The Mondavi Heritage

Robert Mondavi’s legacy lives on in Napa’s most talented winemakers

The Mondavi Heritage
When Robert Mondavi winery, designed by Clifford May, began going up in 1966, it created a new style for California wine. (Ray Marcinkowski)
From the Nov 30, 2022, issue

Every day, for months, the man would sit there among the vines in St. Helena, thinking. Robert Mondavi was trying to see the future.

His present was fairly bleak. It was near the end of 1965, he was 52 years old, and his own family was forcing him out of the winery he had spent two decades building into one of the best in Napa Valley. Mondavi was general manager of Charles Krug, a historic cellar in St. Helena. Under the leadership of Robert, who oversaw sales and operations, and his younger brother Peter, who oversaw winemaking, Krug was recapturing its pre-Prohibition glory.

But the two brothers squabbled constantly. One day, Peter accused his older brother of misappropriating funds; Robert punched him. Their mother, the winery’s leading shareholder, settled the dispute by putting Robert on a six-month leave of absence. Before that leave was over, she would fire him from the family business.

Robert had no savings. He lived in a house on the winery property owned by the family. He had three kids and college tuition to pay. What’s more, he had pride that was nearly impossible to swallow. While he’d ultimately struck his brother over money, the two had been fighting for years over Krug’s future. Robert wanted to be bold; Peter wanted to be cautious. Meekly saying he was sorry and working under Peter’s leadership was not possible for Robert.

So every day for weeks that winter, as 1965 turned to 1966, Robert walked out of his home on the Krug grounds, past the winery where his brother worked and the house where his mother lived, and stepped into the vineyard. He carried a card table and a chair. Once he was out of sight, surrounded by vines, he set up the table and sat. The leaves turned red and gold and then fell from the vines. Robert considered his future. He considered Napa’s future. He considered American wine’s future.

He decided to bet big on that future.

 Robert Mondavi stands on the corner of a hopper as friends and family stomp grapes for the 1966 harvest.
Robert stands on the corner of the hopper as friends and family stomp grapes for the 1966 harvest. The mindset and philosophies behind the project felt revolutionary for the young staff. (Courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

It’s been 56 years since that winter when Robert Mondavi resolved to strike out on his own and establish his namesake winery. Napa Valley has changed a lot during those decades. So why are we still talking about Mondavi? Because it’s likely that none of those changes would have happened without his wager.

In 1965, there were 36 wineries in Napa Valley. Just half a dozen had opened in the three decades since Prohibition’s end, and several more had gone out of business. But in the 15 years after Robert Mondavi Winery opened its doors, 68 new wineries were established, and some shuttered ones came out of hibernation. By 2000, there were 233 in the valley. Today there are close to 500.

Robert Mondavi Winery’s first vintage was the last year California’s production of fortified wines exceeded that of table wines. American preferences began to shift from strong, sweet jug wines consumed for their alcoholic kick to dry table wines made to be enjoyed over a meal. Mondavi personally championed that idea, arguing that wine was a beverage that had been enjoyed for centuries with good food and thoughtful conversation.

This palate revolution among American consumers would not have been possible had Napa’s wines not improved so dramatically during that time period. Armed with cutting-edge technical knowledge and an appreciation of how viticulture shaped great winemaking, a new generation of winemakers kept raising the bar for Napa wine. Within a decade the world had noticed.

Mondavi didn’t lead the charge single-handedly. But Napa was the most visible region for fine wine, and Mondavi was its highest-profile, most outspoken champion. His legacy lives on in Napa today—in the belief that Napa belongs in the pantheon of world-class wine regions, in the tireless search for better winemaking and in the appreciation of hospitality and fine dining.

Perhaps the greatest living legacy of Robert Mondavi, though, is the long list of winemakers who worked at his winery. Many of Napa’s top names got their start hauling hoses and emptying vats in his Oakville cellar—people such as Warren Winiarski, Mike Grgich, Zelma Long, Paul Hobbs, Helen Turley, Geneviève Janssens and, of course, Tim Mondavi.

Dozens carried the experience they gained at Robert Mondavi Winery to other wineries, including Rudd Estate, Quintessa, Simi, Groth, Domaine Chandon, Hall, Chalk Hill, Bonny Doon, Jackson Family, Sokol Blosser, Conn Creek, Lagier-Meredith, Louis Martini, Clos Pegase and Nickel & Nickel, to name a few. “We like to call Robert Mondavi Winery the ‘Mondavi University of Winemaking,’” jokes Janssens, who still consults for the winery.

The many that moved on took with them the lessons of Robert Mondavi, the winery and the man—his ambitious vision for wine, his eagerness to experiment and his belief that the wine community should share ideas. Most of all, they remember his refusal to back down. During those days in the winter of 1966, Mondavi had looked to the future and decided he wasn’t going to quit. He carried that attitude for the rest of his life.

