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Robert G. Mondavi — the 94-year-old Napa Valley visionary who put California wine on dinner tables around the world — died peacefully at home early Friday morning.

Mondavi is widely credited with being the driving force behind Napa Valley’s propulsion to the top of the wine world, a place where great grapes are grown and wines made, and where the industry thrives.

“We lost our leader,” fellow philanthropist and vintner Bob Trinchero said Friday afternoon. “I can’t think of anyone who’s done more for Napa Valley wine or the California wine industry. No one’s worked harder or longer.

“When he started we were a cottage industry, said Trinchero, of Trinchero Family Estates, one of hte Napa Valley's largest producers. "Now we’re a global market."

Prior to Mondavi launching his own winery and brand in 1966, American wines were considered cheap imitations of those produced in Bordeaux, Burgundy and other long-established winegrowing regions of the world.

Aware of the potential of the local sun-splashed terroir, vintner Mondavi was a tireless promoter of the Napa Valley and developed a reputation for consistent, high quality. Starting Robert Mondavi Winery as a small, premium operation, he and his family built one of the largest, most respected wineries in the United States, producing more than 500,000 cases of quality wine varieties per year.

Even as he slowly walked into a new millennium, Bob Mondavi remained a player on the world stage of wine.

His wine empire sold off to the highest bidder at age 92, Mondavi vowed “to start over.”

Teaming up with son Tim, daughter Marcia and his wife, Margrit, Robert Mondavi did just that — launching the Continuum wine brand, which had its first release in the spring of 2008.

Wine on the world stage

Mondavi earned the respect of the world as a symbol of Napa Valley premium wines, as one of the world’s leading innovators, producers and marketers of fine wine.

Driven by his belief that he could produce world-class wines here, Mondavi launched his own wine brand at age 53.

Born June 18, 1913, in Virginia, Minn., to parents who emigrated from the Marche region of Italy, Robert was largely influenced by Old World traditions.

“My passion for bringing wine into the American culture was motivated by a desire to plant deep into the soil of our young country the same values, traditions and daily pleasures that my mother and father had brought with them from central Italy: good food, good wine and love of family,” Mondavi wrote in his 1998 autobiography, “Harvests of Joy.”

Mondavi’s passion unarguably sparked a revolution in the American food and wine experience.

A 1936 graduate of Stanford University with a degree in economics and business administration, Mondavi understood that marketing was as critical as winemaking expertise in achieving success in the wine industry. Upon graduation, he joined his father at Sunny St. Helena Winery in St. Helena. During the war years, he convinced his father to purchase the Charles Krug Winery, upgrading the technology of the family enterprise as part of his desire to raise quality.

When he and his younger brother, Peter, had a falling out in the mid-1960s, Robert Mondavi established in 1966 the first major winery built in Napa Valley since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. His goal was to combine European craft and tradition with the latest in American technology, management and marketing expertise.

To celebrate the pleasures of wine, food and the arts, the Robert Mondavi Winery was built as an enduring landmark with a sense of California history as reflected in its mission-style architecture. In fostering a wine culture in America, tours and wine tastings were initiated to educate the American palate. Throughout more than three decades, the Robert Mondavi Winery has provided the creative setting for jazz and classical concerts, art exhibits and culinary programs.

At the Robert Mondavi Winery, in the late 1960s, he pioneered many fine winemaking techniques in California, including cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks and the use of French oak barrels. A sales and marketing leader, he was responsible for popularizing dry-fermented oak-aged sauvignon blanc as fumé blanc — a move now acknowledged as the catalyst for the recognition of this grape variety in America. Mondavi also initiated blind tastings in the Napa Valley, allowing consumers and the trade to evaluate wine quality.

Always the visionary

Mondavi’s comprehensive wine and food efforts greatly evolved over the years. The Great Chefs program was established in 1976 as the first winery culinary endeavor in this country. This program featured such luminaries as Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Marcella Hazan and Joel Robuchon.

During the latter half of the 1980s, Robert Mondavi launched the Mission Program to counteract the anti-alcohol campaign that was gathering force in America.

“At the Robert Mondavi Winery, we view wine as an integral part of our culture, heritage and the gracious way of life,” the world-renowned vintner declared. The Mission Program educated media, trade and consumers about the health benefits of moderate wine consumption. One thousand tapes were produced and distributed to the press and public at large. The Mission statement was put on every bottle of Robert Mondavi wine and was supported by hundreds of wineries nationwide.

Mondavi felt that great wines should be recognized internationally. In the 1970s, the Robert Mondavi Winery was among the first to export premium California wine. This international outlook led to partnerships with other prominent wine families: the Frescobaldi family of Italy (Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi), the Eduardo Chadwick family of Chile (Viña Errázuriz) and the Oatley family of Australia (Southcorp/Rosemount Estate).

The framework for these partnerships was initiated in 1979 with Baron Philippe de Rothschild. “The idea was to take our different cultures and traditions, along with the best materials and know-how from Bordeaux and California, to create a wine with its own style, character and breeding,” said Mondavi. Opus One was the result of this partnership. A record sum of $24,000 was paid for the inaugural case in 1981 at the first annual Napa Valley Wine Auction, of which Robert and his wife, Margrit, were founders.

Mondavi was a major benefactor of cultural and educational institutions. Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, a cultural center in the heart of Napa that celebrates the bounty of the American table, opened in November, 2001.  Enhancing an already extraordinary contribution to California’s wine industry, Robert and his wife, Margrit, made a substantial personal gift in late 2001 to the University of California, Davis, to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and to name the campus’s new Center for Performing Arts.  The Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts opened in October 2002. The Wine and Food Science center is currently under construction.

An uncompromising perfectionist, Mondavi was guided by his belief: “If you wish to succeed, you must listen to yourself, to your own heart, and have the courage to go your own way.”

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