In many ways, Robert Mondavi kick-started Napa’s golden age. But now, many wonder whether his winery will be a pivotal player in Napa’s future. In the nearly 60 years since the winery was founded, Napa wine has changed. Has Robert Mondavi Winery been left behind?
Constellation Brands, the spirits industry giant that bought Mondavi in 2004 after the family had largely been pushed out of management, believes there is still Mondavi magic to behold, and for several years has been quietly investing in the hopes of turning the iconic brand into the keystone of its luxury wine division.
The problems at Mondavi are not new. “To be honest, Robert Mondavi Winery has stagnated,” says Robert Hanson, who heads Constellation’s Wine & Spirits division. “We are repairing a decade of atrophy.” The bad seeds were planted in Robert’s aggressive expansion over the decades as he strove to realize his vision. The need for cash flow led him to create value-priced brands: Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi and what became Robert Mondavi Private Selection. Those labels were successful and helped along Mondavi’s dream of turning Americans on to the idea of wine as a daily pleasure. But they also warped the image of the original Robert Mondavi wines. Even today, a consumer might be confused trying to evaluate a bottle of Robert Mondavi Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from all over California and priced at $12 a bottle versus a Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet made from the To Kalon vineyard and priced at $225 a bottle.
Constellation executives have said for years that they wish to better differentiate between the three brands. But when the lower-priced wines are bringing in millions of dollars in revenue each year, thanks in part to having the name of an American wine legend on the label, it’s hard to walk away. Just three years ago, Constellation launched a series of television ads with an actor playing Robert Mondavi, leading boldly, striding through vineyards in boots and sunglasses, tasting in his cellar, working to make great wine. The ads were for Woodbridge.
Hanson knew this was a recipe for decline. A former CEO of American Eagle and board member for Urban Outfitters, he spent six years on Constellation’s board questioning the wine division’s focus. The executives told him to stop talking and start doing, and he agreed to take over wine and spirits at a time when many industry analysts were asking if Constellation’s future lay in beer only. Hanson saw revitalizing Robert Mondavi Winery as essential to his plans. “I made it a condition of taking the job,” he says.
But it was just one part of the plan. First up was shedding Constellation’s focus on value wines. In April 2019, the company announced an $810 million deal with chief rival E. &. J. Gallo, selling off more than 30 wine brands and five physical wineries to the Modesto-based company. The brands were top value wines—names such as Ravenswood, Clos du Bois, Estancia, Franciscan, Hogue and Mark West—that Constellation did not see a future for in a U.S. market that is increasingly trading up to premium wines.
While that was a huge volume of wine to walk away from, Constellation invested in smaller luxury producers. In recent years it has bought or acquired control of wineries including Schrader, Booker, the Prisoner and Lingua Franca. In the medium price range, it has poured its energy largely into two rapidly growing brands—Kim Crawford and Meiomi.
The next step is elevating Robert Mondavi’s quality and image so that it sits in the pantheon next to brands like Schrader and Opus One. No amount of marketing will accomplish that unless the quality of the wines rises. And the Mondavi team has been working on that for a few years now. They’ve brought in some of Napa’s top names—Mondavi veteran Geneviève Janssens, Andy Erickson and Thomas Rivers Brown—to comprise a winemaking advisory council. Constellation executives tell Wine Spectator that Helen Keplinger recently joined them.
Brown is the longtime winemaker at Schrader, and Erickson works at the To Kalon Vineyard Company, another Constellation project. So why not mine their expertise? “I was in the family,” says Brown. “Andy was in the family. They thought, ‘Why not have these guys add a new perspective?’”
Erickson found the idea hard to resist. “I’m kind of a Napa Valley history nerd, and Mondavi is such a big part of it,” he says. “Thomas and I were both working with To Kalon. They floated the idea of this council—what they wanted was to float everything by us. Look at the farming plans, the plans for new cellars. It’s just been really fun to be a part of imagining what the next chapter of the Robert Mondavi Winery will be.”
A big part of their focus has been To Kalon vineyard. Arguably Napa’s most historic vineyard, dating to the late 1800s, the Oakville estate has been a key part of Robert Mondavi Winery since the beginning. (The vineyard is so essential to the winery that the company has trademarked its name, meaning some neighbors who own parts of it cannot use the name on their labels without permission.) With the council’s input, the Constellation team has been shifting to organic farming and expects to be certified organic by next year.
“Great wine requires great fruit and great winemaking,” says Hanson. “And we have not been managing the Robert Mondavi Winery brand that way for some time.”
New investments in the vineyard and winery as well as input from the winemakers appear to be paying off. In the past two vintages, scores have been ticking up. This year, the Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville The Reserve To Kalon Vineyard 2019 earned 95 points, while the Oakville Estate Cabernet 2019 earned 94.
The winery will be undergoing further transition. Winemaker Sally Johnson Blum, formerly of Pride Mountain, recently joined the team. And the company has begun an upgrade of the cellars and the hospitality center. While it doesn’t have a final price tag, Hanson reports the project will be in the nine-figure range.
As they work toward the renovation, the hospitality part of the winery will feature a sleek new facility that enhances luxury. It’s also going to be a more exclusive experience—the base tour and tasting price is rising from $30 per person to $50, and they are reducing the number of guests each day. Visitors had been leaving reviews saying that the winery felt like Disneyland, at a time when many top Napa wineries were becoming more luxurious, emphasizing high-end experiences. The winery has begun hosting dinners in the vineyard, featuring celebrities and social influencers, hoping to create a groundswell of buzz. And there’s a renewed push to get the wines on the lists of top restaurants, after years when the brand largely had a retail focus.
The goal is to elevate Robert Mondavi Winery back to feeling like a high-end brand. That also means pricing will change for the wines. Ironically, the wines were selling at a much higher price overseas, where Woodbridge and Private Selection aren’t major brands. Robert Mondavi Winery has been trimming production and increasing prices gradually. The To Kalon Cabernet was $150 a few years ago; soon it will be $250. The entry level Napa Valley Cabernet is doubling from $25 to $50 a bottle. “We can sell half the volume and do better,” says Hanson.
The biggest challenge may be taking the Mondavi out of Woodbridge and Private Selection. “We have to remove the consumer confusion, and the only way to do that is to rebrand [the value wines],” says Hanson. The plan is to transition the Robert Mondavi name, first to smaller type, then to the back label and then off the label completely, over the next two to three years. Robert Mondavi Private Selection will have a new name: Vint.
“It’s about time,” says Robert’s son Michael Mondavi, who grew Woodbridge but also proposed separating the brand before being nudged out. “I think the direction they’re going is right.”
It’s a big challenge. Failure could mean Woodbridge and Private Selection are no longer profitable and Robert Mondavi Winery continues to decline. U.S. consumers don’t believe in American first-growths—a winery will not be revered just for its past if it fails to stay current and continue to offer quality and excitement.
But that also means that a winery that has struggled can reinvent itself as long as it delivers. While young consumers may not know what Robert Mondavi meant to Napa, the winery staff and Constellation executives do. For his part, Hanson believes they can succeed if they remember Robert Mondavi’s values.
“The spirit of a founder is what maintains a brand past their life,” he says. “If I had to describe Robert Mondavi as a man, he was a dreamer, but he was a doer. He absolutely loved to share, collaborating with his neighbors, and he liked to celebrate. We need to honor his dream and celebrate his ethos.”