“Nothing would discourage Bob. I mean nothing,” remembers Winiarski, RMW’s first winemaker before he went on to found Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. “He gave me confidence that we could match the challenge, and that was an enormously nourishing kind of atmosphere.”

 The Mondavi family hosts a groundbreaking at Charles Krug winery shortly after purchasing it. In the foreground, from right, are Peter, Rosa, Cesare and Robert, with a sizable crowd behind them.
The Mondavis host a groundbreaking at Charles Krug shortly after purchasing it. Foreground, from right: Peter, Rosa, Cesare and Robert. (Courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

To understand how bold Robert Mondavi’s vision was in 1966, it’s crucial to understand the previous decades in Napa Valley. Winemaking had been slowly dying since the onset of national Prohibition in 1920. The wineries of the late 19th century either shifted to sacramental wine production or grapegrowing, or simply shut their doors for good.

Ironically, Prohibition is what brought the Mondavis to California. Robert’s father, Cesare, had emigrated to America in 1906, leaving the tiny mountain town of Sassoferrato in the Marche region of Italy. After arriving at Ellis Island, he headed west, following his older brother Giovanni to Ely, Minnesota. It was a cold place, just 16 miles from the Canadian border, but it was a boom town. Thanks to workers who came from all over to labor for good wages in the iron ore mines—they lived in camps built by the likes of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—Ely had grown from 900 souls to more than 3,000 in the previous decade. The average high temperature in January was 15° F.

Cesare did well enough to return home after two years with some money and then marry a local girl, Rosa Grassi. She was pretty, kind and a great cook. And, as Robert wrote in his 1988 autobiography, “Even as a young girl, she was known in her family as what we Italians call a tèsta dura, literally a ‘hard head.’ People often say the same of me!” Cesare was quiet, thoughtful and an avid reader in a town where most were illiterate.

The couple headed back to Minnesota together. They settled down and built a life, having two daughters and two sons over the next few years. At some point they adapted the pronunciation of their name, mun-DAH-vee, to the less foreign sounding mun-DAY-vee.

When Giovanni died in a mine accident, Cesare stopped hauling iron ore and instead partnered with another Italian family to open a small grocery store in nearby Virginia, Minnesota. Next, the Mondavis sold their share and used the profits to buy a saloon. They also took in boarders, with Rosa serving three meals a day to as many as 15 mine workers in addition to her own growing family.

These were Italians, so nearly all these meals included wine. The boarders kept personal casks in the Mondavi’s basement. When the United States outlawed the sale of alcohol, home winemaking was still permitted, though wine grapes were hard to find in northern Minnesota. The local Italian-American Club asked Cesare, as a smart and shrewd saloon owner, to go to California and source grapes. In 1919, he scoured the state and returned with a steady supply for his neighbors. He also came back with the conviction that California offered more than just fruit.

In 1923, when Robert was 10, the Mondavi family traveled west by railroad and settled in Lodi, California. Cesare built a grape-shipping business, C. Mondavi & Sons, while Rosa turned their house into an unofficial community center for Italians moving to California, several of them from the ancestral town of Sassoferrato.

Robert and Peter grew up spending their spare time helping their father. Cesare tasked Robert with driving his car to run errands when he was just 13. When Robert was pulled over, he told the police officer he was Cesare’s son and, his father’s reputation being spotless, he was excused with just a warning. The lesson was clear: If you are trustworthy, successful and respected, you can push the limits. Robert also loved to push on the football field, where he was a prized fullback for his high school. At 5’ 8” when fully grown, he would never intimidate, but he had such a forceful presence that he simply bowled over obstacles.

Robert was attending Stanford when Prohibition ended at the end of 1933. Winemaking was legal once more, but the damage was done. California had been home to more than 700 wineries in 1919; now there were 150. Between phylloxera decimating vineyards at the turn of the century and Prohibition arriving soon afterward, Napa had lost more than half its vine acreage.

Yet some saw opportunity. Cesare’s bankers, knowing he was a reliable client with good business sense, came to him and urged him to invest in two wineries that were in trouble: Acampo in Lodi and Sunny St. Helena in Napa Valley. When Robert graduated with a business degree in 1936, he was dispatched to St. Helena to help manage that winery. Within a few years, the Mondavis had improved the wineries’ finances, shifting their focus from buying and shipping grapes to buying grapes and making bulk wines that were shipped east for bottling. Everyone knew that Napa produced higher quality wines than the Central Valley, so bottlers would blend in a little Napa juice to boost the quality of their jug blends.

By the time he turned 30, Robert was convinced that Napa could be much more. Driving past the few surviving landmarks of the valley’s glory days—Inglenook, Beringer, Beaulieu—he was inspired to aim higher.

