As Napa’s most influential winery celebrates a half century, we toast a few of its finest vintages.
Fifty years ago, Robert Mondavi built a big, beautiful winery in Napa Valley and started making Cabernet Sauvignon. Isn’t that what everyone does up there? Well, not in 1966. Napa then was a simple farming community, planted with acres of Petit Syrah and French Colombard and pumping out jugs to fill supermarket shelves. Mondavi’s architectural winery represented an entirely new vision: Designed by none other than Clifford May, it was the first major construction in the valley since Prohibition, and it was meant to produce wines that could rival the best in France.
May created the winery’s famously arched facade to attract the eye—and the tourist, a first for a wine region anywhere in the world. “Robert Mondavi redefined what a winery should be,” says winemaker Zelma Long, a Mondavi alum who now owns Long Vineyards in Napa and Vilafonté in South Africa. “He thought everything should be visible and wine should be something that spoke to the mouth and the heart. He created a new kind of consumer.”
Leveraging the cachet of Bordeaux, Mondavi smartly focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and, through his relentless marketing, made it synonymous with Napa. He also had an eye for talent: Robert Mondavi Winery was the starting point for some of the valley’s legendary winemakers, beginning with Warren Winiarski, the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Mike Grgich, of Grgich Hills Estate. Tim Mondavi, Robert’s son, became a respected winemaker in his own right and worked closely with talents including Charles Thomas, who became winemaker at Quintessa and founded Thomas-Hsi, and Paul Hobbs, the consultant and owner of Paul Hobbs Winery. The current winemaker, Genevieve Janssens, became director of winemaking in 1997 and carries on the tradition of making top-tier Napa wines.
Today, as Mondavi marks its 50th anniversary, the Napa Valley AVA has grown to include more than 450 wineries, and wine regions from Australia to Austria have adopted its founder’s tourist-friendly approach. The company’s anniversary celebrations kicked off earlier this year with a retrospective tasting of its Cabernet Sauvignons that reached back to some of the very first vintages. Here are the highlights, including the first release, which was served at a gala dinner honoring the winemakers.
1966 Unfined Cabernet Sauvignon
“I am Warren Winiarski, and I made this wine,” Winiarski declared at the gala. And he made it as the winery itself was being constructed all around him. With 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Cabernet Franc, it whispers of hay and pale red fruit, with touches of pomegranate reminiscent of old Bordeaux.
1971 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
Mondavi’s first reserve designation, it was made by Grgich with 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 40 percent Cabernet Franc. At 12.7 percent alcohol, the wine’s subtle aromatics offer no clue of its explosive flavors: cloves and spices, violets and lavender. The most thrilling wine of the tasting.
1976 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
Made by Tim Mondavi and Long, working with small yields and concentrated flavors. It is the only 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon since Mondavi founded the winery. Notes of dry grasses and lavender on the nose yield to intensely earthy, meaty flavor.
1987 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
Cool, dry weather resulted in a slow ripening process and higher acid for the ’87 vintage. Even now, this elegant Tim Mondavi–made wine shows green flavors amid the dark fruit and dried grasses.
1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
An El Niño year meant one of the latest harvests—and most challenging vintages—of the decade. Janssens’s 14.1 percent alcohol blend gets its backbone from To Kalon Cabernet but also contains fruit from vineyards in Oakville, Stags Leap, Carneros, and West Napa Valley. Mushroom and brine, with black olives and subtle red fruit, the wine transcends a difficult vintage and presages the style of Mondavi today.