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An Evening with Robert Mondavi

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 27, 2008 5:14pm ET

Fighters don’t go down easy here on Wappo Hill. So far this year, Robert Mondavi has won bouts with pneumonia and the shingles. The former a deathly threat to someone who’s 94 years old, and the latter is a similarly painful and threatening disease.

Yet he has fought back and rebounded and he’s still hanging in there.

How many more rounds are left in Mr. Mondavi hardly mattered last night, and we sat down with a couple of close friends for dinner at their magnificent home.

Wappo Hill has been the Mondavi’s residence for 28 years. It’s a sweeping, multilevel, 10,000-square-foot one-bedroom home atop a knoll that overlooks Yountville to the west and Stags Leap to the east.

The walls are lined with an art collection that would fill a room or two at any modern museum. There’s a swimming pool in the living room, where Bob, aided by attendants, still works out four times a week.

Margrit, his wife, still cooks and donned a colorful watermelon-patterned apron last night as she prepared a four-course meal. She and I sipped Champagne in the kitchen and she helped Bob take a few drinks.

I’ve known the Mondavis for 30 years and dined with them on many memorable occasions, usually at their namesake winery in Oakville. I seldom turned down an offer to sit at their table, as Bob was both a mentor and subject and knowing and hearing him talk about his wine, the business, the global wine scene, you name it, was something not to be missed.

Last night I was pleasantly surprised to see how well Bob looked, since he has been fighting against time and his age. He was alert, had good color and was seated in a wheelchair. He was dressed impeccably, as he always is, in a dark shirt and pants and a gray sweater vest. He doesn’t, or isn’t able, to talk. Occasionally he manages to turn his stoic facial pose into a slight grin. But he likes to be around people, still likes to eat and drink, and did rather contentedly last night, and he likes to listen to the conversation, if he’s just a listener observing.

I was reminded of how down-to-earth Margrit is. Her dinner was simple and elegant. We sat around the dining room table and she served a celery-and-anise soup, lamb and fresh vegetables, a cheese course and dessert, which I skipped. On my way out she jokingly (I think) said I was the first person who had ever left one of her dinner parties before dessert! Some distinction. I did help her drink the To Kalon Fumé Blanc, the 2001 Mondavi Reserve and the 2005 Continuum, which is a new wine venture headed by Robert’s son Tim that also includes Bob and Margrit as partners.

We talked mostly about the simple things in life and how precious they are as time moves on. Casual meals with friends. The importance of family dinners. Serving wine and introducing wine to younger people. And we wondered who would champion the cause of bringing more wine drinkers to the party, which was one of Mondavi's crusades. We didn’t talk much about Bob or his legacy, which is secure as one of the titans of our modern wine world. Yet the Mondavis, Margrit in particular, are troubled by the ongoing struggles at Copia, yet pleased that the contributions they’ve made to U.C. Davis, with the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, and their donations to help fund and rebuild the Davis wine department.

I was struck by Margrit’s drive and determination to keep pushing her and Bob’s agenda. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. They have always been driven, goal-oriented leaders and even in Bob’s twilight days or weeks or months ahead, she will against any odds or obstacles push ahead.

Seeing and having Bob sitting placidly in his wheelchair still gave me a good warm feeling and a sense of reassurance that he’s still in the game. I hadn’t expected that. But I felt rewarded at being at the same dinner table with him and Margrit. As I drove home I wondered if I'd see Bob again, which saddened me, since he's been such a positive and nurturing influence on my career and that of countless others. Yet I reflected on the simple emotion that it will always be a better world with him and her in it.