In 1943, the Moffits, a successful San Francisco family, decided to sell Charles Krug Winery, located just 2 miles from Sunny St. Helena. Krug had been one of those 19th century names, founded in 1861. It included 167 acres of prime vineyards. But the property had been neglected, and the Moffits used it primarily as a country home, leasing the cellars to a jug-wine operation. When they decided to sell, the Mondavis’ local banker tipped off Robert.

Robert drove to his parents’ house in Lodi for dinner that night. Afterward, he pitched buying Krug to Cesare, speaking a mile a minute, drawing dreams of growth and great wine for his father. Cesare listened quietly, as he always did.

When Robert finished speaking, Cesare simply said he was happy with where they were—shifting from bulk wine to bottled meant he would need to create a sales and distribution network. It was too ambitious. And then he went upstairs to bed.

Robert pitched Rosa on the opportunity. She told him not to worry. And sure enough, the next day, Cesare came downstairs and, according to Robert years later, asked, “Bobby, when do you want to go up to St. Helena to see the Charles Krug Winery?”

Peter Mondavi was on a brief break from his service in the army air force in England, so the three men drove together to Krug to take a look. Cesare agreed to buy it, as long as the brothers would agree to work together to run it. This was the Mondavis’ future.

 A priest and the Mondavi winery team gather for the winery’s first blessing of the grapes during harvest in 1966.
A priest and the winery team gather for the winery’s first blessing of the grapes during harvest in 1966. The concrete crush pad was one of the only parts of the winery that had been built. (Courtesy of Warren Winiarski)

During his two decades at Krug, Robert nurtured the vision and skills he would bring to Robert Mondavi Winery—salesmanship, his use of hospitality to win customers, his dedication to improving the quality of the wines.

With Peter in the military, Robert was in sole charge at Krug initially. The winery, with its large space and distinctive cupola, had not been maintained—the floor was dirt and the walls bore cracks from the earthquake of 1906. Mondavi took out a loan for new concrete floors and steel supports for the walls.

Instead of selling bulk wine at Sunny, they now sold bottled wine from Krug. Robert began traveling, pitching the wine to distributors and restaurateurs.

When Peter returned from WWII, Krug became a true family affair. Elder siblings Helen and Mary worked in the office. In the cellar, Peter, armed with an enology degree from Berkeley, began conducting temperature-controlled fermentations. The resulting wines were fruitier, more vibrant, less clumsy. Robert entered them in contests, where they won medals and grabbed publicity.

He and Peter began conducting blind tastings with their staff, comparing Krug with top wines. Robert also organized tastings with other local vintners, including John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook and André Tchelistcheff of Beaulieu. He felt that Napans needed to share ideas so they could all improve quality. This proved an early disagreement with Peter, who worried Robert was giving away company secrets.

In 1949, Robert opened a tasting room, one of the first in Napa Valley, offering wine samples, cheese and crackers. He wanted to draw new wine drinkers, including former GIs who had developed a taste for wine during their time in Europe. Robert also conducted tastings with guests. He launched a newsletter, eventually mailed to thousands.

But even before things came to blows, it was clear Peter and Robert’s days working together were numbered. Their personalities were too opposite, and no one could keep the peace after Cesare’s death in 1959. Peter would end up producing great wines at Krug for decades after Robert’s departure and would hand the cellar off to his sons and grandchildren. He did it in his own, quiet, steady way.

Robert had less patience. “My 23 years at Krug were often frustrating,” he later wrote. “In part because I was always driven by that same lifelong ambition: to be the best. While I was at Krug, when I drove by Beaulieu or Inglenook, I would bow my head in reverence, as a mark of respect, as if I were in church. They were the best; my unwavering dream was to join their ranks.”

He was always looking for ways to improve. What were other wineries trying in the cellars? How were the best around the world aging their wines? In 1962, he got the chance to find out, taking a trip to Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and the Mosel, visiting 48 wineries and watching how the great names made wine in a much more artisanal fashion than Napa. He also saw that many great European wineries were resting on their laurels, refusing to innovate or think outside the box. He felt Krug could join the ranks of the elite.

He witnessed how wine was an integral part of European culture. At lunch at the temple to gastronomy La Pyramide in Vienne, just south of Lyon, he enjoyed a breathtaking meal paired with elegant wines, and asked himself why America did not have a similar approach.

When he returned to California, he brought all these ideas with him, pelting Peter with suggestions on fermentation, aging regimens and bottling. He said they needed to begin using new French oak to age their wines. To Peter, who had a degree in enology, it felt like criticism. And coming from big brother, it was too much. What’s more, Peter believed Robert’s drive could jeopardize what the Mondavis already had. Robert was putting his vision before his family. Their dust-up three years later was inevitable.

