Harvey Posert Jr., a career professional in public relations who was one of the leading figures behind the scenes in California wine's success over the past 50 years, died early on Oct. 3 at St. Helena Hospital after a brief illness. He was 84. Posert was perhaps best-known as the man who helped Robert Mondavi become America's wine ambassador, promoting the virtues of not just Mondavi wines, but all California wines. He was well-liked and respected by those he worked with in the wine industry, both as a mentor and leader.
Next to the quality of his wines, Robert Mondavi credited Posert as the major component of his success. In 1980 Mondavi decided he needed a professional public relations expert to help him navigate a growing media thicket and promote his vision for fine wine. He chose Posert, then PR director for California’s Wine Institute, creating an enduring relationship built on the strengths of both individuals—Mondavi’s passion for wine and Posert’s expertise at communicating that passion.
“Harvey was always clear-headed, articulate, very bright, and best of all for many of us, blessed with a great sense of humor,” said Tor Kenward of Tor Kenward Family Wines in St. Helena. Kenward knew Posert from his days as PR director for Beringer Vineyards and his work with the Napa Valley Vintners. “He was a behind-the-scenes guy who did much more for the wine industry than he was ever given credit for.”
“He was more than a coworker," said Margrit Mondavi, Robert's widow. "He was our partner, a wonderful friend whom we admired greatly.”
A native of Memphis, Tenn., Posert’s career began in 1944 as a young reporter at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. He went on to study at Yale University, graduating with his B.A. in English in 1951 and then continuing his postgraduate work at both Southern Law University and the University of Chicago law school. He served in the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps from 1951 to 1954.
With a keen sense for news and a solid journalism background, Posert quickly rose through the ranks of the Edelman PR Agency beginning in 1956 in both Chicago and New York. He relocated to California in 1965 to manage the Wine Institute program to educate Americans about California wine. He ultimately served as director of public relations there, until 1980, when he joined Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley.
Posert didn’t seem like an obvious choice to advise Mondavi. They were an odd couple. Mondavi loved food, wine and travel and immersed himself in that lifestyle. Memphis-born Posert didn’t drink wine except when he had to. He preferred Jack Daniels.
Mondavi had created an image for Robert Mondavi Winery, but he needed help fine-tuning his message and developing a broader strategy and grander objectives. In Posert he found the perfect companion. Schooled in public relations, with a background as a newspaper reporter, Posert had seen California’s ascent while working at the Wine Institute and he shared Mondavi’s belief that there was much more to be accomplished.
Americans were just beginning to learn about California wine and Mondavi was the perfect spokesman. One of Posert's most important contributions was helping Mondavi create a program to counter the anti-alcohol sentiment that emerged in the early 1980s, leading to warning labels on wine and attacks on any alcohol.
Mondavi believed that wine was “liquid food,” and, with Posert, created what became known as “The Robert Mondavi Mission.” It emphasized wine’s historic relationship to culture, civilization and health. Posert helped script the Mondavi’s stance: “Wine has been with us since the beginning of civilization. It is the temperate, civilized, romantic meal-time beverage recommended by the Bible.” The Mission Program helped physicians focus on positive benefits of moderate wine consumption.
Posert spent most of his career in wine public relations, working on several of the most successful programs in the industry. He also counseled numerous regional wine associations, varietal wine groups and wine public affairs organizations. In 1996 he started HPPR: Harvey Posert Public Relations and worked until his passing on major programs.
“Harvey was the real thing, a giant behind the curtain who crafted and delivered the Robert Mondavi message for almost two decades,” said John Skupny of Lang & Reed Wine Co. in St. Helena. He recalled that Posert’s Guide to Public Relations for Wineries, written while Posert was at the Wine Institute, is still relevant today. “He had a keen insight and equally keen wit, often sarcastic but always truthful.”
Posert is survived by three sons and five grandchildren.
Harvey Posert Jr. (center) with Michael Mondavi and Marvin R. Shanken at Wine Spectator's 2013 Bring Your Own Magnum Party.