Robert Mondavi (born 1913) has brought prestige to American wines and helped to popularize wine drinking across the nation. Since opening his own vineyard in 1966, he has seen California's Napa Valley develop into one of the finest wine-making regions in the world.
Before Robert Mondavi, American wine was "understood … to be the stuff of skid-row jokes," wrote Paul Lukacs in the Washington Times. Most wines made in the country were low-priced table wine at best, not to be held in comparison with the excellent vintages from France. Frustrated, Mondavi set out to change that; he wanted to make Napa Valley wines competitive internationally. Most thought his aspirations were too lofty, but he broke away from his family's long-running business and founded his own firm in 1966 with his oldest son. At first, he simply hoped to produce world-class Napa wines, but eventually, his mission expanded to educating the American drinking public about the joys of wine consumption and promoting the industry as a whole. This gained him the reputation of being "the ambassador of wine" and earned him the nickname "The Patriarch." Mondavi's sales and marketing efforts have gone a long way to transforming the image of quality wine from being a bastion of the elite to being an unpretentious, regular part of a good meal.
Mondavi was born on June 18, 1913, in Virginia, Minnesota. His parents, Cesare and Rosa (Grassi) Mondavi, were Italian immigrants. His mother ran a boarding house for local Italian laborers and while his father was the proprietor of a grocery store and later, a saloon. However, Prohibition law was enacted in 1919, which outlawed the sale of beer and liquor, threatening Cesare Mondavi's business. The law allowed for individuals to produce up to 200 gallons of wine, though, so Mondavi's father decided to become a grape wholesaler for the many Italian families who wanted to continue enjoying their traditional wine with meals.
Cesare Mondavi's business often took him to the West Coast. So, in the early 1920s, the family relocated to Lodi, California, south of Sacramento. The clan included Mondavi; his older sisters, Mary and Helen; and his younger brother, Peter. Mondavi and his brother helped with the business, nailing together wooden crates for shipping wine. Early on, Mondavi showed a strong desire to succeed, playing on the Lodi High School football team even though he was a slight 140 pounds. When his team reached the regional championships, Mondavi was chosen "most valuable player." He also served as president of his class one year, and was on the swim team.
After high school, Mondavi was accepted at Stanford University and graduated in 1937. With guidance from his father, he began to study business, in anticipation of building a career in the wine industry. He also took chemistry classes to understand more about the technical side of wine making. In the fall of 1936, Mondavi got a job at the Sunnyhill Winery, later called Sunny St. Helena. His father was a partner in the business. When Mondavi heard that the Charles Krug Winery, the oldest in Napa Valley, was up for sale in 1943, he convinced his father to buy it on the condition that he would work with his brother to build it up.
Departed Family Business
For 23 years, Robert and Peter Mondavi ran Krug together. Throughout the years, Robert Mondavi remained dissatisfied with the quality of their output. He yearned to produce top-shelf products, such as those from the Beaulieu or Inglenook vineyards. More than that, he wanted his wines to be the best, striving for excellence in his work as he did in the rest of his life. Peter Mondavi, on the other hand, was content with churning out safe products and did not want to invest money on higher-quality production techniques or expensive promotion. In 1965, the brothers came to physical blows, and Robert Mondavi decided it was time to start his own winery.
The split from his family business resulted in litigation, literally pitting brother against brother. Mondavi sued Peter as well as his own mother for his share of the business. The case was settled in 1978, with Mondavi receiving an undisclosed sum and some parcels of vineyard. In 1966, Mondavi and some partners founded the Robert Mondavi winery, and set out to produce the kind of drink that would make him proud. In his first year, he produced an especially successful crop of sauvignon blanc grapes, and set a precedent by releasing it under the name Fume Blanc, a twist on the French name of "blanc fume."
Mondavi did not want to just imitate the European wines. He was sure that California could produce distinctive bottles that would compete against any from France, Italy, Germany, Spain, or Portugal. Mondavi was zealous in promoting his wares. He conversed regularly with wine writers in the United States and London, becoming a spokesman for the burgeoning fine wine industry in the Napa Valley. In addition to pushing his own products, Mondavi vocally supported efforts to change American attitudes about wine. For years, it had been thought of as either a very low-class beverage of derelicts or as a special occasion drink. He wanted people to imbibe as his Italian family did: regularly and in moderation, as part of daily life.
American Wines Earned Respect
American wines, even good ones, still could not compete with the French. They were relegated to a lower caste and lacked the cachet of a French name. In 1976, this situation began to change. A British wine enthusiast named Steven Spurrier held a blind tasting in Paris featuring wines of California and France. All nine judges were respected French wine critics, sommeliers, and other oenophiles. The results were astounding. Though Mondavi did not attend the tasting, he was thrilled with the outcome. Of the whites, three out of four of the top-rated choices were from Napa; the top-ranked red was from Napa; many others ranked in the top ten. Mondavi wrote in his autobiography, Harvests of Joy, "Ten years before, I had made a bold claim and I had staked my future on it: that we in California could make wines that would stand proudly alongside the very best in the world. Now here we were, proving just that, on French soil, no less." Even more amazing, some of the winning wines were undervalued in the United States, selling for $6 or $7 a bottle because the winemakers figured that Americans would refuse to pay any more than that. (A little later, good quality California wines would retail for about $50 a bottle, though most winemakers such as Mondavi would also produce decent products in the $10-$15 range as well.)
