Feature

Robert Mondavi

The vintner who made California synonymous with wine

The vintner who made California synonymous with wine
Robert Mondavi
1913–2008

Before Robert Mondavi, “fine domestic wine” was practically an oxymoron. Mondavi, who died last week at 94, helped change that perception. Not only did he produce American wines that could hold their own against the world’s best, he helped popularize wine and make it part of everyday life. His namesake firm, now a $500-million-a-year business, is practically synonymous with California winemaking. “I wanted to take American technology, management techniques, and marketing savvy,” he once said, “and fuse them together with Old World tradition and elegance.”

The son of a grape grower, Mondavi settled in Napa Valley after majoring in business at Stanford University, said the San Francisco Chronicle. “Impressed by the quality of wines from pioneers like Beaulieu and Inglenook,” in 1943 he convinced his father to buy the distinguished but struggling Charles Krug Winery. Mondavi ran it with his younger brother, Peter, but their relationship was strained. “Robert was flamboyant and ambitious, Peter quiet and careful. Peter felt Robert could be profligate; Robert felt stifled.” Things came to a head in 1965 when, in an argument over money, Robert punched Peter twice. Robert was forced out of the business and soon set out on his own, buying a vineyard in Oakville, at the southern end of Napa.

“Within a year, Mondavi had grown, harvested, and fermented his first vintage under his own name,” said The New York Times. “Connoisseurs and wine critics were soon praising Mondavi wines for their quality.” Part of Mondavi’s success lay in introducing European techniques, “like the use of French oak aging barrels and stainless-steel fermentation tanks.” But he also had a shrewd business sense. One of his first successes was boosting sales of Sauvignon Blanc, an obscure varietal, simply by renaming it “Fumé Blanc.” Among Mondavi’s many other ventures was the Woodbridge brand of low-priced wines; at the other extreme, he joined with Château Mouton-Rothschild to create the high-end Opus One (dubbed by critics “Oh Pious One”) line of select wines, selling them for more than $350 a bottle. Over time, Mondavi’s product would be found everywhere from White House dinners to Disney theme parks. And his “mission-style” winery, complete with “elegant campanile and a low entrance arch that framed the distant Mayacamas Mountains,” would become a model for his competitors and one of Napa’s premier tourist attractions.

Mondavi took his company public in 1993 and, in 2004, sold it for $1.35 billion to Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company. Among Mondavi’s survivors are his second wife, Margit, and his brother, Peter, with whom he reconciled after 20 years of estrangement.

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