Timothy Moore
Tinley Park —  March 27, 2008 8:32pm ET
To sit at the table with Mr. Mondavi & Ms Mondavi has to be one of the great gifts in life. You are a lucky man.
Cesar Venta
VERACRUZ , MEXICO —  March 27, 2008 8:57pm ET
well said. Robert Mondavi is one of the TITANS of the modern wine world.i remember how important and influential was for me , reading his book " Harvest of Joy".
Jeff Perez
March 27, 2008 9:01pm ET
I dined at Restaurant Redd in Yountville 2 weeks ago and I had the honor of sitting at the table next to Mr.Mondavi. He was in a wheelchair and seemed as though his age was getting the best of him. At first it brought a tear to my eye...to see Mr. Mondavi in such a frail state. But after a few minutes I thought about what a great life this man has lived. He was one of the men that made the California wine industry what it is today. What he has given me and countlees other lovers around the country is immeasureable. Thanks Bob.
Marvin Shanken
New York City —  March 27, 2008 10:21pm ET
Reading your blog brings back many fond memories.Wishing them only the best. With my love.
Frank Ostini
Buellton, CA —  March 27, 2008 11:38pm ET
Jim, thank you for sharing such a special and personal account of dinner with the Mondavis, and the emotions that run deep when you are around someone so important to our wine lives. The Mondavis are truely the ultimate California pioneers of wine, and your simple story truely honors them.
Richard Hutchinson
Chicago, Illinois —  March 28, 2008 11:33am ET
Two thoughts:1. Robert Mondavi is one of those "magical" names that any consumer or anyone in the trade instantly knows. Legend applies and we all know it.2. I have often bristled at some of comments of James Laube. Wondering were he is coming from and if he thinks he is so high and mighty etc...However, I think I now understand things a little better. The wine world is international, but the relationships tend to be small and often intimate. A couple of years ago Mr. Laube harshly criticized some of the wines being made at R. Mondavi. Specifically those of Tim Mondavi. At the time I thought....."What they hell is his problem" This is the Mondavi family and you probably don't even know them or they somehow slighted you. With this blog I get it....James Laube was doing his job!!!! A true friend or true business associate tells his boss the truth. I apologize James. I was wrong, which does not mean I will always agree with you or even like what you write, but again I was wrong. Were lucky to have had Robert Mondavi pass our way......were equally lucky to have James Laube to report on it.
Philip Smith
March 28, 2008 1:14pm ET
James:I am new to wine but I love these blogs. This is one of few great forums on the internet. Great story and thanks for sharing.Philip
Patrick Mcdonough
wyckoff, n.j. —  March 28, 2008 2:25pm ET
jamesare there any awards given out that are named after robert mondavi? if not, i think there should be. how about one to the person who made the largest contribution to california wine that particular year. could be a winemaker, an owner, a sales person or a writer.
Genevieve Janssens
Oakvillle, CA —  March 28, 2008 7:36pm ET
Dear Jim, Thank you for capturing that wonderful moment in time. Margrit and Mr. Mondavi are truly special people. Sincerely,Genevieve Janssens,Director of Winemaking,Robert Mondavi Winery
Claude Pope
Raleigh, NC —  March 28, 2008 9:48pm ET
The very first case of wine I purchased was a case of 1973 Mondavi Cabernet - for $6/bottle. I still have two of these. In fact, I had to get my mom to buy it because I was not yet 18 (the legal age in NC in 1976). I've been a Mondavi fan, customer, and admirer ever since. He's been a great inspiration to me over these years as I've pursued my own business interests, as well as continuing to develop my own passions for wine. I'm looking forward to tasting Tim's new wines at Continuum, and keeping the Mondavi tradition in my home on-going.
Marissa Ocasio
Connecticut —  March 28, 2008 10:58pm ET
Thank you for such thoughtful words about Margrit and Bob. In 2005 as part of the Sommelier Summit I got to see him in a toga partying with the rest of us. May not have been moving much physically but certainly visually and spiritually, he put us all to shame. Ticket to California: 600.00Bottle of To-Kalon: 40.00Robert Mondavi in a toga with a wreath of golden leaves on his head: Priceless
Michael Gribik Md
Key West,FL —  March 30, 2008 3:40pm ET
I have been to The Mondavi Winery a number of times.I last saw Mr. Mondavi and Margrit at Auberge del Sol where they were having lunch.This was 9 or 10 years ago.My wife and I chatted with them and it was a memorable encounter.My cellar still contains 2 bottles of his 1966 Cabernet,four 1968 unfined,four 1970 unfiltered and a case of the 1974 reserve.HOW COULD YOU LEAVE BEFORE DESSERT??Margrit should have slapped you on the way out!
Michael Weis
Oakville, CA —  March 31, 2008 1:16pm ET
Jim, thanks for such a thoughtful blog. Like many others, I have had the honor of working with Mr. Mondavi and Margrit over the years. He has had a remarkable career and life. His legacy is one of passion, sharing and always striving for the best. He and Margrit are national treasures!
John Rater
minneapolis minnesota usa —  March 31, 2008 3:32pm ET
I hope he has no pain before he passes away. What a legacy! I hope his sons carry on his passion.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 31, 2008 11:11pm ET
On my first trip to California as a wine writer, in 1974, before I moved here, one of my first stops was Mondavi, where I met the man I had heard so much about. I was newly writing about wine, but he and his family welcomed me with a big lunch at the winery and lots of wines to try, including some French wines to compare with his. I was totally bowled over by his intensity and firm belief that California had what it took to make wines as great as any. He exuded that belief and said it so often and so forcefully that more and more people started believing it, too, most especially other California winemakers. I know, beneath that frail and now-silent exterior, he's still thinking of ways to make believers of all of us. He's one of a kind.
Tony Lombardi
Petaluma, CA —  April 2, 2008 6:05pm ET
Thanks for sharing your experience. My great-grandfather Nazzareno and Robert's father Cesare were friends and immigrated to the U.S. together from their hometown of Sassoforatto in the Le Marche region, in the early part of the 20th century. Ten years ago, my wife and I had the incredible opportunity to sit with Bob and Margrit over lunch and talk of our common family history. Your posting has brought feelings of nostalgia back to me and I feel so privileged to have had that chance to talk intimately with the man who has done so much for the wine industry and California. Salut¿o you and the Mondavi family!
Chris Pedemonte
April 4, 2008 12:21am ET
Jim, another good blog indeed! In the past I have attended many "grower appreciation dinners" at the Mondavi winery. We had provided some of their outside fruit for many years. Bob had always challenged Napa Valley to produce the best fruit and the very best wines possible from Napa Valley, regardless of the winery. He always believed that we would all benefit, as a whole, if we did our best day in a day out producing the best product possible. The Mondavi team always shared, with their growers, any information that might benefit the grower,the winery or the industry in general. There did not seem to be any of the proprietary secrets that many wineries hold today. He is a visionary indeed.
Lisa Andrews
CHATTANOOGA,TN 37402 —  April 5, 2008 12:50pm ET
jimthank you for the nice article on Robert He willalways be a legend in the business and what memories he has ceated for everyone Keep up the good Worklisa
Fred Daner
May 17, 2008 3:40pm ET
James- after yesterday's news this was worth another read. I'm sure you will remember that dinner for a long time. A 99 Reserve will be opened tonight and help remind us how well wine goes with a good meal and close friends

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