Following the Parisian tasting, the reputation of California wines received a deserved boost. In 1979, Mondavi purchased a facility in Woodbridge. The same year, he undertook a venture with the fabled Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in France to produce Opus One. At the outset, this was designed to be a masterwork. The first case ever to be offered for sale was purchased at the 1981 Napa Valley Wine Auction for $24,000. It took some time for the new brand to catch on among wine lovers, but after some marketing efforts that allowed gourmet restaurant customers to sample the wine for about $10 a glass, Mondavi saw sales boom, and the Opus One label became the highest-priced wine in Napa.
Mondavi Empire Boomed
The Mondavi Winery kept expanding, purchasing Vichon Winery in 1985 and Byron Vineyard & Winery in 1990. They introduced their Robert Mondavi Coastal wines, a moderately priced line, in 1994, and Italian varietals in 1995. Also in 1995, the Mondavis teamed up with Italy's Marchese de' Frescobaldi, and the next year, entered a joint venture with the Eduardo Chadwick family of Chile to produce and market the Caliterra brand. In 1996, the firm announced that they were moving the Vichon wines to France, introducing the Vichon Mediterranean line the following year. Mondavi stock went public in 1993, selling additional shares in 1995; but the family still controlled 92 percent of the voting power.
Mondavi married Marjorie Declusin in 1937. The marriage produced three children, Michael, Timothy, and Marcia. He and his wife divorced in 1979, and he married Margrit Biever the following year. Mondavi's children began running the winery in the 1980s, but Mondavi continued to make a lot of the decisions, much to their consternation. He transferred executive responsibilities to his two sons in 1990. Michael functions as the CEO, Timothy is managing director and wine grower, and Marcia is on the board of directors.
Relished Role as Spokesperson
Into the late 1990s, Mondavi continued to function as a spokesperson for the firm and the wine industry as a whole. He raised the ire of Napa locals with his aggressive campaign to polish the area's tourism industry, backing a plan to build, using some public funds, a $50 million cultural complex in 2001 featuring upscale restaurants, art spaces, and an amphitheater. Mondavi has long promoted wine in conjunction with a love of the arts, hosting an annual summer music festival in Napa, literary readings in the tasting rooms, seminars on the details of wine making, and more. However it is all part of his dedication to spreading the "gospel" of wine. "We have come a long way," Mondavi remarked to Lukacs in the Washington Times in 1998, "but we still have much more to do. But I'm optimistic. I believe that we will make more progress in the next few years than we have in the last ten."
Active in touting the benefits of wine while warning of the dangers of alcohol abuse, Mondavi started the Robert Mondavi Mission Program in 1988. Its educational programs focus on positive attributes of wine, featuring speakers ranging from sociologists and anthropologists to religious and governmental leaders, as well as scientific and medical researchers. This stemmed from Mondavi's dismay at the government's request to put warning labels on alcoholic beverages during the 1990s. As the decade progressed, he worked diligently to prove that moderate wine consumption was, in fact, a benefit to health. The popular media widely reported studies backing this claim. These messages helped to spur sales, especially of red wine. It was shown to have clear benefits, including a reduction in cholesterol levels.
Mondavi was instrumental in linking the consumption of wine with fine cuisine. In 1976, he started the Great Chefs of France program that brought chefs to his winery for cooking demonstrations and seminars. Mondavi was a founding co-chairman of the American Institute of Food & Wine, along with his good friend Julia Child. He also participates in a number of wine organizations.
Innovative Production Methods
In addition to his public role as someone who has popularized wine drinking among Americans, Mondavi has been an innovator in production methods. He was one of the first to recognize the importance of using small oak barrels, as the Europeans did, in fermentation for high-quality bottles. However, his company also got the reputation of being a "test-tube" winery because of all the innovations they tried in order to improve their products. In the late 1960s, he borrowed an idea from the dairy industry and introduced the use of refrigerated stainless steel vats for fermenting large quantities of the drink. By 1993, Mondavi decided to consult with NASA to use data they collected by remote sensing. He was interested in photographs taken from a digital camera at an elevation of about 14,000 feet that would hopefully shed more light on which areas of the vineyards were infested with diseases, and which areas should be harvested at which times in order to prevent over-ripening of grapes. In addition, the Mondavi company created a capsule-free bottle design in 1994, as part of its environmental research.
Mondavi, Robert, with Paul Chutkow, Harvests of Joy: My Passion for Excellence, Harcourt Brace, 1998.
Newsmakers 1989, Gale, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1998, p. H8.
People, October 12, 1998, p. 151.
USA Today, June 17, 1998, p. 1D.
Washington Times, September 2, 1998, p. E1.
Wine Spectator, September 30, 1998, p. 72.
Robert Mondavi web site, March 8, 1999.Available from http://www.robertmondavi.com. □