By W Peter Hoyne
In this fast-paced world, occasionally we need to step back and reflect on the influential people and events that have helped shape our lives. In the world of wine, Robert Mondavi is one of those icons.
Robert Gerald Mondavi was one of four children of Cesare and Rosa Mondavi. His parents emigrated from the Marche region of Italy to an iron ore-mining town in Hibbing, Minnesota. They later settled in Virginia, Minnesota, where Robert was born in 1913. Cesare chose to relocate his family to Lodi, California in 1922 where he would establish a successful grape and fruit shipping business.
Robert’s life took shape after he graduated from Stanford University in 1937 with a degree in economics and business and took a summer course in enology at UC Berkley. He had an interest in the wine industry and pursued work at Sunny St. Helena Winery (currently Merryvale Vineyards) in Napa Valley. Wine had always been part of the Mondavi family’s life.
When Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena was put up for sale in 1943, Robert persuaded his father to purchase the winery. Robert and his younger brother Peter ran the winery for over two decades, but after a family dispute, Robert left Krug Winery in 1965 to pursue his own dream.
In 1966, Robert founded his own winery in Napa Valley at the age of 53. He was drawn to a 12-acre historic plot of land west of Highway 29 in the Oakville appellation. This parcel was known as To Kalon, which in ancient Greek means “the beautiful.” The original vineyards were planted in the late 1800’s by H.W. Crabb, with others sharing in the ownership through the decades. Often referred to as Napa’s first-growth real estate, this became the future site for the winery. Robert Mondavi, Opus Winery and Andy Beckstoffer are among the principal owners. The vineyards are positioned between the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains and the western benchlands of Oakville. Warm days and cool, foggy nights bathe the gently sloped vineyards of well-drained riverbed and volcanic sedimentary soils that have washed down from the hillsides. These wines have individuality that show restraint and minerality during their youth. Over time, the wine reveals its unparalleled personality. Robert crafted his first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1968 and by 1971, released a designated Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from this site.
As a pioneer and visionary, his innovations included the introduction of cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks and aging wine in French Oak barrels. He was a consummate marketer, salesman, and ambassador for the wines of California and was referred to as the “godfather of American wine.”
In 1979, he partnered with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild to forge a joint venture in the creation of Opus Winery. He continued to form relationships with global leaders in Italy, Chile and Australia.
Robert and his wife Margrit shifted their focus to philanthropy in 1990 promoting the arts and the culture of food and wine in Napa Valley. In 1993, the Robert Mondavi Corporation became a publicly traded company and was sold to Constellation Brands in 2004 for $1.36 billion. Robert died on May 16, 2008 from failing health at the age of 94.
The winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery has stood the test of time. Robert believed that “even if a wine is powerful it can be elegant.“ Once criticized for not yielding to the over-extracted style that prevailed in Napa Valley, Robert Mondavi Winery continued to focus on a multidimensional and stylistically balanced wine. Genevieve Jancesse, a native of the south of France who studied enology at the University of Bordeaux, has been the director of winemaking since 1997. In 2010, she was chosen by the Wine Enthusiast as “Winemaker of the Year. “
Genevieve suggests that “Mr. Mondavi wanted wines of finesse and elegance that matched with food. He wanted his wines to whisper and not shout.” In order to succeed in this goal, Genevieve uses techniques including the picking of grapes early, native yeasts for fermentation and a careful selection of oak barrels.
The achievements of Robert Mondavi Winery are timelessly etched into our minds and the history books of wine.