Robert Mondavi helped establish Napa Valley as a world-class wine region. (Avis Mandel)
Columnist, Food

Robert Mondavi would have turned 100 last month. His birthday was celebrated throughout California wine country, including at the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction he helped create and at the winery that bears his name. This seminal figure in the American wine industry, who died in May 2008, was recognized for contributions that extended well beyond Napa Valley.

Mondavi’s story is well known among wine lovers. He was the eldest son of Italian immigrants who moved to California to supply grapes to home winemakers back east during Prohibition. In 1943, the family bought the Charles Krug Winery, which had been operating since 1861. In the mid-1960s, Mondavi’s life took a soap-operatic turn: After punching his younger brother, Peter, during an argument over the business, Robert was fired by his mother, Rosa. He started his own winery with his two sons, Michael and Tim, and together they helped transform the California wine industry. (Peter Mondavi, now 98, and sons Marc and Peter Jr. still operate the Charles Krug Winery.)

The Robert Mondavi Winery helped establish Napa Valley’s reputation as a world-class wine region. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and Warren Winiarski — who won the 1976 Paris Tasting against famous French wines with their Chateau Montelena chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon, respectively — are Mondavi alumni. In the late 1970s, Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux, created Opus One, a joint venture intended to be California’s “first growth” red wine.

Mondavi was a tireless salesman for Napa Valley as a high-quality wine region, but his reach extended far beyond Napa and even California. With Julia Child he co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food, helping change the way Americans eat. His largess funded Copia, the now-shuttered temple to gastronomy in Napa, and a working winery at the University of California at Davis that bears his name. Mondavi’s influence earned him a prime spot in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s ongoing exhibit “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” The concerts he and his wife, Margrit, organized at the winery helped create a new business model for wineries everywhere as event venues and symbols of the good life.

Mondavi changed the way we think of wine and the way the world thinks of American wine — including wines made here on the East Coast. So says Gordon Murchie, president emeritus of the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association.

Mondavi “helped promote a more appreciative, knowledgeable and healthy consumer wine culture in the U.S. [and contributed] to a growing national and international appreciation of the quality of American wines,” Murchie wrote in a letter to the Robert Mondavi Winery endorsed by the ASWA and 42 East Coast wineries.

Although Mondavi was identified with the good life and with high-end wines, he promoted the idea of wine as an everyday dinner drink as well. He created the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi and the Robert Mondavi Private Selection lines to make good wine affordable.

Expanding his empire ultimately proved too much. Mondavi took the company public with a stock offering, making it vulnerable to a takeover. Tensions between his sons echoed the earlier conflicts between Robert and Peter and sparked a family struggle reminiscent of the 1980s prime-time soap opera “Falcon Crest.” In late 2004, the company was bought by Constellation Brands, the nation’s largest wine and spirits company.

Wine lovers who favor small, family-owned wineries feared that Constellation’s takeover might signal the end for Mondavi wines. Michael Mondavi went on to form his own company, Folio Wine Partners. Tim founded Continuum Estate, producing high-end Napa wines. Yet Constellation kept the rest of the winemaking team, retaining Robert, until his death, and Margrit Mondavi as brand ambassadors. Constellation invested in replanting the famed To Kalon Vineyard and modernized production and tasting facilities at the winery. The wines’ alcohol levels have crept up, but the Robert Mondavi Winery still represents high quality in Napa Valley.

Mondavi, were he still with us, would no doubt be cheering.

McIntyre blogs at On Twitter: @dmwine.