 The Robert Mondavi winery, with its iconic tower and archway, under construction in a field of mustard flowers in 1966
The winery and its iconic tower and archway begin to rise in a field of mustard flowers in 1966. The design by Clifford May was like nothing before it. (Courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

On an early summer day in 1966, Robert walked into his mother’s house, where Peter and Rosa were eating lunch. Robert laid out his vision for his own winery. It would be small, just a 20,000-cases-per-year venture, not competition for Krug. He would call it Robert Mondavi Winery.

Peter protested. The Mondavi name was on the Krug label. There would be customer confusion. Robert was undermining the family. Robert argued the name would not conflict. What’s more, he was changing his last name back to the original Italian pronunciation of mun-DAH-vee. That would make it clear his venture was separate.

Rosa stood up and without saying a word, slapped her older son in the face. With tears in his eyes, Robert quietly left.

The conflict between Robert and his family would fester, leading to a lawsuit that wouldn’t be resolved for a decade. But Robert could not wait. He needed to act on his vision—a winery that would aim to compete with the best in the world, to introduce the public to the special terroir of Napa Valley, and to promote the idea of wine as a moderate, civilized alcoholic beverage, one that can be paired with great food and stimulate great ideas. Fortunately, Robert found himself in the right place at the right time as Americans began to aim higher with cuisine in the 1960s. Julia Child, also a Californian, published her Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. At the other end of the decade, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1969, inspired by French farm-to-table cuisine.

America’s post-war economic boom and a surge of new college graduates had created a generation that was looking for something more sophisticated at mealtime. And that extended to drinking—it was a college-educated, upper middle class population that drove the rise of fine wine in the United States, and Mondavi’s vision matched the times.

The idea that he would produce only 20,000 cases a year didn’t last long. It simply didn’t fit into Mondavi’s goals. With the help of friends, including two longtime growers he had worked with at Krug, he quickly raised $200,000. He bought 11.6 acres of To Kalon Vineyard. His winery would be there, right on Highway 29 in Oakville, about 5 miles south of Krug.

Here, he erected the American West’s equivalent of a Bordeaux château. Designed by Clifford May, the structure is purely California. May’s archway, verandas and tower combined California ranch and Spanish Mission. The groundbreaking was July 16, 1966—only two months before harvest would begin.

“I came to Mondavi in 1966, the year they broke ground,” says Winiarski. “I had been helping Lee Stewart make wines at the old Souverain Cellars in Napa, so I had the winemaking background. I could take responsibility for the methodologies and the technical needs for establishing the winery.”

Winiarski, a former college professor who had moved to Napa a few years earlier, was used to unusual conditions—Stewart was known for making great wine on a shoestring budget. But Winiarski probably wasn’t prepared for making wine without a winery. By the time the first grapes were being picked, the only part of the cellar that had been completed was the concrete floor.

“The grapes were about ready to come in that first harvest and we had no walls, and when the walls came up, we didn’t have a roof,” Winiarski says. (Peter Mondavi allowed Robert to crush his first grapes at Krug.) “The last Cabernet Sauvignon [we picked] didn’t come in until Nov. 11. We had no ladders for pumpovers and no catwalks. It was a kind of a rush job to get it all done.”

But when the winery did start to take shape, it was like no other in Napa. Despite future legends, it was not the first in Napa since Prohibition. Louis M. Martini had been founded in 1934, and several ambitious vintners had started boutique ventures in the years since—Souverain, Stony Hill, Mayacamas, Heitz and Schramsberg. But Mondavi’s winery was certainly the most ambitious project since Martini’s.

Robert was open to almost any promising idea: jacketed stainless steel tanks for better temperature control, rotary tank fermentors and plenty of French oak.

“Having been in the industry for 30 years, dad knew the biggest problem in the industry was bad cooperage,” says Tim Mondavi, who helped Winiarski in the cellars during breaks from school and later joined the winery fresh out of the University of California, Davis. “My father wisely got away from that microbial dog dish of old concrete and old redwood.”

“This [cellar] was unique, and people came by just to see what was going on,” adds Winiarski. “They had never seen a battery of stainless steel tanks with jackets for temperature control. It was the same thing with French oak. People came to see how the oak barrels were stacked.”

Part of the innovation was a dedicated lab, installed in the winery tower. Many winemakers got their start in the lab, including Zelma Long and Geneviève Janssens. And even interns were expected to think outside the box.

“I was an intern at Mondavi for the 1977 harvest and joined the Mondavi team full time in ’78 and stayed with him through 1984,” says Paul Hobbs, one of the world’s leading enologists. “Mr. Mondavi very much appreciated anyone that could help drive the understanding of fine winemaking forward. We were doing research that nobody had ever done. I felt a freedom to try things.”

