Wine country icon Robert Mondavi celebrated his 94th birthday Monday.
But you'd think the nation's best known vintner was just a shaver of 93 if you'd cracked open a copy of Julia Flynn Siler's "The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty," which hit retail book shelves over the weekend.
"Robert Mondavi will turn ninety-three on June 14, 2007," the author matter-of-factly states in the epilogue of her sprawling opus. "He is confined to a wheelchair but still lives on Wappo Hill with Margrit. He and his wife are partners in a new wine venture, named Continuum, with Timothy and Marcia and their families."
Now I don't know about you, but if a writer can't correctly determine such basics as the age of the lead player in her purportedly well-researched book, I'm more than a little suspicious about the accuracy of other details.
Let's take that opening paragraph in the epilogue, for example. A fragile nonagenarian (although Siler spells it "nanogenarian"), Bob Mondavi does indeed get around these days in a wheelchair. And, yes, Robert and Margrit are partners in a new wine venture with two of the vintner's three children, Tim and Marcia.
But no one else in the extended Mondavi family is vested in the partnership. Tim Mondavi's eldest daughter, Carissa, is the venture's sole employee.
This reader couldn't help but wonder how solid were the blocks on which this "rise and fall of an American wine dynasty" was built. What was fact, what was fiction — other than some of the dialogue the author injects in scenarios where recorded conversations don't exist?
Gotham Books, the New York publisher, maintains Siler's effort is "a balanced and richly detailed account of one family's rise and fall…"
In its examination of the Mondavi winemaking empire, a lot of attention is paid to detail. But "balanced" — well, we'll leave that to readers who want to slog through all 393 pages.
What Siler suggested in her early days of sniffing around the valley was that her look at the Mondavi family would prove a cautionary tale about the inadvisability of wineries going public and being subject to the pressures of the stock market.
Instead, it's a gossipy, rambling treatise that focuses on the negative, the feuds, scandals and the internecine sniping that occurred the last half of the 20th century involving all branches of the Mondavi family, friends, employees, confidants and, finally, an outside board of directors that more or less forced Robert and his children to sell off their holdings to the highest bidder.
The former public relations director of the Mondavi company, Harvey Posert, obtained an advance copy of the book and said Monday that he's disturbed by its "mean-spirited nature.
"It's a very unbalanced treatment based largely on lawsuits, news stories, and self-justification stories that focus on the negative about the family and disregard the fact that an intelligent, hardworking family brought great wine to California and California wine to the world."
While he is not representing the Mondavis regarding the publication of Siler's book, Posert is working with the Continuum project.
He did say, however, that "it is my understanding the Mondavis have no comment on the book." He hinted that none, to his knowledge, had read it.
The 'forced sale'
While there are numerous revelations in Siler's first book — issues that were not known to most of us — there's one real bombshell.
Siler maintains Wall Street-savvy executives — who'd been recruited to serve on the Mondavi corporation's board of directors once it became a public company — were behind the sale of all Mondavi assets to Constellation, a giant drinks firm based in upstate New York.
Tumbling stock prices some two years after the Mondavi company went public are blamed for company principals setting in motion events that resulted in the family's loss of their business.
Vintner Mondavi had pledged large sums of money to both UC Davis and Copia, his project to promote wine, food and the arts in Napa. As the price of Mondavi stock tumbled, so did his worth, the author notes.
In March 2003, "the low stock price erupted into a personal crisis for Robert, one that threatened to embarrass him personally and destroy his legacy as a philanthropist," writes Siler. "The precariousness of Robert's financial situation remained a closely guarded secret, known only to his advisors, family and perhaps one or two top UC officials."
Feeling as well that Michael Mondavi's efforts to grow the company had not been a total success, the board of directors approached Ted Hall — a vintner in his own right who also raised cattle in Napa County — about replacing Michael as chairman.
Meeting with Robert, Tim and Marcia, the "avuncular" former management consultant "laid out his plans in a reassuring tone, explaining how he would look out for the best interests of the company and its shareholders. He used an analogy he had used many times before, describing his role as that of an emergency room doctor who'd dealt with all sorts of corporate traumas over the years.
