One of my earliest memories of Bob Mondavi involves his quest for the best.
His was a new wine operation in the valley when I arrived in 1967 — actually the first new winery built since the repeal of Prohibition.
I got to know him as a straight shooter — a guy who walked the walk in the world of wine. He knew a lot about wine. I didn’t. And, with his innate talent for sharing, Bob was eager to give me some quality grounding.
His first public relations director, Margrit Biever — who years later became his constant companion and second wife — brought us together on numerous occasions. Not just social functions, mind you, but serious tastings and seminars conducted by his children, Michael, Marcie and Tim.
Once Bob felt my palate had sufficient enological training, he included me in some pretty amazing winery tastings, often conducted midday in the Vineyard Room, the winery’s public space that Margrit had turned into a place for art shows, winter concerts and film festivals.
On one occasion, I was included in a tasting where my wine industry idol wanted to see how his latest reserve cabernet sauvignon compared to the first growths of Bordeaux. I’m not sure how many imports were present that day. What I do recall was that I liked Bob’s wine best of all — and not because I was sitting in his winery. If you knew Bob Mondavi, he was always opening himself up for a shot or two, always asking others’ opinions of his wines, inquiring if tasters noted any flaws. I remember thinking at the time that a number of the Bordelais wines seemed overly tannic, that the Mondavi cab was a well-integrated, accessible wine. One wag suggested my palate had become Mondavi-ized.
Fast-forward to my 20th year in the local news business. For this noteworthy anniversary, I felt a celebration of sorts was in order. So I decided to invite some friends over to my backyard patio along Napa Creek for a tasting of some noteworthy wines. I hoped to scare up a few bottles from my arrival year and pop the corks on several other treasures I’d been saving for such an occasion.
Grower Nathan Fay and his wife, Nellie, had become close friends, not only through our love of wine but also our volunteer efforts with the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra. A violinist and cook of the first order, Nellie was a staunch supporter of the orchestra and recruited her husband and me to provide all manner of assistance.
In addition to selling grapes, Nathan made some of his own wine and I was lucky enough to receive a few bottles at Christmas, often along with wines from a few cellars that took his fruit.
I had a few of those Nathan Fay wine gifts earmarked for this celebration, including a bottle of 1965 Charles Krug cabernet sauvignon, the final year that Bob Mondavi was part of the Krug team.
So, I set about trying to locate a bottle of wine from harvest 1967. My first stop was the Robert Mondavi Winery. Margrit quickly reminded me of the disastrous growing season that year, what with frost and heavy late May rains during flowering, followed by foul weather at harvest. What little wine was made from crush ’67 was not memorable, she said, and the winery had kept very little, save for a few library bottles.
She suggested I contact Alex Dierkhising, restaurateur and wine collector from Calistoga. I hustled up to Calistoga and Alex agreed to take me to his wine cellar to see if he had saved anything from 1967. He rummaged through his collection and emerged with a broad smile and three bottles. I returned the smile, nervously, trying to calculate what one bottle — let alone three — would cost me. The generous restaurateur handed me all three bottles and said, “Enjoy.” He also told me to drink them within 20 to 30 minutes of pulling the cork for fear that the wine’s fruitiness would quickly disappear.
The wines he gave me included 1967 Inglenook cabernet, 1967 Beringer cabernet and 1967 Beaulieu cabernet.
The tasting was set for the next day, on the anniversary of my employment with the Register. I invited Bob and Margrit to join my friends for the tasting and they accepted.
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I opened several of Nathan’s gift wines, several from the late ’70s and the 1965 Charles Krug cabernet. If I recall, we were a group of about eight or nine, so that we all got a good taste or two from each bottle of wine. The wines were good; more importantly the anecdotes and stories of Bob’s early days in the valley had us spellbound. Bob told us about his parents emigrating from the Marche region of Italy to Minnesota and how his mother cared for family and boarders in those early days — and how much he treasured her cooking and sitting around the kitchen table with family.
When it came time to pull the corks on the 1967 wines, Bob wouldn’t let me do it. He said we’d already enjoyed some outstanding wines and suggested I save them for another celebratory occasion. I took his advice.
I did share one of those bottles over dinner with a friend who missed the tasting. I held onto the other two until one day Margrit asked if I was planning anything for my 25th year in the valley. She and Bob wanted me to come to dinner, along with a group of my friends, to mark the occasion. Of course, I accepted and suggested I’d bring along those remaining two ’67 cabs.
Seven friends and I joined Bob and Margrit at their Wappo Hill home for a memorable meal.
Rather than show up my two wines by pairing them with his well-integrated blends, Bob thought it best to serve them side by side for the cheese course. It was a brilliant suggestion. While I really don’t recall those ’67 cabs on my palate, I treasure the memory of that moment, with my wine idol doing his utmost to make me and my friends feel at home.
And that was what Bob Mondavi was all about. His generosity, his praise, his encouragement, his help are but part of his legacy.
A booklet handed out to those who shared in the celebration of this birth this week provides this quote from the beloved innovator:
“My mother Rosa taught me the power of love.”
It’s opposite a reminiscence from Margrit:
“We were always looking forward to things we wanted to do. If you have things to look forward to, you don’t think about being old. Every day, we would tell each other how lucky we were to be together.
‘What would you really like to do?’
‘I’d like to stay home with you tonight.’
We were always together and always happy together.”