Once upon a time in America

In the week that marks the 100th birthday of Robert Mondavi, Nicholas Faith tracks the shifting fortunes of the man who did so much to shape the Californian wine industry.


Margrit Mondavi

Robert Mondavi was born exactly 100 years ago but the legend – and the business – surrounding his long life live on. In fact the Mondavi story contains two totally dissimilar elements. One is of a feuding family which formed the basis for a real-life TV soap opera called Falcon Crest which involve ructions and fissures in two generations of a wine-making family. The other is the impressive tale of a man who was one of the most influential figures in the history of the Napa valley and thus of the making and selling of fine wine in the United States, a man who created a brand which has demonstrated the capacity of an iconic name to survive and flourish even when cut off from its family roots.

Robert’s father Cesare had arrived from Italy in 1908 but it was only in 1943 when he bought the well-known Krug wine business (not to be confused with the Champagne of the same name) that the family became serious winemakers. Twenty years later Robert, Cesare’s oldest son, travelled to Europe, visiting 40 wineries in a few weeks, a journey which gave birth to an ambition to make fine wines. Unfortunately the rest of the family, above all his younger brother Pete, were less ambitious and after a series of family rows Robert, already in his 50s, started up on his own, yet he created a billion-dollar business.

Typically he started the business with a splash. He bought suitable vineyards and hired Warren Winiarski, later the creator of Stag’s Leap and the first of a series of talented winemakers he employed. More recklessly, in an early example of his strong streak of showmanship, he built an iconic – and expensive – winery. This was built in the Spanish Colonial style complete with a tower and an arch giving onto the vineyards at Oakville in the heart of the valley, and designed to be an educational centre offering tours and events – for he always felt that it was never enough to produce and sell great wines, it was just as essential to promote his name. In the words of Paul Lukacs, the wine historian, “The construction of the Robert Mondavi winery marks the effective beginning of American wine’s rise in both quality and prestige.”

Although he was helped by many of the growers he had known in the 20 previous years when he had worked at Krug – “he was friends with everyone in the valley”, says Glenn Workman, the veteran general manager at Oakville – he had to sell control of his fledgling business to a brewery. But in the in 1970s he was saved by two triumphs. One was legal when he received $10 million from his brother – though only after a 10-year long law suit – which enabled him to buy back control of the company, while in 1976 a tasting organised by Steven Spurrier showed that the best red wines from Napa – which did not at the time include any of Mondavi’s – could compete successfully with their French equivalents.


Robert Mondavi's Hall of Fame plaque

Robert Mondavi’s Hall of Fame plaque

In the next 15 years Mondavi not only created the biggest fine wine business in California but at the same time he had an enormous social and cultural influence which created what can only be called a “vinous civilization” in the valley. Robert’s younger son Timothy was responsible for the vineyards and winemaking was sufficiently skilled to conquer even that most neurotic of varieties, Pinot Noir. Moreover the firm was keen on technical experiments and improvements – for instance in its use of different types of oak including early experiments with degrees of toasting.

His most famous wines were based on Cabernet Sauvignon but his most typical venture was to rename the Sauvignon Blanc wines he made from selected vineyards as “Fumé Blanc” to distinguish them from their French equivalents. These proved a great commercial success and became the general American name for the variety. The final proof of an international fame unique among American winemakers was the immensely successful joint venture he set up with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the aristocratic French winemaker-showman, to make a Bordeaux blend mostly made from Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa, which, with typical bravado, they called Opus One and which soon went on to sell 30,000 cases.

Less easily definable but equally real was his influence on what might be called the “civilisation” of the valley – in which he was helped by his Swiss-born second wife Margrit (he and his sons were, to put it mildly, notoriously susceptible to female charms). The ventures ranged from the Napa Valley wine auction and the spread of the “food and wine” movement, derived from such establishments as Chez Panisse, the iconic restaurant in Berkeley.

2 Responses to “Once upon a time in America”

  1. ElGordo says:

    Hmmm… 2001 Mondavi Reserve 94pts Robert Parker. Let’s not drag Tim through the mud…

  2. An interesting if conventional retelling of the story. The facts are — and I was there from 1980 til almost 2000 — that the “outside directors” plus two inside executives betrayed the Mondavi family and 400 people lost their jobs, all to please Wall Street and some egos.
    harvey posert

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