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Robert Mondavi Winery Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Hundreds gather in Napa to reflect on pioneering vintner's achievements

Posted: July 19, 2006

The Robert Mondavi Winery celebrated its 40th anniversary this past weekend in Napa, with hundreds in attendance to commemorate the 1966 founding of the iconic winery.

Robert Mondavi, now 93, attended only some of the events over the three-day celebration. "At 93, we let him sleep in the mornings," quipped his wife, Margrit. She acted as hostess, attending all the symposiums, dinners and party.

Mondavi has long been one of the most influential players in the California wine industry. Mondavi's parents bought the Charles Krug winery in 1943, with Robert's brother Peter becoming president of the company in 1966. Around the same time began the infamous dispute, resulting in Robert and Peter not even speaking to each other for years and Robert setting out on his own. He broke ground for his eponymous winery at the age of 54.

From the beginning, he insisted that California wines could rival the greatest wines from Europe. "He changed the course of wine history and made it pass not just through Napa, but through the New World," said Agustin Huneeus, proprietor of Quintessa. "Who will succeed Bob Mondavi? No one will, but that need no longer exists."

Mondavi was among the first in California to embrace several vinification techniques, such as the use of stainless steel for fermentation of both red and white wines. But he also understood the importance of marketing--sales soared after he coined the name "Fumé Blanc" for Sauvignon Blanc. He also helped change Americans' perception of wine, promoting wine as an accompaniment to food as well as art; Mondavi has long sponsored exhibits and a long-running concert series.

One of the highlights of the anniversary was the introduction of Taste3, an interdisciplinary symposium held at Copia: the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts, a Napa facility founded by Robert and Margrit Mondavi in 2001. The two-day conference brought together scientists, chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers, historians, cookbook authors and, among others, the Pilobolus dance company, stand-up comic Tom Rielly and a spoken-word artist, Rives. Taste3 will continue next year, catering mostly to wine and food professionals.

On Saturday night, hundreds of guests attended the 30th anniversary of the Great Chefs series at the Mondavi winery, in which some of the world's top chefs perform cooking demonstrations for small groups. Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Paul Bocuse, Gary Danko and Charlie Trotter are among those who have participated, along with Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Bradley Ogden, Roy Yamaguchi, each of whom attended this year. On Sunday, the winery opened for 700 guests to explore, taste older vintages and enjoy foods prepared by local chefs.

Even though the weekend's festivities highlighted Mondavi's achievements over the past four decades, questions loomed over the future of the winery itself. In November 2004, Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine company, acquired the winery for $1.36 billion. That caused concern over whether the company, better known for inexpensive wine, would uphold the quality of Mondavi's high-end lines, such as Mondavi Reserve and Opus One. However, Constellation CEO Richard Sands, who attended the events, said that he believes the company can uphold the standards of quality and tradition set by the winery's founder. "We have the resources that can advance that process," Sands said.

A New York-based CEO speaking for and about the winery showed just how much things have changed in the past 40 years. "In 1966, we didn't have a roof," Margrit Mondavi said. "We crushed practically out in the fields. Still, Bob was willing to pull the cork of any great bottle to prove what California wines could do … Bob would say to all of you who have come to help us celebrate, 'Cent' anni!'" ("Another hundred years!").

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