Robert Mondavi and "The Talk"
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
At 85, California vintner Robert Mondavi remains indefatigable. The latest evidence of his unbridled passion for wine came at a dinner put on by the European Wine Council, a trade organization promoting European wines in America. The venue was a private dining room at the sumptuous Le Cirque 2000 restaurant in New York City.
Mondavi was there on March 26 to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the council for his work on behalf of wine both at home and abroad. It was an apt honor for the Napa Valley vintner, who is almost without peer in promoting the wines of his home region throughout the world and in helping to build a wine culture in the United States. It didn't matter to the European Wine Council that Mondavi is a Californian. Such is his influence and reputation in the world of wine.
Now, Robert Mondavi is no stranger to awards. I imagine he must have a room full of them somewhere. In fact, Wine Spectator has recognized him with our highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. Last year, you, through the Readers' Choice Awards, named him the person who has done the most to enhance wine's image. Yet when he was presented with his latest award, Mondavi still rose to the occasion, waxing enthusiastic about the state of wine in America and the rosy days he sees ahead. Among some in the industry, this speech is known as "the talk." It often begins "let me assure you of this," and goes on to say how Mondavi wines are more balanced and gentler than in days of yore, with layers of flavors and elegance.
It is easy for many of these insiders to roll their eyes when Mondavi goes into the talk, because they have heard it too many times or are embarrassed by Mondavi's folksy energy and charm. Call me a sucker, or a bit of a sentimentalist, but when Mondavi dove into his talk at Le Cirque, I couldn't help but get inspired.
First, however, I have a disclosure to make. Of the many personalities in wine that I have met, it is the Mondavi family to whom I have had the most exposure. On my first real wine-tasting trip, when I was a junior in college, I and a group of friends piled in a car and drove up from the University of California at Santa Cruz. We toured Napa Valley on a warm autumn weekend, and I distinctly remember taking a tour of the Mondavi winery, my first such tour ever. That was in 1979, and I still remember the impressive sight of large stainless-steel fermenting tanks gleaming in the coolness of the Mondavi wine cellar.
A few years later, I found myself working in Napa Valley for a small weekly newspaper, the St. Helena Star. On a cold and rainy winter's night, I attended a banquet at the winery honoring one of the many artists who have shown their work under its Mission-style arches. The year was 1982, and it was the first dinner at a winery that I ever attended.
Since then, I have written my share of stories on the Mondavis--about their new wines, their many joint ventures or their latest business deals. Last summer I spent a week with the Mondavis, talking with them and touring their wineries in preparation for the cover story of the Oct. 31, 1997 issue, "The Changing World of Mondavi."
So I found myself pleasantly surprised listening to Bob Mondavi's talk, and glad to know that I hadn't become too jaded--an occupational hazard when you're in the reporting business. For whatever reason, whether it was the glorious food of Le Cirque or my many memories of the Mondavis, Robert's talk got me fired up as to why I am in the wine writing business to begin with: the power of wine to transform American culture into something less frenzied and more appreciative of the camaraderie of shared pleasures.
Mondavi spoke in such cultural terms. He started his talk with some unnecessary humility and then went to some heartfelt observances. "I am not a speaker," he said. "But I am impressed by the ambiance in this room tonight: the food, the wine, the people." He then talked of the revolution of food and wine that has swept America, especially in the last decade, and the promise it holds for the future. "America's setting the pace and the world is beginning to look at that." Even the representative from the Portuguese and Greek wine industries at my table agreed that New York, not Paris or London, is now home to the best restaurants in the world.
He then reminisced about his first trip to Europe, in 1962, and how the knowledge gained and borrowed then helped him to decide to change his style of winemaking. "All you had to use is common sense." He then jumped ahead to the present without losing his breath, urging the ratification of an agreement by the World Trade Organization regarding the mutual recognition of winemaking regions and nomenclature (another story to follow up on).
Mondavi finished with a bid for support for his $70 million American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, to be built in Napa Valley, which he said will help further the understanding of wine and food in the United States. All in all, it was a rambling stream of consciousness that gushed from Mondavi, a near-classic, though abbreviated, version of the talk. Its parts came out jumbled, and were delivered with Mondavi's trademark falsetto. But taken as a whole, I found myself still marveling at the man who best represents the soul of American wine today, and is still one of its guiding lights for the future.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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