When word reached me in Australia that Robert Mondavi had finally succumbed to the ravages of time, I lifted a glass or two to his memory with a few Australian friends. But I held off writing about him, in part because I was traveling, in part because I wanted the news to sink in first. I knew plenty of others would cover the ground.
As I wrote last week in a comment on Jim Laube's blog post, "Farewell to the Man and Mentor," when I spoke to a group of sommeliers in Sydney I noted that Robert Mondavi started his winery when few in the wine world took California seriously. He made it his life's mission to make certain that California wine mattered. He made it happen on sheer will and hard work, and by doing so he opened the door for all of the New World to gain that kind of respectability. California's success made it possible for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Washington, Oregon, Chile, Argentina, countries that wine experts once sneered at, to be taken seriously.
Little known fact: Denis Horgan started Leeuwin Estate, which now makes Australia's finest Chardonnay, only after Robert Mondavi visited Margaret River and told Horgan that he ought to plant some grapes there. Mondavi wanted to partner with Horgan in a new winery. Horgan turned him down, but he planted the vineyard on his own, and the rest you know. It's a Johnny Appleseed story, and it repeated itself in other corners of the wine world.
I experienced first-hand the power of Mondavi's vision and single-minded pursuit of respectability for his wines and those of California. On my first visit to Mondavi, on a mid-1970s trip to California while I was still the food editor of the Miami Herald, I sat at his table in the Vineyard Room of the winery and heard the speech for the first time of many. At the merest provocation, he would declaim on how California could make wines the equal of any in the world. And then he would trot out a Château Latour or Haut-Brion to pour alongside one of his Cabernets. Over the years he put his name on a hell of a lot of really good wine. He cemented respectability for California by partnering with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the icon of Bordeaux, to start Opus One. Mondavi became a household name.
Much of the commentary in the past couple of weeks has noted the void Mondavi's death has created, and asks who will replace him as the icon of California wine. The answer is obvious. No one can replace Robert Mondavi. What made him great was that he got a world that didn't care about California to pay attention to his wine, and by always putting it into the context of Napa Valley and California, to take them seriously as well.
The conditions that made that necessary no longer exist. To achieve the same kind of icon status in California, someone would have to create a similarly seismic change. I know a lot of great wine people in California, with successful wineries, but it doesn't make you an icon to be very good at something everyone acknowledges is pretty good already.
It's the same with other major figures of the wine world. Baron Philippe brought Château Mouton, and with it Bordeaux, out of the doldrums and back into prosperity. Who's the icon of Bordeaux now? The answer is it doesn't need one. Angelo Gaja made the world see Italy as a place for great wine, and Marchese Piero Antinori showed how it could be done on a big scale. No one needs to replace them, either.
So let's give it a rest. Robert Mondavi's life's work touched everyone in the wine world. Knowing him was a privilege. We don't need to look for the next icon. There won't be another like him.