The word icon is often used but seldom is it meaningful. Few people transcend the particulars of their individual identities to embody something much greater than themselves. In the course of my career, I have met my share of prominent and impressive personages. But I have met only one genuine icon.
My first meeting with Robert Mondavi occurred under strange circumstances. I had been scheduled to interview him during harvest, which, in 2001, began in the third week of September. My visit was to have included participation in the Mondavi family’s traditional service of thanksgiving; however, in recognition of events the week prior, the ceremony was postponed. Somewhat to my surprise, the interview was not.
I should have been intimidated at the prospect of spending the morning in the company of the man who, if he had not invented American winemaking, certainly reinvented it as a luxury industry. I had been an oenophile from an earlier age than one might respectably admit, and Mondavi wines, in many respects, had been my introduction to the concept of luxury. The label epitomized for me the mysterious conversion of grape juice into poetic experience. But these thoughts were obscured by the gloom that, in those days after September 11, seemed to linger in the air, and as I walked into Robert Mondavi’s office, I nearly forgot why I was there.
Happily, Mr. Mondavi hadn’t forgotten. In his high-pitched voice, he fired rounds of questions, while his bright eyes fixed intently on me from across the desk. His hands chased one another about his slight frame like a pair of sparrows as he gestured, and I gradually awakened from my daze to the knowledge that I was in the presence of a rare and remarkable energy.
As he gathered momentum, I found myself drawn into his wake, and suddenly we were moving while we talked—down a flight of stairs, up another, in and out among stacks of barrels. He told me that during Prohibition the police had raided his family’s home in Virginia, Minn., with hatchets, intent on smashing the barrels of wine stored there, only to be stopped by his mother, Rosa, an apparently irresistible force. He recalled how his father, Cesare, the son of peasants from Sassoferrato, Italy, had preserved the tradition of making wine for the family table, carefully selecting the grapes for this “liquid food.” He recounted his father’s travels to California to purchase the best wine grapes for friends and neighbors, and his father’s acquisition, in 1943, of Charles Krug, Napa’s oldest winery. He spoke frankly about his much-publicized differences with his brother, Peter, which ultimately compelled him to leave Charles Krug to establish his own winery. But mostly he talked of his passion for perfection in every aspect of his life, candidly assessing his own strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.
We soon found ourselves among the sun-dappled rows of the winery’s flagship vineyard, To Kalon. While we walked, Mr. Mondavi examined a leaf here, plucked a grape from its cluster there. Wine is a uniquely human thing, he reflected. And like us, it is a living thing: It is born, and it evolves, often in ways we never suspect. It surprises and delights us. Sometimes it disappoints us. But each vintage must complete its own journey. Like life, it goes on. “Twenty years from now,” he said, sweeping an upraised hand across the vista of vines and mountains, “the wine we’re making right here will have gone through many changes. But when it is uncorked at a wedding or an anniversary or a graduation, it will still connect the people who share it to this place, this moment in time.”
I have since thought often of that moment—of the September light and Mr. Mondavi standing in his vineyard. Since his passing in May at the age of 94, his accomplishments as a vintner, an innovator, and an entrepreneur have been meticulously extolled, his character as a neighbor, an employer, and a father fondly remembered. He led and inspired an industry, and he understood, as few do, that luxury—the fruit of human creativity—is also a necessity. Yet what makes him, for me, a true icon—a link to something much greater than myself—is the quiet manner in which, on that day when I could see only the grim present, he reminded me of the future, its gentle promise, and the stubborn continuity of life.