Friday, May 16, 2008

Robert Mondavi

The associated press reports that, Robert Mondavi, the vintner who insisted that Napa Valley wines could compete with the best in the world, died in the valley Friday. He was 94.


"It is hard to imagine anyone having more of a lasting impact on California's wine industry than Robert Mondavi," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. Mondavi, said the governor, was "a tireless entrepreneur who transformed how the world felt about California wine, and an unforgettable personality to everyone who knew him."

I'm personally indebted to Robert Mondavi, for without his name I would still be drinking Lancers, Blue Nun, or Mad Dog. It was a trip to California in the 80's that changed my wine tasting life, and a chance encounter with Mr. Mondavi himself that forged my perspective of the Napa Valley wine business.

My son was 3 at the time and was passionate about fruit, orange fruit in particular and the Mondavi winery was littered with fruit laden orange trees which included many in the visitor center courtyard. In a blink of an eye my son hand picked more oranges than a migrant worker could in a day of sweat and hard work.


While scrambling to pick up the harvested fruit, I looked up to see if anyone had noticed, and there was Mr. Mondavi. He was having a good laugh about the bushel of oranges that now lay on the ground not including and the half dozen I was trying to place strategically back among the branches of the tree as if they were still attached.

Mondavi explained in a grandfatherly way that he had warned the staff that children would pick the low hanging fruit and added "the art of the harvest is in the timing but proper tools were needed to enjoy the harvest".... as he pulled out a pocket knife and cut the orange handling a slice to my son and keeping and rest of the orange to himself.

For many years, the Mondavi winery was a family business. But Robert clashed frequently with his younger brother, Peter, who had a more conservative approach the business. According to Robert Mondavi's autobiography "Harvests of Joy," matters came to a head with a November 1965 fistfight.

"When it was all over, there were no apologies and no handshake," wrote Robert Mondavi.

By the mid-1990s, Mondavi had turned over operation of the company to his sons. But like their father and uncle before them, Tim and Michael clashed over management styles.

The success of the Mondavi winery allowed him to donate tens of millions of dollars to charity, but a wine glut and intense competition gradually cost his family control of the business. In 2004, the company accepted a buyout from Fairport, New York based Constellation Brands.

Then there was a bittersweet family moment when Robert and Peter Mondavi, aided by members of the younger generation, made wine together for the first time in 40 years. Using a 50-50 split of grapes from Robert Mondavi and Peter Mondavi family vineyards, the brothers made one barrel of a Cabernet blend that sold for $401,000 at the 2005 Napa Valley wine auction.

The auction lot was called "Ancora Una Volta," or "Once Again."

Robert Mondavi, wine maker, entrepreneur and gracious host to parents with wayward children.

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