Fifty years ago this month, the landscape of Napa Valley changed when Robert Mondavi opened his winery along California Route 29 in Oakville. The winery’s Mission-style archway quickly became an iconic symbol of California wine, and Mondavi and those who worked with him forged a revolution not only in Napa but also across the country, transforming the way Americans buy and drink wine.
Mondavi’s was the first major winery to open in Napa since Prohibition, and it ignited a wave of expansion across a valley where, at the time, more land was devoted to plum trees than to grapevines. Visiting wineries was not a new pastime in the 1960s, but Mondavi’s tireless promotion of Napa and its wines helped turn the valley into the tourist mecca it is today. Concerts and dinner parties in the vineyard, festivals and other attractions only tangentially related to grapes made a visit to wine country more an event than an errand to buy wine.
Robert Mondavi, who died in 2008 at 94, lived a soap opera of a life, as chronicled in gritty and sometimes lurid detail by Julia Flynn Siler in her 2007 biography, “The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.” Banished from the family business after feuding with his brother, Peter, Robert went out on his own at age 53. (Peter Mondavi died this year at age 101; his sons, Marc and Peter Jr., now own Charles Krug winery, purchased by Robert’s and Peter’s father, Cesare, in the 1940s.) His sons, Michael and Tim, also clashed, sometimes in public, as they vied for influence over their father and feuded with his second wife, Margrit.
Mondavi’s vision was twofold and, given the economics of the wine business, contradictory. He wanted to prove that California could make world-class wine. That led him to focus on quality in the vineyard and innovation in the winery. He urged other winemakers to bottle their own “estate” wines rather than sell on the bulk market, as many did back then. He championed the use of new French barrels and temperature-controlled fermentation for white wines. He forged an alliance with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, of the Bordeaux first-growth Chateau Mouton Rothschild, to form Opus One, a luxury winery focused on cabernet sauvignon that debuted with the 1980 vintage.
Yet at the same time, he wanted wine to become a daily staple at the American dinner table. As prices for the best Napa wines skyrocketed, and Napa cabernet became a luxury for the wealthy, the winery created inexpensive new lines of wines such as Woodbridge and Robert Mondavi Private Selection. The push for affordable everyday wines, advocated by Michael, and the drive for quality, pursued notably by Tim, stretched the winery and the family in different directions. Needing cash, the family took the winery public in 1998, and in 2004 it fell to a hostile takeover by drinks conglomerate Constellation Brands.
Perhaps the best way to measure Robert Mondavi’s legacy and the influence of his winery is to review a list of notable winemakers who started or spent part of their careers there. The first two he hired were Warren Winiarski (1966-1968) and Miljenko “Mike” Grgich (1968-1972). They would go on to make the two wines that beat the best of France in the famous Paris Tasting of 1976. Zelma Long, Paul Hobbs, Charles Thomas and many others also learned their trade at Robert Mondavi Winery before becoming famous at other wineries.
Several RMW alumni and members of the wine media attended an anniversary dinner at the winery in late April. The meal concluded with a thimbleful for each person of the 1966 Cabernet Sauvignon Unfiltered, from the very first harvest. (A few years later, the Unfiltered was rechristened as “Reserve,” and it is still the winery’s top cabernet.) When Winiarski, now 88, stood and said, “I made this wine,” he was greeted with an ovation.
That first vintage was improvised with a frenzy of excitement and chaos that would define Mondavi. “Sawdust was flying everywhere,” Winiarski recalled. “Plumbers were climbing on our backs to install piping to the fermentation tanks. Painters were working around us. As I taste this wine, it’s all coming back to me.”
Mondavi “redefined what a winery could be in this valley,” Winiarski said. “He created a place where consumers could be part of the process, a place where they can take some of the experience with them.”
“What’s the history of Napa Valley?” asked Charles Thomas, who spent 16 years from 1978-1994 working his way from cellar rat to head winemaker before going on to become winemaker at Cardinale and Quintessa, and now for his own label, Thomas-Hsi Vineyards. “There are two eras: before 1966, and after 1966. Some called him crazy,” he said of Mondavi. “That’s another word for visionary.”
Margrit Mondavi, the only family member still affiliated with the winery, as an unofficial spokesperson, chimed in with one of her late husband’s favorite lines. “Bob always wanted to make wines with the power of Pavarotti’s voice but the softness of a baby’s bottom!” she said.
Since taking ownership in 2004, Constellation Brands has tried to maintain some semblance of continuity at RMW. Genevieve Janssens, who has worked at the winery since 1978 and has been director of winemaking since 1997, remains in charge. The emphasis is still on cabernet sauvignon, with some of California’s best sauvignon blancs produced from old vines in the To Kalon vineyard behind the winery. (These are labeled as “fumé blanc,” a name Mondavi originated that today is rarely used.)
A retrospective tasting of RMW cabernets, including vintages reaching back to the early years in the late 1960s, showed an impressive consistency in style, considering the learn-as-you-go spirit of the early years. The wines also held up well through the late 1990s and the early 2000s, a period when prominent wine critics complained that Mondavi’s products were not keeping up with the new, more powerful and more alcoholic style of Napa cabernet. More recent vintages, however, have conceded to modernity, with alcohol levels approaching or exceeding 15 percent, even as many have argued that Napa should return to Mondavi’s original, more restrained style.
“We still have Mr. Mondavi’s DNA in the wines,” Janssens says. “But we live in our times, and we are making wines for these times.”
Mondavi’s children, though no longer affiliated with the winery, remain in the business. After the Constellation takeover, Tim founded Continuum Estate in the eastern hills of the Napa Valley with his father and his sister, Marcia Mondavi Borger, as partners. They focus on a limited number of luxury wines. Four of Tim’s five children work at the winery, and two of his sons, Carlo and Dante, have their own label, RAEN, in the Sonoma Coast region.
Michael oversees the Michael Mondavi Family Estate with his wife, Isabel, their son, Rob Jr., and their daughter, Dina. Together they produce wines that range in price from affordable to luxury. Michael also started Folio Fine Wine Partners, a distribution and import company representing wines from California, Argentina, Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
For the past five vintages, Rob Jr. has teamed with his second cousin, Angelina Mondavi, Peter’s granddaughter, on a small-production cabernet they call “The Fourth Leaf.” The collaboration rejoins the fourth generation of Cesare Mondavi’s winemaking family, split apart 50 years ago in the feud between Robert and Peter.
“It just seemed appropriate,” says Rob.