Robert Mondavi Dies at Age of 94

Visionary vintner helped usher in a new era for California wine
James Laube
Posted: May 16, 2008

Robert Mondavi, a visionary winemaker and brilliant marketer who helped lead California wine into international prominence, died at 9 a.m. today at home in Yountville, Calif. He was 94.

Outspoken, energetic and charismatic, Mondavi was one of the most influential and admired winemakers in California history. He was the driving force behind his namesake winery in Napa Valley, which he established in 1966 and which for years was the most famous winery in California, until it was sold in 2004.

"Robert Mondavi left an indelible legacy on the California wine industry," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator. "He touted California wines as world class--as good as the best of Europe--and tirelessly traveled the world spreading that message, making believers out of millions of wine lovers."

In a career that spanned eight decades, Mondavi often led by example, setting lofty goals for his winery and inspiring California winemakers to make wines that would compete with the best in the world. His name, influence and passion for wine and life spread well beyond Napa and California. Winemakers around the world credited Mondavi with encouraging them to set higher standards and make better wines.

Inspired by Europe

A tireless global traveler with an inquisitive mind, Mondavi began visiting the great vineyards and cellars of Europe in the 1960s, when California wine was on the verge of a renaissance. Those sojourns helped Mondavi realize that California needed to improve its wines to gain acceptance in the nation's top restaurants and became the foundation of his vision for how California wines could gain greater respect.

His son Tim said his father's first trips to Europe were vital to his success and that of California wine. "He was one of the first [people] to go to see the best, the worst and everything in between in all the different areas," Tim said. "His desire was to ask the questions about why some of the wines were so great and why they got to be that way."

He also built strong personal ties with many winemakers, Tim said. "He developed friendships with other [winemakers] and exchanged ideas with many people. Not only did he learn from them but we shared what we had learned."

Through his outgoing personality and business acumen, Mondavi forged a number of important joint ventures with prominent European vintners. The first and most significant came in 1979, when he teamed up with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux's famous Château Mouton-Rothschild to create Opus One in Napa Valley. That union brought together two of the wine world's great minds, creating a wine that relied on a fusion of French and California winemaking traditions rooted in Oakville soil.

Opus One caught the attention of vintners and businessmen worldwide. Baron Rothschild's desire to partner with Mondavi validated the quality of California wine and ushered in a new era of foreign investment in California. By the end the 1980s, dozens of international firms had bought land and built or bought wineries in the state.

A Champion of Good Living

Mondavi's love of wine spilled over into what he termed a gracious way of living. He showed a deep appreciation for music and the arts, and he embraced fine cuisines of the world and elegant dining, in which food and wine enhanced each other.

As Mondavi's reputation grew, the stylish Mondavi winery became a mecca for visitors to Napa. Its educational tours and tastings, art shows and summer concert series became a focal point for many tourists.

To promote the marriage of food and wine, Mondavi and his wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, created the "Great Chefs" programs at their Oakville winery in the 1970s. Each year, they hosted influential culinary masters, such as Julia Child and Paul Bocuse, to cook and experiment with different food and wine pairings.

But rather than limit wine to fine dining, Mondavi championed making it a part of everyday life and of a healthy lifestyle. When wine came under attack in the 1980s, Mondavi was a vocal critic of anti-alcohol campaigns and advocated research into the benefits of moderate consumption of wine.

Mondavi "understood the need for education about wine, Napa Valley wine and California wine," said Harvey Posert, his long time confidant and public relations advisor. He added, "The programs--comparative tastings, harvest seminars, great chefs, summer concerts, the mission program--all had the sole purpose of explaining wine's positive values to the public and to the industry he served. Many of these ideas originated with others, but he had the will and the financial strength to make them happen."

The Path to Success

A native of Hibbing, Minn., Robert Gerald Mondavi was born June 18, 1913, to parents who had emigrated from Italy. Mondavi's parents, Cesare and Rosa, moved to Virginia, Minn., where his father worked in a mine and, with his wife, ran a boarding house and later a saloon. Robert recalled that his mother was an especially talented cook, and wine was part of daily meals.

In 1921, Robert's father decided to get into the grape business, and two years later the family moved to Lodi, which at the time was the grape capital of California. After working for his father and starring on the Lodi football team, Mondavi attended and graduated from Stanford.

By the 1930s, Robert became more interested in fine wines from Napa Valley, and he eventually worked at Sunny St. Helena Winery (now Merryvale). In 1943, he learned that the famous Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena was for sale and convinced his father to buy it.

"Bob Mondavi was born into the wine business and by genes or training developed an intensity to compete and succeed in that business," said Posert. "In those 1940 to 1960 years it was an old-time, immigrant- and import-based farming business, but his Stanford business [education and] training helped him apply business thinking [to wine marketing]."

