The Patron Saint of Napa

I want to take a minute to introduce you to one of my favorite people in the wine business.

Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi is best known by most people as the maker of Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, the plonky stuff on the bottom (or second to bottom) shelf at the grocery store, the stuff that you buy without thinking because it’s cheap, but really not so bad.  The stuff you can bring to a picnic or frat party (if you’re going to a fancy frat party.  Actually, I’ve never been to a frat party, but I hope they have wine.  I wonder how many wine geeks have actually been to a frat party?).

But there is much more to this label, and this man, than swill.  He is known as the most important figure in bringing California to the world stage of wine production, and is arguably the man that started the process of making Napa famous.  Although there were several key players early on making wine in Napa (and the Seventies was early on in California wine history), they were not shrewd marketers, and it was Mondavi who had the charm, grace and willpower to convince the public (and the European wine establishment) that California was worth checking out.

In fact, in 1970, at a time when the only thing you could buy from California was jug wine, Mondavi had a meeting with the prodigious Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Mouton Rothschild (a first growth and therefore top winery in Bordeaux).  This meeting would lead a decade later to the creation of the joint venture Opus One, considered one of the world’s finest cabernet sauvignons.  This story shows that Mondavi possessed the business acumen to attract powerful people at a time when his colleagues would have been laughed off.

Mondavi grew up in the wine business–his family owned Charles Krug.  In 1966 Mondavi ventured out on his own to create his own winery–a large and modern Spanish-style slab of cement smack in the middle of then-rural Napa–built to attract huge quantities visitors long-term.   He purchased quality vine-growing land at a time when it was cheap, including the To Kalon Vineyard, one of the oldest in Napa.  Robert Mondavi Winery is the oldest “new” winery in Napa (a few others are from before Prohibition), and thus was on the cusp of the frantic trend to buy up land in Napa in the following decades.

Mondavi was aware of the quality of wine Napa could produce, and with investment was soon producing large volumes of acclaimed wine.  It was he who began the trend of labeling wine according to varietal, as opposed to just putting the fermented juice of any old grape into a bottle and naming it after a famous place in France, as was the practice in California at the time.  He put special care into his sauvignon blanc, modeled after the Loire style, and named it “fumé blanc,” and it remains a benchmark for California sauvignon blanc today.

Once his winery was successful, he did not stop there.  He was not satisfied to have a small winery to support his family.  His son Michael recalls never having a private family dinner–there was always a colleague to entertain.  Mondavi continued to form partnerships throughout his life and even mentored others in the wine business.

There is an anecdote that I love in Judgement of Paris, the history of the infamous Paris blind tasting where California beat out France.  Mike Grgich, an early and essential winemaker in Napa, was beginning his fledgling company, Grgich Hills.  He had painstakingly made a name for himself by working as winemaker for several years here, several years there around the Napa Valley. (He is also the winemaker behind the winning Chardonnay at the Judgement of Paris.)  At each job he left with a broken relationship to the winery owner.  Although the book doesn’t say, I’m guessing he was a curmudgeonly guy who didn’t get along with many people.  He was also trying to start his winery on about 1/7 the capital needed by most wineries at the time, so I picture a frugal and antisocial man eating his cans of Campbell’s soup every night and never partying with the locals.

Somehow, Robert Mondavi took a liking to him, and they were dear friends.  As Grgich was starting out, he didn’t have all the necessary equipment, and he asked to use some of Mondavi’s for his first vintage.  “Oh, I don’t think that would be possible,” said Mondavi.  Grgich was heartbroken.  “Nah, I’m just messing with you,” said Mondavi.  Mondavi let him use the equipment and Grgich Hills ended up becoming one of the biggest names in Napa.

Randy and I visited Robert Mondavi Winery on our first trip to Napa this past summer.  It struck me, through that visit, that Mondavi was a man of the people, and his children have continued his legacy.  Mondavi could have turned his winery into a luxury brand, as many of the first wineries in Napa have opportunistically done.  Although he had other expensive projects, such as Opus One, Mondavi wines remain at a reasonable price point, around $20 to $60.  Don’t fret that these wines are plonky, look up to the top of your grocery shelf for the Mondavi Napa Valley label (different than Woodbridge) and you will find these clean, graceful wines and be able to taste a piece of Napa history.

Annoyingly, many wineries in Napa have become opportunistic in the prices they charge for tastings and tours, as well.  Many of the highly rated wineries charge $50 for a few splashes of wine because they can–rich people can afford it.  It is an “f you” to the average wine lover who just wants to experience some great wine.  Robert Mondavi Winery charges $30 for a tour with a sit down tasting–well worth the money to experience such a significant part of wine history, and among the cheapest tours in Napa. The gift shop is welcoming as well…while other winery stores make it known that you’re not invited to enjoy the merchandise unless you can drop $100, Mondavi’s gift shop has many cute things for $10 or less.  I got a perfectly functional tiny contraption that prevents wine drips for $5.

Mondavi died in 2008, but his legacy lives on in the form of projects expensive, cheap and in between, sold at the choices wine boutiques and also the neighborhood grocery store.  It lives on in the success of Mike Grgich and others who followed in Mondavi’s footsteps, and the evolution of Napa as farming town to international wine tourism destination.   And it lives on in the way you can feel comfortable at his winery wearing flip-flops and shorts.

-Carol

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4 thoughts on “The Patron Saint of Napa

  1. Carol, Thank you for a wonderful story of a master vin maker. I’ve had a love affair of the grape for awhile. Something for the playa? -Adam

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