Nothing was off limits if it might lead to better wine. “Mr. Mondavi was giving us all the tools to represent his vision,” says Janssens, who got her start in the lab in 1978 before going on to stints as winemaker at both Mondavi Winery and Opus One. “He was quick to ask, ‘Will this make the wine better? Let’s do it.’ If we were making a mistake, he would say, ‘OK, as long as you learn, but don’t do it again.’”

Mondavi wasn’t a trained winemaker, but he knew exactly the taste he was looking for. “From my perspective, it was Bob’s vision for what he wanted with the wines,” says Long, who started at Mondavi in 1970 and became chief enologist when Winiarski’s successor Mike Grgich left in 1972. “The style of Cabernet had a little more elegance, softer tannins, expressive of the fruit and a little riper. When we were doing blending and tasting, Bob would express his desire for smooth finishes and deep flavors.”

 Robert Mondavi stands tall with eldest son Michael in his winery’s finished barrel room.
Robert stands tall with eldest son Michael in the winery’s finished barrel room. He constantly expounded on his vision for the winery and Napa Valley overall. (Courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

Being a visionary is expensive, however. Just as at Krug, Robert’s ambition was often larger than his winery’s income. His two initial partners, grapegrowers Ivan Shooch and Fred Holmes, were nervous enough that they sold their 50% stake after just a year to Rainier Brewing. The beer company saw possibilities in wine. It invested by buying hundreds of acres of vines for the winery, including another 230 acres of To Kalon.

Robert’s winery grew rapidly, from 2,500 cases in sales in 1967 to 30,000 in 1969 to 100,000 in 1973. But the winery was losing money. Court documents would reveal that Robert Mondavi Winery lost more than $750,000 in 1974 and $729,000 in 1975. Robert looked and acted confident, a born salesman, but the business wasn’t sustainable.

A financial windfall saved his dream when he needed it most. In 1976, a judge ruled that in the years after Robert had left Krug, Peter and Rosa had made a series of decisions that improperly devalued and shrank Robert’s stake. That share of the company was now valued at $10 million, and his relatives owed him $500,000. It looked like Peter would have to sell Krug, but in the end, he and Robert settled. Robert would receive $11 million in cash and assets from Krug, including hundreds of acres of vines, part of which was another sizable stake in To Kalon. The deal allowed Robert to settle debts and buy out Rainier.

But he never curbed his spending. His need for more financing would continue for decades, matched by the public’s thirst for inexpensive wine. In 1974, Mondavi ended up with an excess of bulk juice. Robert and son Michael decided to create a second label, sold in 1.5L bottles, informally dubbed Bob Red, Bob White and Bob Rosé. In 1978, as part of the Krug settlement, they assumed the lease for a bulk wine facility in Acampo, in the Central Valley, located on Woodbridge Road. They turned the bulk label into Woodbridge. In 1979, they bought the facility.

Woodbridge, powered by quality winemaking and its reputation as a Robert Mondavi product, became a runaway success as a value-priced wine. Another wine label the Mondavi family launched later, Robert Mondavi Private Selection, would enjoy success in the $10 a bottle price range. Both gave the winery needed cash, though they also sowed the seeds of future problems even Mondavi’s current owners haven’t resolved. (See “The Mondavi Future.”) The cash needed to foster continued growth would eventually spur the Mondavis to the fateful decision in 1993 to go public, ultimately leading to them losing control of their company.

 Winemaker Zelma Long’s young enology team in the lab in 1975.
Winemaker Zelma Long’s young enology team in 1975, many of whom would become wine industry stars. Back row, from left: Bob Mueller, Ricard Arnold, Françoise McClain, Eric Fry, Paul Hobbs; middle row: Geneviève Janssens, unidentified, Barbara Lindblom, Don Williams, Kristi Koford, Long; front row: Carol Shelton, Key Shyver (Courtesy of Zelma Long)

Arlene and Michael Bernstein were not your typical winery tour guides. For one thing, they technically shared one job. In 1971, the San Francisco couple moved to Napa Valley and bought an old prune farm on Mount Veeder. They dreamed of planting a vineyard. But first they needed income.

They answered an ad for a tour guide position at Robert Mondavi Winery and were interviewed by Robert and the head of hospitality, Margrit Biever (who would eventually become Mondavi’s second wife). Instead of discouraging the pair, Mondavi hired them and then nurtured their own dream of running a vineyard and cellar named Mount Veeder Winery.

“If Bob would see me leading a tour, he would run over and tell the guests that I owned a small winery and they should try the wines,” says Michael Bernstein. “He didn’t need to do that.”

But from Mondavi’s perspective, his winery’s fortune was aligned with that of Napa at large. He once loaned the Bernsteins a $25,000 (in early 1970s money) filter apparatus for a weekend, so that they could bottle their dessert wine without the risk of problems in the bottle.

