Last Friday, Margrit Mondavi hosted the annual Blessing of the Grapes in the To Kalon Cellar of the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville.
Father Gordon Kalil of the St. Helena Catholic Church presided over the blessing, attended by Mondavi, Genevieve Janssens, and winery employees. Bob Tyson, retired Sales and Marketing employee, lent his voice with a musical tribute that echoed throughout the cellar.
This was the 48th Blessing of the Grapes at RMW Oakville facility and founder Robert Mondavi, were he still alive, would have been 100 years old for this celebration. (He died May 16, 2008.)
According to Margrit Mondavi, a lot has changed at the winery since that first event in 1966, when Robert called up some reporters and brought a gondola of grapes and “some pretty girls” to the crush pad.
At the time, the construction of the Oakville facility was just being completed, it was the first new winery built in the valley since Prohibition. According to Margrit, Robert had a vision of what the Napa Valley harvest could mean to this valley and to the world of wine. He wanted to draw attention to his new facility and its first harvest. What was in essence a publicity stunt in 1966 became a cherished tradition year after year as the winery grew and Mondavi’s fame spread.
Forty-eight years later, that fabled crush pad of yesteryear on the north side of the winery is gone. So too are the stainless steel tanks that were once used for fermenting and the noisy crusher/de-stemmer that augured and mashed the grapes into juice.
Instead, cabernet grapes today are brought in bins up to the To Kalon Cellar to be hand sorted and de-stemmed by nimble fingers as they make their way to the oak casks that replaced the stainless tanks almost 12 years ago. The winery itself is now owned by Constellation Brands, and the sons and daughter of Robert Mondavi are no longer involved with the Oakville facility. But the legacy of Robert Mondavi and his children continues in the distinctive processes that stretch back to the winery’s beginning.
According to Genevieve Janssens, the director of winemaking, nothing has changed in the winemaking processes that were once the hallmarks of Tim Mondavi’s reign as director of winemaking. Each block of grapes is still harvested, tested, tasted and cared for separately as it is shepherded through the specific winemaking steps. It is at the final blending when the separate unique blocks are chosen and brought together in a reverie of tastings to create the enduring flavors that continue to distinguish the RMW Oakville vintages.
At the reception in the RMW Vineyard Room following the blessing, Margrit and Janssens joined a table of wine writers and RMW alumnae in an informal luncheon of Mexican cuisine. The crowd was estimated at 100 to 150 people.
It was then that the stories of Robert Mondavi began to flow with each glass served. How Robert used egg whites to fine the wines, and exchanged the yolks for donuts at Napa’s Butter Cream Bakery, starting the weekly Tuesday tradition of hand-delivering donuts to his employees. How Robert decided that the best way to virally promote his wines was to give the employees a case with each new release. How he brought the Great Chefs program to the valley — confounding the critics and the Napa County Board of Supervisors — in order to educate European chefs in the flavors of California vintages. How, at each company meeting, he began by thanking his growing family of employees for their work, and cheering their — not his — successes.
But, most important, how Robert Mondavi focused on the vision for his winery, and then sought to transform that vision into the enduring flavors of his California vintages. At the table in the Vineyard Room, it was acknowledged by each guest that it takes a kind of crazy optimism and faith to put up any bottle of wine. But to hold up that bottle against the world’s great wines year after year takes a kind of outlandish courage and confidence that is unusual, to say the least. To succeed at that game took the special genius for which Robert Mondavi is recognized today.
According to Margrit Mondavi, the annual blessing is an important moment to reflect upon all the blessings that the Napa Valley has provided. For those RMW alumnae who sat with her in the Vineyard Room, the memories of Robert Mondavi were another of those enduring blessings.
(Tom Stockwell, a St. Helena resident for the past 30 years, first came to the Napa Valley to work on Robert Mondavi Winery’s information systems.)