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Changes in Store for the Mondavis

Napa's most famous family faces an uncertain future

James Laube
Posted: January 18, 2005

It's strange to think that the Mondavi family no longer runs the Mondavi winery.

The Mondavi clan, including founder Robert and sons Michael and Tim, once comprised the most famous and influential wine family in America.

But amid a turbulent insider debate about the company's future, the family decided to sell Robert Mondavi Corp. last year, after a decade as a publicly traded firm. Constellation, the world's biggest wine company, jumped at the opportunity, leaving the Mondavis on the outside and in pursuit of new interests.

It's unlikely that Robert Mondavi Winery, under its new ownership, will ever be able to duplicate the magic that existed during its heyday. From 1966, the year Robert started his winery, and into the 1990s, Mondavi set a fast pace among global wine leaders. But people with that kind of charisma, vision and passion are not easily replaced.

Meanwhile, both the winery and the family face the challenges of life on their own. The Mondavis, who for 37 years worked in their family-run business, have split in different directions. Despite acrimony over the loss of their company, family members profited handsomely from the sale to Constellation. In some ways, Michael, Tim and Robert may be relieved that the pressures of running a publicly traded company are no longer hanging over them.

Michael Mondavi, the former CEO and chairman, has started a company with his wife, Isabel, and son Rob; it's called I'M, for Isabel and Michael. It produced 500 cases of its first wine, a 2003 Rosé of Cabernet Napa Valley (87 points, $13), last year. He has also has a Cabernet and Chardonnay in the works and has begun Michael Mondavi's Folio Wines. This new company will take over sales and marketing for the Belvedere Vineyards & Winery, Jest Red, Bradford Mountain and Floodgate brands.

Michael is also hoping to become in the U.S. importer and distributor for brands once associated with Robert Mondavi Corp., such as Frescobaldi and Luce. He may also be looking into adding other, smaller California-based properties, and he appears headed in the direction of building a sizeable company that can utilize his contacts and connections in the wine business, especially with distributors and retailers.

Tim Mondavi, the former winemaker, and his sister, Marcia, who resides in New York, are looking into starting a new winery of their own from the ground up, perhaps with their father, Robert, in the fold.

"I anticipate getting back into the wine business, that's for sure," Tim told me last week in a telephone conversation. "Obviously our legacy is to be in the wine business. One chapter is closed and a new one has started."

Tim said he and his family felt terrible about how their tenure with their namesake winery ended, especially the layoffs of hundreds of employees, many of whom had worked with the company for years.

He also said he and family members were terribly disillusioned with how chairman Ted Hall dealt with the sale of Mondavi Corp. They had hoped he would either put the company on sounder fiscal footing, or might persuade the board--which at one time included Michael, Tim and Marcia--to sell the Mondavi winery back to family members.

"We thought we had a knight in shining armor," Tim said, referring to the hiring of Hall by the Mondavi family as someone they thought would act in their best interests. "But instead he turned out to be a Trojan horse. That was quite unfortunate."

For all parties involved, it will be best to move on and not look back. Robert's legacy is secure, even if the final chapter ended with a bitter taste for him and his family. Michael, Tim and Marcia will have their work cut out for them getting their new wineries up and running. They are joining a highly competitive market, and it will be different for them not to start out on top.

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