Robert Mondavi–The Patriarch of California Wine

No person has had as great an influence on California wine–and how the world viewed it–as Robert Mondavi.  Andre Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu Vineyards’ legendary winemaker from 1938 to 1968, made great Cabernet Sauvignon–and less well realized, but no less great–Pinot Noir.  Ernest and Julio Gallo sold more California wine (and their company still does) than anyone else.  But it was Robert Mondavi who put California wine on the world’s wine stage.  And for those of us over 50, his accomplishments are all the impressive because he started his eponymous winery and his crusade for top notch California wine when he was in his 50s.

The Sad State of California Wine

To understand the magnitude of Mondavi’s accomplishments, we must remember the state of California wine in the mid 1960s when he left his family’s winery, Charles Krug, and started his own.  There were fewer than 30 active wineries in Napa Valley, not the more than 400 that exist today.  Prices for land were measured in hundreds or thousands–not hundreds of thousands–of dollars per acre.  Although Beaulieu Vineyard, Inglenook, Louis Martini and others made excellent wines at the time, the preponderance of California wine was generic jug wine, the legacy of which remains a deep-seated prejudice among Americans against screw caps.  The famous tasting in Paris where California wines upstaged the French ones–with French judges no less–was still a decade away.  The truth was that until the mid 1970s very few people took California wine seriously.  Robert Mondavi changed all that.

A Locomotive for California

Many wine regions have benefited from a locomotive that brings the region’s wines to international acclaim.  Angelo Gaja, in large measure, put Barbaresco and wines from Piedmont on equal footing with the world’s other great wines.  Piero Antinori with his ground breaking Tignanello and enormous energy did the same for Tuscan wine when the Chianti region was in the doldrums.  But none of them started with a region so far down the prestige ladder and managed to carry it to the top.

‘I need to convince people to drink California wine’

When I met him in the early1980s, his mantra–the same as it was 15 years earlier–was as notable for what he omitted as what he said, ‘I need to convince people to drink California wine.’  He did not say that he needed to convince people to drink Napa Valley wine, or Mondavi wine.  He knew the hurdle was to convince people to include California when they thought about and purchased fine wine.  To him, it was a foregone conclusion that once people started to explore California wines, they would embrace his particular offerings.  It wasn’t arrogance.  It was confidence, and a realization of where the real impediment was.  He knew that the cliché–a rising tide raises all ships–was, in fact, true as far as California wine was concerned.  He didn’t fear competition from his California colleagues. He relished it because he knew the result would be better wine.  His goal was to show the world California could make world-class wine.

On the Same Table

He was tireless and single minded in his crusade.  Many of my wine writing colleagues have told me the same story, so I knowthat my experience was not unique.  Whenever Mr. Mondavi would come to Boston to promote his wines, the strategy would be the same despite the format.  Try a Mondavi Reserve Cabernet along side a first growth Bordeaux.  Sometimes he would moderate a blind tasting of five or six wines that included his and one or more first growth Bordeaux.  Other times at dinner he would encourage–or demand–that a guest order a bottle of Chateau Lafite or any first growth Bordeaux on the wine list so all could drink it with his Reserve Cabernet.  Sometimes his wine was the group’s favorite; others times it was not.  But on every occasion, it was clear that the Mondavi Reserve Cabernet deserved to be on the same table.  And that was Mr. Mondavi’s point.

Robert Mondavi, a Great Mentor

Robert Mondavi was a great mentor.  There is a long list of current and past California winemakers, such as Warren Winiarski, Mike Grgich, Charles Thomas, Paul Hobbs, Zelma Long, and Janet Myers, who worked in the Robert Mondavi winery and then went on to make names for themselves and their new wineries.  Mr. Mondavi always encouraged them even after they left (and became competitors), giving advice on how to solve problems and make better wine, or loaning equipment in a pinch.  This spirit of cooperation is rare in the wine world.  It is a kind of collegiality rarely found in Burgundy or Bordeaux, where most winemakers and principals guard their proprietary information carefully, never revealing their techniques to competitors.

Not Just Red Wine

Mondavi knew that California was capable of producing great white wine as well as red.  Although he was not the first to bottle California Sauvignon Blanc, he made exceptionally suave wines from the variety and was the first to label them ‘Fumé Blanc,’ a reference to Pouilly-Fumé in France, an appellation that used that grape exclusively.  The name helped the variety’s popularity and is now used by hundreds of wineries throughout California.  Although some people thought Mr. Mondavi’s failure to trademark the name was a mistake, Peter Holt, a former Vice-President of Purchasing for the former California retailer, Liquor Barn, and a keen observer of the California wine industry, felt it was consistent with Mondavi’s desire to share what others might consider proprietary information for the good of the California wine industry.

Elegance and Balance

His philosophy about wine was simple and constant, despite changing fads.  To him, wine should be consumed at the table, with food and friends.  Although the term ‘food wine’ was fashionable for a while, it’s a term whose origin was in reaction to the so-called ‘monster’ or ‘killer’ Cabernets that made an impact in blind tastings, but overwhelmed everything on the table.  Mondavi, never a fan of that style of wine, continued to make the wines he liked to drink with food despite mounting criticism from some prominent wine reviewers in the 1990s.

In his honor, and to see how the older Mondavi Reserve Cabernets have evolved, I’ve dipped into my cellar over the last week to try them, as he would have suggested, with dinner.  The 1985–at 23 years of age–was similar to a fine mature Bordeaux: balanced, polished and delectable.  The 1991 and 1992 were less evolved–still exhibiting bright fresh red and black fruit flavors–but developing engaging secondary aromas and flavors of cedar, tobacco and dried fruits.  They still have a long life ahead of them and, more importantly, will continue to improve.  All of these wines contained less than 14% alcohol and none were considered ‘blockbusters’ when they were released.  They have blossomed beautifully because they were balanced and harmonious–not overripe and jammy–upon release.  I, for one, am glad that Mr. Mondavi stuck to his guns.

Thank you Mr. Mondavi–Mr. California Wine.  The California wine industry would not be the same without you.

June 3, 2008