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Mondavi under Constellation

A new year marks a new beginning for the landmark Napa winery

James Laube
Posted: January 13, 2005

Constellation, the new owner of Robert Mondavi Winery, need only concentrate on one thing: making better wines than the Mondavis did.

Wine quality will be the bottom line for most wine drinkers who choose to reassess this famous but slightly faded label. In the past few years, the company spread itself too thin globally and focused on lower-priced "cash flow" wines at the expense of its luxury line. If superior wines emerge at attractive prices, the Mondavi winery can win back some of its former fans and attract new ones.

Improving quality shouldn't be hard.

The winery still owns nearly 1,400 acres of Napa Valley vineyard, including some excellent properties for Cabernet Sauvignon, the flagship wine, as well as Chardonnay and Fumé Blanc.

The winemaker is still Genevieve Janssens, who has steadily improved the wines over the past couple of vintages. While she didn't hold the title of winemaker--that belonged to Tim Mondavi--she did much of the nuts-and-bolts work with the wines. She should be given the chance to tweak the style of the wines here and there, and to make more severe selections in what is bottled under the Mondavi label.

As for Mondavi's new brain trust, well, they know they own one of the crown jewel properties in California. And if they put the right people in the right positions to make the right decisions, the winery should do just fine.

However, people anticipating a quick fix or an abrupt change in direction are expecting too much. The new regime at Mondavi won't officially make its first wines until later this year. And vintage 2005 white wines won't be sold until 2006 at the earliest; the reds won't be on the market until 2007.

At this point, Jon Moramarco, the head of Constellation's fine-wine operations (which include Franciscan, Ravenswood and Simi, along with other wineries in the United States, Chile and New Zealand) is overseeing the transition team, along with another wine industry veteran, Jean-Michel Valette.

They are moving cautiously. Both Moramarco and Valette are examining the Mondavi-Napa Valley operations from vineyard to wine. "We have a few answers, but far more questions," Moramarco said.

They are separating the Mondavi Oakville wines into a different division of the company from the lower-priced, higher-volume Woodbridge and Robert Mondavi Private Reserve labels, which had declined in quality and were a drag on the Mondavi image. These volume brands had previously been made in part at Oakville, but no longer. Moreover, they will have separate sales and marketing staffs to further distance their identities and keep them separate from the Napa line of wines.

One of the first steps will be to evaluate each of the winery's vineyard holdings and determine which vineyards are worth keeping and which ones make a difference. A second step will be to determine which wines to focus on and which to drop or redefine. "We want to get the most out of the vineyards and the winemaker," said Valette. In all likelihood, that may mean focusing on fewer instead of more wines.

For example, wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Fumé Blanc and Moscato will likely remain in the fold. But other wines, such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and even Chardonnay, may come under closer scrutiny and could either be discontinued or produced under a new, separate label. It is also still unclear whether wineries such as Opus One or Arrowood will return to their former owners or partners.

Valette said Robert Mondavi again has an office at the winery and will be there from time to time, serving as a company "ambassador." But for all parties involved, it's best to move on.

Constellation need only focus on the future and better wines. It can't change the past, but the sooner it redefines the Robert Mondavi Winery, the better.

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