“In 1975, when we were ready to strike out on our own, Bob asked, ‘Have you learned everything you need to from your time here?’” says Arlene Bernstein. “Robert Mondavi was a mensch.”

That attitude of sharing and learning to make better wine extended to his team as well. Regular blind tastings of Mondavi wines and iconic wines from around the world were part of the work week at the Oakville winery.

“We would have these production tastings every week, and you’re talking about the best of Burgundy, the best of France,” says Hobbs. “Imagine, how would I have ever gotten that kind of education? It was like going to Harvard or Stanford for wine.”

“Robert was so enthusiastic about wine quality,” says Helen Turley, who worked in the enology lab from 1979 to 1980. “He figured that the tasting was the most important, and he was always most interested in the best, and he was competing with the best of France. He regularly held tastings in the lab of the top French wines, and I don’t know that anybody else was doing that at the time. Who the heck was tasting Clos de Bèze in 1977? Nobody. You couldn’t afford it. But every Friday evening, after work, whatever wines that were tasted were left on the lab bench and anybody from the whole winery could come take a bottle.”

Janssens remembers the tastings as a challenge to aim higher. “Mr. Mondavi was always telling us, ‘Taste the best.’ In 1979, I was testing all the first-growths,” she remembers. “When [we finished making] the Cabernet Reserve one year, he would say it was delicious but, ‘How are you going to do it better? How are you going to improve it next year?’ He was absolutely restless about that. Never stay with the satisfaction of one year.”

By the end of the 1970s, California wine had come into its own, and Napa was considered America’s first-growth. Great chefs were coming to Napa for a series of dinners at the winery. A charity auction was in the works. Even the French took notice and Mondavi got a surprising offer from Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who was looking to invest in California. What about a partnership? The result was Opus One.

The French-American team made for an uneasy marriage. “My high school French wasn’t good enough for a professional situation, and Geneviève Janssens was working in the lab so she became my first interpreter for Lucien Sionneau, the winemaker for Château Mouton-Rothschild who came in 1979 and ’80,” remembers Tim Mondavi.

Janssens quickly understood the situation. “Lucien was totally against the joint venture with Robert Mondavi. Because he was from Pauillac, and the people of Pauillac at that time never left Pauillac. Even going to Bordeaux was a trip.”

Hobbs was involved too and remembers plenty of culture shock. “We had cleaned the winery and they thought it was too clean,” he says.

Despite the growing pains, for Robert it was validation for Mondavi Winery and for Napa. What’s more, it was a chance to expand his sense of collaboration to the world. If winemakers from multiple nations could share ideas, wine would only get better. New projects in France, Chile and Italy soon followed. It was part of a global renaissance for wine.

Thomas Rivers Brown didn’t work for Robert Mondavi, though nowadays the renowned winemaker is a member of the winery’s technical council, a consulting body of winemakers that also includes Janssens. But Mondavi’s example had a formative effect on him.

“Early on, I worked at a wine shop in Calistoga that also had a restaurant,” he says. “Mr. Mondavi used to drop by and bring two to four top wines for the staff to try, to compare and learn from. Mr. Mondavi used to say, ‘Share these with your staff, learn from them.’”

While Mondavi the man has been gone for a decade now, and his sons and daughter and grandchildren have moved on to other projects, his legacy abides. The winemakers who worked for him have taught the Mondavi way to new winemakers. The example he set is still the gospel of Napa Valley.

“Mr. Mondavi is such a touchstone for so many folks, even to this day,” says Brown. “He gave us that spirit of innovation and the idea that Napa could compete with wines from all over the world.”


MONDAVI ALUMNI

The winemakers who worked at Robert Mondavi Winery are a who’s who of American wine. They passed Mondavi’s vision down to others.

 A composite image of portraits of Warren Winiarski, Tim Mondavi, Zelma Long and Charles Thomas
Warren Winiarski, Tim Mondavi, Zelma Long and Charles Thomas (Winiarski portrait: Robert McClenahan)

Warren Winiarski

RMW Title: Chief enologist and winemaker
RMW Dates: 1966–1968
Notable Position after RMW: Founder, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Current Position: Retired


Tim Mondavi

RMW Title: Winegrower
RMW Dates: 1974–2004
Current Position: Owner, winemaker at Continuum Winery


Zelma Long

RMW Titles: Lab tech, assistant enologist, chief enologist and winemaker
RMW Dates: 1970–1979
Current Position: International consultant; winemaker in multiple projects
Notable Positions after RMW: Winemaker and CEO of Simi Winery (1979–1999); winemaker, owner Long Vineyards