The Mondavis moved to Napa, and Cesare, Robert and Robert's younger brother, Peter, ran the winery. But there were disagreements about how the winery should be run, and after Cesare's death, Robert and Peter clashed. While Robert, the more flamboyant of the two brothers, pushed for better wines, Peter favored a more conservative path. One day, they ended up in a fistfight, and Robert was asked to leave the family business.

In 1966, at the age of 52, he started Robert Mondavi Winery, building the first new winery in Napa since the late 1930s. He also sued for his share of Charles Krug and, in 1976, ended up with a settlement that left Peter in charge of Charles Krug, but gave Robert most of the family's key vineyards in the Oakville area.

Robert's sons, Tim and Michael, helped him build Robert Mondavi Winery into a public corporation that owned several wineries.
Once his winery was underway, with the help of his sons Michael and later Tim, Robert accelerated his efforts to fine-tune his wines. Increasingly this led to trips to Europe, where he studied the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Loire Valley.

During Mondavi's seminal travel experience in 1962, "I tasted wines I'd never find in the United States, and I saw first-hand the European way of making fine wine and aging them in oak barrels," he wrote in his 1998 autobiography Harvests of Joy. "I also came to see the role of the wine maker in a much different light." He began a quest to understand terroir--the French notion of how soil and climate impact grapevines and shape the character of a wine.

In Bordeaux, he honed in on the roles Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc played in Bordeaux reds, and also studied the texture and structure of those wines, which he admired. In Burgundy, he studied the fickle Pinot Noir grape and Chardonnay. At times, Mondavi's Pinots were considered among the best in California.

With Robert setting the goals and Tim overseeing the winemaking, Robert Mondavi Winery built a reputation for classy Napa Valley Cabernets and Chardonnays and started a trend with Sauvignon Blanc, which Robert called Fumé Blanc. The winery's best wine, its Reserve Cabernet, captures the rich earthy currant flavors of Napa Valley. But the wines were also distinctive for their suppleness, elegance and grace.

At the end of the 1970s, the winery launched an inexpensive line of generic table wines; those table wines from the Central Valley evolved into the Woodbridge label, which provided the company with a steady flow of cash.

The Opus One venture coincided with the debut of the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1981, which Mondavi was instrumental in creating. A single case of the debut vintage of Opus One sold at the inaugural auction for a breathtaking $24,000. The event has since grown into one of the world's largest charity wine auctions, raising millions each year for Napa health care, low-income housing and youth services organizations.

The Public Years

In 1993, seeking the capital for even greater growth, Mondavi became a public company, and Robert gradually turned over more of the business decisions to his sons. Michael concentrated on sales and marketing and Tim focused on winemaking, while Mondavi's daughter, Marcia, also sat on the board. Eventually Mondavi became chairman emeritus and traveled on behalf of the winery to promote its wines.

During this period, Robert Mondavi Corp. formed partnerships in Italy with the Frescobaldi family, in Chile with the Chadwick family of Viña Errazuriz and in Australia with Rosemount, which later became part of Southcorp. The company also acquired some prominent California wineries, including Arrowood, and purchased renowned Tuscan winery Ornellaia with Frescobaldi.

Meanwhile, Mondavi turned much of his energy to philanthropic endeavors. He spearheaded a drive to build Copia: The American Institute for Food, Wine and the Arts in downtown Napa and donated $20 million to get the cultural center, which he had conceived of in 1988, off the ground.

He also donated $35 million to the University of California at Davis: $25 million to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and another $10 million to finish the campus' performing arts center, which was named after him and his wife. The gift was the largest private contribution to UC Davis and represents one of the most generous single gifts from an individual donor in the history of the University of California.

But by 2000, Robert Mondavi Corp. had begun to experience financial strains that were worsened by the subsequent recession, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and a slump in wine sales. In 2004, after a series of internal disputes with board members over a planned restructuring of the company, Michael resigned. Although the board had originally decided to sell off Mondavi's luxury brands, it then agreed to sell the entire corporation when Constellation Brands made a takeover bid of more than $1 billion.

"This ambitious striving led [Mondavi] down some unfortunate paths," said Posert. Going public was a decision Robert later regretted, Posert said.

The sale temporarily left Mondavi out of the wine business for the first time since the 1930s, although Constellation kept him on as an ambassador for the winery. Then in 2005, at the age of 92, he joined his son Tim and daughter Marcia in a new venture to make Napa Valley Cabernet.

"Of all the things he learned, the most important was that wine was meant to enhance a meal, and that's something he never forgot," said Tim.

Funeral services will be private, but remembrance books will be available in the Robert Mondavi Winery visitor center and at the visitor center of Woodbridge winery in Lodi, Calif., for the next four weeks. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Copia; the University of California at Davis; The Oxbow School; and Stanford University.

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