This is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Mondavi, and the fifth year since his passing; and while we should be toasting his memory, some wine pundits are trying to find a replacement for him. How does an artist replicate the Mona Lisa smile? Perhaps we should tell the hen to devise a new shape for her egg? Isn’t this quest like looking for a new Columbus after the new world has been discovered? Why even embarrass anyone with such a knighting? Robert, Jr.? Indeed.
Robert Mondavi did not single-handedly change the course of wine in America; and this article is not trying to cast aspersions on the many, important pioneers who also contributed to the growth in quality and world acclaim of California wine: Vintners such as Andre Tchelistcheff, J. Leland Stewart, Martin Ray, John Daniel, Jr., Louis M. and Louis P. Martini, Joe Heitz, Ernest Wente, James Zellerbach, Fred McCrae, Paul Draper, Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich; and, yes, Ernest and Julio Gallo — a list barely complete. But most of these vintners, even if begrudgingly, would give the lion’s share of the credit to Robert Mondavi for bringing Americans and the world to respect and revere California wines.
Could a successor, then, sally forth the energy, charisma, and messianic fervor that Robert Mondavi generated every waking day? After all, Mondavi seemed to be having epiphanies twice a week. He was an ants-in-his-pants chatterbox, a generous-to-a-fault emissary of wine, who worked tirelessly and assiduously, to bring his visions to the world.
Robert’s hands are everywhere. The Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and the Marchesi de Frescobaldi pursued him. It was Mondavi, after all, who schooled the two winemakers, Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski, who broke the French iron hold on premiere cru wines. The great chefs, the great artists, the great musicians all now come to this former valley of prunes, and chickens, cows and grain, now a mecca not only to wine, but to the arts, food, culture, and an envied lifestyle.
How do you succeed a man who as a kid built grape boxes for his Pop, for a penny a piece, and then built a winery empire that sold for $1.3 billion? Here is a man who has received hundreds of awards, including the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest Presidential praise; and the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy. He was a torch bearer for the United States in the International Olympics, and gave multi-millions to charity in his lifetime. He was instrumental in creating the wine auction, which has raised over $127 million for local programs. To replicate Robert Mondavi as America’s “Father of Wine,” one would have had to clone him from the real thing.
In 1935, the Winecraft, a British Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, said nothing at all about the Napa Valley, and had only a one-paragraph comment about California wine, complimenting its home wine-making potential. Even by the 1959 edition, there was only one 18-word sentence on Napa; and more space was spent commenting on New York wines and regions than California.
Now, hundreds of books have been written about the Napa Valley alone, and since 1966, few wine writers omit the name of Robert Mondavi or his importance. Read Balzer, Blue, Broadstreet, Halliday, Johnson, Laube, Lichine, Parker, Jr., Prial, Robards, Robinson, Sullivan, Sutliff, Thompson, Waugh, and Zraly for confirmation. Of all those who voice praise, perhaps Robert Benson, in his book “The Great Winemakers of California,” gives the best description of Mondavi’s fascinating personality: “If Robert Mondavi were drawn in a cartoon he would have little lines whisking by him to show perpetual motion. The man is a dynamo … The phrase, ‘Bob Mondavi says,’ can be heard wherever California winemakers gather.”
That dynamo ventured to Australia, and was instrumental in discovering the Margeret River region, helping to establish Leeuwin Estate Winery; he brought prosperity to that region which was sweltering in unemployment. Mondavi gave a rebirth to Lodi, the town of his youth. Once the home of California muscatel and assorted plonk, Lodi is now an appellation to be respected. No longer tokay and Thompson seedless boiling in cement tanks, Mondavi brought in cabernet and chardonnay, stainless steel and oak. He reinvigorated sauvignon blanc from the dust pile by adding the word “fume.” Even though he was an Upvalley vintner, he was also a patron to the City of Napa. He helped bring prosperity to the whole county, as well as beyond.
No doubt, the famed 1976 Paris tasting proved once and for all that Mondavi’s premise was correct all along, i.e., that Napa Valley and California wines could effectively compete with the premiere crus of France, and therefore, the world.
Mondavi, in fact, not only anticipated the Paris tasting, he demanded it. He repeatedly pitted his own wines and others from California against the first growths of Europe. Surely it was those exquisite ‘68, ‘69, and ‘70 Mondavi reserve cabs that foretold of the great potential of both California’s superb grapes and its master vintners. Long before the Paris tasting, as early as 1970, the Baron Phillippe was wooing the man from Oakville to create a joint enterprise, which became Opus One. This offer was repeated by the Marchese Vittorio, whose family had been producing legendary Tuscan wines for 700 years. He, too, wanted to partner with the kid born in Virginia, Minn., whose parents, former sharecroppers from the impoverished Marche province in Italy, had only recently immigrated to America.
Mondavi was a visionary and a pragmatist. Making great wine, and not just lots of money, was always his prime concern; or why would he take so many risks? Indeed, why would he give his research, his ideas, to anyone who asked? Why would he contribute so much of his time and wealth to help others? He looked for new ventures everywhere, Western Australia, Chile, California’s central coast and central valley, the French midi, as well as Italy, and always to produce the best quality wine the area was capable of giving. Unlike other captains of industry, he was not a monopolist. “High tide raises all ships,” was a quote he liked to use. Mondavi always shared the pie.
While some pundits look for a replacement, perhaps others should be looking to a memorial: something to remind us all of Mondavi’s vision, dedication, generosity and contribution.
In the past, the Napa Valley has relied on the French to hone their wine-making skills. So, perhaps the vintners of the Napa Valley should follow another, important French tradition — honoring and memorializing their benefactors:
In the small village of Camembert, there stands a monument to Mme. Marie Harel: a farmer’s wife who perfected the lovely, nutty and creamy cheese which has made the region prosperous, world famous, and sustainable. There are similar memorials throughout France, e.g.: in Hautvillers to Dom Perignon; in Kaysersberg to Dr. Albert Schweitzer; in Colmar to Bartholdi (the man who built the Statue of Liberty), et.al.
Shouldn’t the Napa Valley, then, show its appreciation to the man who did more than any other to give it its renaissance, its status, and its wealth? And if not Napa, perhaps Lodi would consider the task. After all he is a high school alumnus.
Meanwhile, if pundits want to seek a successor to Mr. Mondavi, someone who can clearly earn, as Robert Mondavi has, the rightful title as “America’s Father of Wine,” so be it. I hope, however, that before the title gives the person a big head, that the nominee realizes that Mondavi’s shoes can be very big to fill.
(John Intardonato is a freelance writer who lives in Calistoga. This article was written before the Napa Valley Vintners dedicated a suitable memorial to Mondavi on Monday. Mondavi’s widow Margrit and his son Tim placed a plaque next to a 100-year-old olive tree that was planted in Mondavi’s honor at the Napa Valley Vintners’ offices in St. Helena.)