"Although Hall had joined the board by that point and been offered as a candidate to replace Michael, he had not yet formally been voted in as chairman. Winning the confidence of these family members, who together controlled the largest bloc of voting shares, was crucial to Hall's appointment and he did so handily that afternoon. Faced with Robert's philanthropic problem, they hoped Hall could reverse the stock slide and avert potential embarrassment, if not disaster."
Eventually, Hall and CEO Greg Evans came up with a plan to restructure the company into two divisions — one that sold "lifestyle" wine brands selling for less than $15, the other luxury brands going for much more.
At the same time, they were able to get the family to sign off on a recapitalization program that included a "crucial voting agreement that put control in the hands of the outside directors. The market applauded the changes, sensing they were a precursor to a takeover."
Following an interview with Michael Mondavi, the author notes that "Michael and Timothy later came to believe that Hall and the outside directors had used scare tactics to divide the family members, arguing that unless they went along with their plan, the stock was likely to plunge further and Robert could be forced to file for bankruptcy protection.
"Even though all three siblings had pledged fifty thousand shares of their stock as a way to try to cushion the risks their father was facing, and several directors believed Marcia would step in if her father's financial bind became too severe, that wasn't enough to counter what Michael claims were the board's 'fear tactics,' including citing the tougher Sarbanes-Oxley rules on corporate governance to them."
A source very close to the Mondavi family goes one step further. "I'd be dumbfounded if anybody at UC Davis or Copia ever threatened to bankrupt the Mondavis. It was all a ploy."
(According to Siler, the directors did contact UC Davis about renegotiating vintner Mondavi's pledges but were told plans for the new performing arts center and enology school were too far along to make changes.)
Nasty, not nice
Siler's book makes but passing reference to loyal employees who held Robert Mondavi and his family in high esteem. Nor does it address nonprofits like the Napa Valley Symphony that from early days on benefited greatly from the vintner's largesse.
Instead, it's peppered with snappish remarks and gossip:
* "Robert invented a faux French name as a way of glamorizing the everyday sauvignon blanc grape." In reality, as Robert has told it over the years, the sauvignon blanc of the day in California was often sweet and not very good. Robert decided to introduce consumers to a dry sauvignon blanc patterned on the Loire wines called Blanc-Fumé. In an effort to distinguish it from any other sauvignon blanc, Robert just reversed the two words, Fume Blanc — hardly "faux French."
* "Margrit, with her coquettish ways and her habit of cloaking her intelligence under a blond veneer…"
* "Robert and Margrit always flew first class … even though the company's rule was that flights under two hours should be economy class." (What Siler should have been able to determine, as it was something Margrit always joked about, was that United Airlines years ago had offered Mondavi the opportunity to purchase a lifetime first class pass for two for upwards of $30,000, which seemed like a lot of money at the time. But as Margrit jokes today, "United never thought Bob would live this long." Margrit can only use the pass if Robert is along on the flight.)
A few of the revelations in the new book include:
* Michael Mondavi blaming Margrit for disinheriting Robert's offspring with the philanthropic plan.
* Michael Mondavi had not told his father "he was selling Mondavi wines at bargain-basement prices to (Fred) Franzia," an old friend who had turned the wine world on its ear with the introduction of "Two-Buck Chuck."
* Michael and his wife, Isabel, did not contribute to Robert's Copia project. "'I've already given,' he reasoned, since his sweat equity had helped create the wealth his father was now giving away. 'We were in a race to make money faster than he could give it away,' Michael recalls."
Although Siler thanks many colleagues for offering "wise counsel," it's apparent a proofreader/factchecker wasn't among them. Misspellings ("seperately," "Hermancinski" for auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski and, in one instance referring to Robert's mother as "Rose" instead of Rosa) seem a bit sloppy for a book from a major publisher.
And finally, a personal note. The author quotes from an article I wrote for this newspaper (referring to me as "society columnist") regarding festivities surrounding a hospitality event the Mondavis hosted during the 1993 Napa Valley Wine Auction. It was a roundup of auction events and just happened to follow the successful sale of the initial Mondavi stock offering.
I had written that Bob and his sons were all smiles, having been told that by attendees in putting my overview together.
"Carson didn't notice Timothy and Holly Peterson's passionate performance on the dance floor, which raised eyebrows," Siler wrote. Of course I didn't. I wasn't there, and I told her so long before the book was published.