Robert Mondavi, 94; Noted Vintner Who Raised Quality of American Wine

Robert Mondavi, left, founded his own winery in 1966 after a fight with his brother, Peter. He used European methods at his Napa Valley company, and he helped improve the reputation of American wine.
Robert Mondavi, left, founded his own winery in 1966 after a fight with his brother, Peter. He used European methods at his Napa Valley company, and he helped improve the reputation of American wine. (2006 Photo By George Nikitin -- Associated Press)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

Robert Mondavi, 94, who built what is arguably America's most influential winery by improving the once-dismal quality of California wines, died May 16 at his home in Yountville, Calif. He had been in failing health for the past few years and had both pneumonia and shingles earlier this year.

Mr. Mondavi brought European winemaking techniques to the vineyards of the Napa Valley, introducing French oak aging barrels and cold fermentation. He also installed stainless-steel tanks, an innovation he borrowed from the dairy industry.

An outgoing vintner who coined the term "fumé blanc," Mr. Mondavi hated the pre-1980s reputation of domestic wines, which one critic described as "the stuff of skid-row jokes." Determined to improve the quality to a par with French, Italian, German and Spanish wines, he partnered with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, of the famed Chateau Mouton Rothschild, in 1979 to produce a premium Napa cabernet sauvignon, Opus One. The pre-release hysteria over Opus One resulted in one retailer paying $24,000 for a single, untasted case. Some vintages still sell for more than $350 a bottle.

Mr. Mondavi founded his namesake winery at the age of 52 in 1966, after a knockdown fistfight with his brother over the direction of their Charles Krug winery. He built his new business into a $500 million-a-year operation, sold stock to the public in 1993, then lost the company when a wine glut, intense competition and internal discord cost the family control of the business. Constellation Brands Inc., the world's largest wine company, bought it in December 2004 for $1.35 billion.

Born June 18, 1913 in Virginia, Minn., to penniless Italian immigrants, Mr. Mondavi was still in short pants when Prohibition threatened his father's saloon business. Cesare Mondavi, noting that the federal authorities allowed individuals to produce up to 200 gallons of wine for personal consumption, became a grape wholesaler. In the early 1920s, the family moved to Lodi, Calif., in the grape-rich Central Valley.

Mr. Mondavi and younger brother Peter helped out in the family business. He graduated from Stanford University in 1937 and got a job at the Sunnyhill Winery. When he heard that the Charles Krug Winery, the oldest in Napa Valley, was for sale, he persuaded his father to buy it and promised to build it up with Peter.

For the next 23 years, the brothers operated Krug together, although Peter preferred a conservative approach, while Robert wanted to produce top-shelf products. Charismatic, hard-driving and a perfectionist, the older sibling did not withhold his criticisms. His 1998 autobiography, "Harvests of Joy," said matters came to a head in a November 1965 fistfight. "When it was all over, there were no apologies and no handshake," Mr. Mondavi wrote.

His mother sided with Peter, so Robert Mondavi split off to start his own firm. But it was not a clean break; litigation pitted brother against brother against mother until 1978, when the case was settled.

The reputation of California wines began to change in 1976 when a blind tasting in Paris startled the world's oenophiles. Three of the top four white wines, and the top red, were from Napa.

"Fifteen years ago, California didn't belong [in] the company of the fine wines of the world," Mr. Mondavi told The Washington Post magazine in 1981. "Now, we in Napa can produce outstanding wines, which will give better value than the Europeans, who are limited by classification systems and government restrictions."

Mr. Mondavi purchased other wineries and introduced new lines of coastal wines and Italian varietals. Its best wine, according to the trade magazine Wine Spectator, was its Reserve Cabernet that "captures the rich earthy currant flavors of the Napa Valley. But the wines were also distinctive for their suppleness and grace."

Mr. Mondavi began withdrawing from the business in 1990s, focusing on philanthropy and pushing a controversial plan to build a $50 million cultural complex in the once small town of Napa. In 2001, he and his second wife donated $25 million to the University of California at Davis to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Service.

But the free-spending ways of the family, a multiplicity of wines and the plunging stock price of the company caused a second split in the family. The winery's board forced the family to hand over control of the firm, then the sixth-largest U.S. winery in 2003, according to Wine Business Monthly.

Mondavi's marriage to Marjorie Declusin Mondavi ended in divorce.

Survivors include his second wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi of Yountville; and three children from first marriage.

The family feuds softened with time. Three years ago, Robert and Peter Mondavi and their children made wine together for the first time in 40 years. Using a 50-50 split of grapes from the brothers' family vineyards, they 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."

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