Charles Thomas

RMW Positions: Several enology positions, culminating in head winemaker
RMW Dates: 1975–1994
Current Position: Owner, Thomas-Hsi Vineyards; partner, Longtable Wines
Notable Positions after RMW: Senior vice president, vineyards & winemaking, Quintessa, Huneeus Vintners; vice president, director of vineyards and winemaking, Rudd Winery; senior vice president, winegrowing, Jackson Family Wines


 A composite image of portraits of Paul Hobbs, Geneviève Janssens, Helen Turley and Michael Weiss
Paul Hobbs, Geneviève Janssens, Helen Turley and Michael Weiss (Turley portrait: Jon Moe)

Paul Hobbs

RMW Title: Winemaker
RMW Dates: 1977–1984
Current Position: Owner, winemaker, Paul Hobbs Winery in Sonoma and Viña Cobos in Argentina; consulting winemaker


Geneviève Janssens

RMW Titles: Chief winemaker (2018–present), director of winemaking (1997–2018), lab tech (1978–1979)
RMW Dates: 1978–present
Other notable positions: Winemaker/owner Portfolio Limited Edition Wines; director of production Opus One


Helen Turley

RMW Title: Lab enologist
RMW Dates: 1979-1980
Current Position: Co-owner and winemaker, Marcassin
Notable positions: Consulting winemaker for Colgin, Bryant, Turley, Martinelli, Pahlmeyer, La Jota, Landmark and others


Michael Weiss

RMW Title: Experimental enologist in charge of research
RMW Dates: 1973–1975
Current Position: Winemaker/winemaker emeritus, Groth Winery
Notable Positions after RMW: Winemaker, Vichon Winery; winemaker, San Antonio Winery


 A composite image of portraits of Dawnine Dyer, Richard Arnold, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and Bob Mueller
Dawnine Dyer, Richard Arnold, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and Bob Mueller (Grgich portrait: Adrian Gregorutti)

Dawnine Dyer

RMW Title: Lab tech
RMW Date: 1974
Current Position: Owner, Dyer Straits Wine Co. (1993–present)
Notable Positions after RMW: Vice president and winemaker, Domaine Chandon


Richard Arnold

RMW Titles: Research enologist, research manager, winemaker, senior winemaker
RMW Dates: 1974–2016
Current Title: Senior winemaker/consultant, Robert Mondavi Winery


Miljenko “Mike” Grgich

RMW Title: Chief enologist
RMW Dates: 1968–1972
Current Position: Owner, Grgich Hills Estate


Bob Mueller

RMW Title: Director of enology
RMW Dates: 1974–1990
Current Position: Owner, McKenzie Mueller Winery (1990–present)


 A composite image of portraits of Kristi Koford, Steve Lagier, Steve Leveque and Joe Harden
Kristi Koford, Steve Lagier, Steve Leveque and Joe Harden

Kristi Koford

RMW Position: Winemaker
Dates at RMW: 1974–1984
Current Position: Director of winemaking, Napa Wine Company
Notable Positions: Winemaker at Alderbrook Winery; assistant winemaker, St. Supéry


Steve Lagier

RMW Titles: Lab supervisor, wine production planner
RMW Dates: 1985–1999
Current position: Co-owner, winemaker, Lagier-Meredith Winery


Steve Leveque

RMW Title: Winemaker
RMW Dates: 1992–2003
Current Position: Owner, Leveque Wine Consulting
Notable Positions: Vice president of winemaking, Chalk Hill Winery; director of winemaking, Hall Wines


Joe Harden

RMW Title: Intern, winemaker
RMW Dates: 2012–2018
Current Position: Head winemaker, Nickel & Nickel


JAMES MOLESWORTH’S RECOMMENDED WINES FROM ROBERT MONDAVI WINERY

Robert Mondavi Winery has demonstrated excellence with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon–based blends and Cabernet Franc across recent vintages. WineSpectator.com members can access complete reviews using the online Wine Ratings search.

ROBERT MONDAVI THE RESERVE

Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville To Kalon Vineyard 2019

Score: 95 | $225

WS Review: Loaded with warmed cassis, dark plum puree and blackberry paste flavors, this lush red cruises through slowly, with a dark loamy underpinning and a steady drumbeat of tobacco, licorice root and roasted alder. Features an echoing violet hint, indicating inner purity amid the fairly stoic display of dark fruit. The finish is riveted with graphite. This is one for the cellar.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville The Estates 2019

Score: 94 | $85

WS Review: Throws off some pretty gorgeous aromas of violet, anise and sweet bay leaf, with a core of ripe, streamlined boysenberry and blackberry pâte de fruit flavors following closely. The finish has a racy graphite edge, while the fruit and aromas just spill through.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District The Estates 2019

Score: 92 | $90

WS Review: Flavors of warmed cassis and plum sauce glide through in this friendly, plush offering, which ends with notes of melted red licorice and sweet toast on the finish. A late violet hint adds nice lift.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2019

Score: 91 | $50

WS Review: A solid, forthright Cabernet, with cedar and warm stone notes framing the core of gently steeped black currant and blackberry fruit. Savory and loam accents flash through the finish.


