wines can be put on the same table with the best wines in the world, and it has come to pass. He has been generous in sharing with other wineries, unlike the tradition of European wineries, which keep very much to themselves. He has been the opposite, sharing information with anyone who would listen.”


A Quest for Excellence
This sense of community, accompanied by powerful determination, was instilled in Mondavi early on by his father and mother. “My grandmother and grandfather had different sides to them that my father was able to take from,” observes Tim Mondavi, Robert’s son and the vice chairman and winegrower of Robert Mondavi Winery. “My grandmother was very outgoing and very committed to excellence, and just a dynamic, fun-loving lady who made things happen. My grandfather was a thoughtful, very quiet, and reflective man and really thought longer-term. He had a sense of business and a sense of honor as well. Dad was able to combine these and has really brought his family of origin into a position of strength, of quality, of pride.”

When Cesare made the decision to move his family from Virginia, Minnesota, to Lodi, California, south of Sacramento, Robert was just 10. The mild climate and thriving produce business persuaded his father that he could make a good living in California buying grapes, other fruits, and vegetables to ship back to the Midwest. Robert and his brother Peter spent their summers nailing together produce crates for their father, and the two boys organized competitions to see who could assemble the most.

“I was taught to excel at everything I did, whether I played marbles or nailed boxes,” Mondavi explains. “I studied the way the other workers worked and developed an assembly line and trained all summer. In one day I nailed 2,000 boxes.”

He had the insight, too, to avoid activities that limited his potential to succeed. Although he was a high-school fullback at 140 pounds, when he entered Stanford in 1932, the laws of physics proved an obstacle. So he chose rugby instead. But he did not choose the wine industry: During his years at Stanford, he had planned to become a lawyer. Then, in his junior year, Cesare gently persuaded him of the promise winemaking held for the future and that the Napa Valley was the outstanding region for both red and white table wines.


The recent repeal of Prohibition warmed the younger Mondavi to the idea. With astonishing resolve, he shifted to chemistry courses and steeped himself in viticulture and the subtleties of winemaking under the mentorship of Vic Enriques, a professor of enology at the University of California at Berkeley. Upon graduation, he took a job at Sunnyhill Winery in St. Helena, California, a bulk-wine business in which his father had become a partner.

While he learned much at Sunnyhill, his native ambition still burned. “We were in the bulk-wine business,” Mondavi recalls. “In California and in Napa we had very few wineries. There were about 20 wineries when I moved here. Most of them just did what their forefathers had done before. I began to taste our wines versus the Beaulieu, Inglenook, and Beringer brothers, and I thought, ‘ We can produce wines like that.’ ”

 

In 1943, the oldest operating winery in Napa Valley came up for sale. Charles Krug, founded in 1861, lay just north of St. Helena and furnished a pedigree that Mondavi felt would lend cachet to the prestige wines he hoped to make there. But to purchase the vineyard he would require immediate cash flow. Sunnyhill had been selling its bulk wines at 28 cents a gallon wholesale to bottlers. Krug, he reasoned, could purchase Sunnyhill’s wine and sell it bottled at retail for $1 a gallon.

The strategy persuaded Cesare to finance the deal. There were two homes on the Krug estate, one for each brother’s family (Robert married his first wife, Marjorie Declus, in 1937), and for the next 23 years they operated the winery together. But in the early 1960s, a few years after Cesare’s death, their competitive natures, combined with conflicting business values, threw the brothers into violent disagreement. Robert’s more flamboyant style and willingness to spend liberally in pursuit of his ideal of excellence chafed at Peter’s more conservative mind-set.


The rift between the brothers divided the entire family (even Rosa sided with Peter), and when the lawyers had done their worst, at age 52, Robert was put on a six-month leave of absence, though he retained his shares in the business. A decade-long legal battle ensued, and when it ended in 1976, Robert received a settlement of more than $500,000 in compensatory damages and his 20 percent share of Krug, for which the family had recently been offered $32 million. To this day, Mondavi refers to this painful episode as his “liberation.”

A Philosophy of Innovation
Long before the final settlement with his brother, Mondavi had laid the foundation for his future empire at To Kalon. The name means “highest quality” in Greek, and according to Louis M. Martini, who recommended the estate, it boasted some of the finest conditions for cabernet sauvignon in the valley. This was enough for Mondavi, who had arrived at the realization that if he were to achieve his dream of producing premium wines, he alone would have to be in charge.

