When Robert Mondavi was in his heyday, he often held court in the Vineyard Room of his Oakville winery.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, the Vineyard Room served as a hospitality center for dignitaries and a venue where great chefs showcased their culinary skills paired with Mondavi wines.
Over the years I attended many fantastic comparative tastings, where Mondavi would size up the competition, and met many esteemed winemakers there, people such as Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Angelo Gaja and Christian Moueix. In the years when many foreign firms established wineries in Napa and Sonoma, all roads led though Robert Mondavi’s office. Anyone who was anyone sought his counsel as they laid plans to begin wine ventures in California.
Yesterday I had lunch there with Margrit Mondavi, Robert’s wife, who is doing well since her husband’s death last year. It was the first time I’d been there in many years and it brought back many memories.
I was in the Vineyard Room in June 1981, tasting a vertical of Mondavi Reserve Cabernets, when an arsonist set a fire that scorched the eastern hills of the Napa Valley. I stood outside the room as a huge funnel of white smoke swirled into the blue sky.
It was also there that Mondavi would give one of his many speeches, about how California would make wines to compete with the best in the world. Or about touting the health benefits of wine in moderation.
He also often warned about the dangers of complacency and in particular warned fellow vintners that they needed to be careful to avoid the fate of the American auto industry, which had fallen on hard times, then as it has now.
I suspect he would be issuing a similar refrain were he alive today, that American vintners need to keep their competitive edge. The power and vision of his leadership inspired many winemakers. And now staring in the face of a serious recession, I’m sure he would be thinking about the importance of value wines.
Mondavi always knew how important inexpensive, entry-level wines were both to growing the market and creating cash flow. And yet some think that when he put his name on the Woodbridge and Coastal value brands that it signaled the beginning of the end, ultimately eroding the value of the Napa Valley wines.
It’s true that the millions of cases of Mondavi wine that didn’t come from Napa ultimately came to define the brand in the minds of many. And that made it more difficult to keep focus on the Napa Valley wines, however, the volume wines paid for the prestige wines.
I’m not sure American vintners realize the full impact of foreign competition today. California does not dominate the value segment of the wine market the way it should. And it is competing with some countries that subsidize their wine industries. It’s hard to pencil out how someone could make a great Spanish, French, Italian or Australian wine, ship it to and distribute it across this country and still have it retail for $10 to $15 a bottle.
I don’t expect many high-end wines will drop their prices. If vintners can weather the economic storm and consumers see real value in those wines, then their prices will hold.
But in terms of opportunities, better made and lower priced wines from California would demonstrate that this state can deliver, and that in turn will help sustain the industry through difficult times.
Timothy Janson — Las Vegas, NV — March 14, 2009 9:07pm ET
Philip A Chauche — Germantown, MD — March 16, 2009 1:35pm ET
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