ROBERT MONDAVI THE RESERVE

Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville To Kalon Vineyard 2018

Score: 94 | $175

WS Review: Dark and winey, with a smoldering intensity to the flavors of black currant preserves, fig paste and plum reduction. The structure is loamy, rich and driven, while tobacco and warm stone accents play their supporting role. A brick house with a bit of an old-school feel.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville The Estates 2018

Score: 93 | $65

WS Review: Rich and seductive in feel, offering a lovely swath of loamy-edged steeped plum and blackberry compote flavors, backed by flashes of anise and sweet bay leaf. The loamy edge extends nicely in lockstep with the fruit on the finish. Textbook Oakville Cabernet.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District 2018

Score: 92 | $90

WS Review: Vibrant plum and blackberry puree flavors race through in this ripe, fresh offering that is laced with notes of violet and anise through the finish, supported by a graphite spine. Textbook profile for the vintage.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2018

Score: 91 | $45

WS Review: This version is ripe and fresh, offering a lovely beam of cassis and cherry puree flavors that stream along, flanked by subtle bergamot, floral and anise notes. There’s a chocolaty hint on the finish, but the overall impression is pure.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Maestro Napa Valley 2018

Score: 91 | $40

WS Review: Vanilla and mocha accents lead off in this polished version, with a core of warmed cassis and plum reduction flavors filling in quickly. Ends with a graphite underpinning on the grippy finish. Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec.


ROBERT MONDAVI THE RESERVE

Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville To Kalon Vineyard 2017

Score: 92 | $175

WS Review: This version is very solid, with a direct beam of steeped black currant and plum fruit carried by hints of loam and black licorice. A loamy note mingles with the fruit through the broad finish, while light herb and singed alder hints check in.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Maestro Napa Valley 2017

Score: 91 | $50

WS Review: This offers up a ripe and forward mix of plum sauce, crushed blackberry and steeped black cherry flavors, along with notes of dried anise and singed apple wood. A briary hint scores the finish, which isn’t shy on grip. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2017

Score: 90 | $65

WS Review: This pushes a mix of zesty loganberry and boysenberry fruit to the fore, with hints of anise, mesquite and sweet spices filling in behind. Brambly grip and a toasty note hold the finish, leaving an ever-so-slightly firm edge, but there’s enough fruit to keep this going.


ROBERT MONDAVI THE RESERVE

Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville To Kalon Vineyard 2016

Score: 93 | $175

WS Review: This is solidly built, featuring a core of cassis, bitter cherry and plum reduction notes, laced up with racy savory, iron and singed cedar accents. Takes a restrained approach, showing subtle energy, but the fruit is sneakily long and the finish nicely grounded.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Franc Oakville 2016

Score: 92 | $64

WS Review: Sappy kirsch and blackberry compote flavors exhibit floral lift, with tobacco and mineral streaks enlivening the finish. Nicely toasty and dense, but shows good energy overall.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Maestro Napa Valley 2016

Score: 92 | $50

WS Review: A restrained style, offering a core of currant, bitter plum, savory, tobacco and mineral notes all working in concert. The well-focused finish features mouthwatering cut. For fans of Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2016

Score: 91 | $65

WS Review: This delivers a grippy beam of red and black currant fruit, inlaid with warm earth, tobacco and smoldering charcoal notes. Reveals lots of savory detail on the finish. Features a slightly rustic character, but maintains ample depth and cut. For fans of the Bordeaux style.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016

Score: 90 | $36

WS Review: A direct, focused style, with a core of steeped cherry and plum preserves, liberally lined with toasty vanilla and licorice notes. Sports a pleasant tug of earth at the end of the juicy finish. Textbook Cabernet.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Maestro Napa Valley 2015

Score: 92 | $40

WS Review: Dark and winey, with vivid blackberry and fig fruit flavors coursing through, carried by a strong graphite edge on the finish. Light licorice and savory notes add range and texture. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.


ROBERT MONDAVI

BDX Oakville 2015

Score: 91 | $68

WS Review: Solid and direct, with a cocoa-framed core of black currant and fig fruit, scored liberally with tobacco and loam notes on the finish. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.


ROBERT MONDAVI

Cabernet Franc Napa Valley Oakville 2015

Score: 91 | $65

WS Review: A grippy style, with charcoal, tar and tobacco notes providing an angular feel, while the core of cherry and red currant fruit catches up. Reveals a bright savory edge on the finish. Not for everyone, but should age nicely.

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The Mondavi Future

Nov 30, 2022

People Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc California Napa robert-mondavi-heritage

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