On purchasing To Kalon in 1966, Mondavi set about transforming the Oakville property into a showplace. He hired architect Cliff May to design a winery building that would simultaneously reflect the Spanish heritage of California and the gracious philosophy of the business it was to house. Mondavi had always maintained that the best way to develop the industry and enhance the American consumer’s appreciation for premium wine was through education. He wanted the Robert Mondavi Winery to serve not just as a place of business, but also as a cultural center in miniature, where spectacular views and architecture would intensify visitors’ experience of the equally spectacular wines he envisioned.


To Kalon winery, which now attracts 300,000 visitors each year, has served as the backdrop for a number of enological innovations. Mondavi proudly refers to the flagship facility as a “test-tube” winery, and many of the techniques pioneered there have been widely adopted across California and the world.

Perhaps the most influential of these is the use of stainless steel tanks for fermentation. Traditionally, wines were fermented in oak or redwood vats, much as Mondavi’s father had done decades before. Wood containers, however, provide hospitable conditions for bacteria that could corrupt the flavor of the wine. After some experimentation, Mondavi adapted the steel tanks used by brewers to the task of fermenting wine, enabling his team to preserve the wine’s character while better controlling temperatures. Today, nearly every winery employs similar equipment.

 

Mondavi also pioneered the use of French oak barrels for aging. He observed that the First Growth Bordeaux used only new oak barrels in their aging processes, whereas the Second and Third Growth vineyards recycled their barrels—with lackluster results. And so he began to import new barrels for his operation, even selling some to his competitors. Aging in new barrels produced richer, more complex red wines with varied layers and, ultimately, catalyzed the dramatic flourishing of California’s cabernets in the decades to follow.


Another European technique found its way to Napa in the late 1970s through Opus One, Mondavi’s much-celebrated joint venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, located just across the highway from To Kalon. The chief attraction to both parties in this undertaking was the creative stimulus that comes from close collaboration, and the Mondavi family utilized the French planting techniques espoused by the Rothschilds. Mondavi had always held to the doctrine that wine is grown, not made: The winemaker’s challenge is to reveal the natural character of the grapes. The Mondavis learned that they could enhance this natural quality by “stressing” the vines. At Mouton Rothschild, vines were planted on the acreage in much higher concentrations, yielding the same tonnage of fruit, but of much higher quality. Both Opus One and Robert Mondavi Winery advocate this more costly approach to viticulture.

Ceaseless attention to detail, a willingness to experiment, and commanding drive have fueled the Mondavis’ many projects, from the introduction of their first commercial blockbuster, Fumé Blanc in 1968, to the initial public stock offering in 1993 and the 1995 launch of the company’s first European venture, Luce, in partnership with Vittorio Frescobaldi, patriarch of one of Italy’s noblest winemaking families. These efforts continue under the tutelage of Mondavi’s sons—Tim, the vice chairman and winegrower, and Michael, who was appointed chairman of the company in 1994.

Most recently, the Mondavi brothers unveiled the To Kalon Project, a new $28 million, 20,000-square-foot gravity-flow red wine fermentation cellar that features French oak tanks. “We believe this is the most state-of-the-art winery in the country, perhaps the world,” says Michael. “It’s another step in the rich history of winegrowing in this historic site.”


Of course, the Mondavis—father and sons—have their critics. Wine journalist James Laube, for example, has all but condemned Mondavi for failing to produce “riper, richer, more expressive wines” in pursuit of “wines with elegance and finesse—both admirable traits . . . that have yet to coalesce in [their] wines” (Wine Spectator, July 31, 2001). Never afraid to buck a trend, Robert Mondavi has vociferously argued that the so-called “cult” wines, such as Screaming Eagle and Bryant, represent a different style from the Reserves produced by his son Tim, which compare to the great Bordeaux. “We feel we want wines that have balance and gentleness, that harmonize with food,” he explains. “Robert Parker is very knowledgeable, and so is Jim Laube. They like these rich, bold wines, big wines—grapes that are what I consider overly ripe and yet make big, wonderful wines. We have an honest difference of opinion.”

Whatever one’s taste, one cannot question Mondavi’s level of dedication—either to his family, his business, or the industry he has helped to build. In 1999, he donated $20 million to COPIA, the new center devoted to food, wine, and the arts in the city of Napa—an embodiment of the cultural philosophy he has advocated his entire career. And in September of last year, he announced a personal gift of $35 million to UC Davis, in part to found the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, a research facility that will further California’s leadership role in the fields of viticulture and enology.

The gift is an outward expression of the same pioneering spirit that Mondavi cultivated as a child. “Americans are an inventive people,” he says. “We are always challenging each other, whereas in [other countries] people are often taught to abide by the rules and regulations and standards that have been established for generations. We here are moving much more rapidly and trying to keep an open mind and open heart on how we can do something better. Even today, we’re a frontier country.”

No doubt, Rosa and Cesare would agree.

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