Vintage California | Robert Mondavi: The Man Who Would Change Napa…

Robert Mondavi: The Man Who Would Change Napa Valley

The name Mondavi is synonymous with Napa Valley, and, to a larger extent, California wine history. Nearly 60 years have passed since Mondavi sought to transform the way Americans think about, and consume wine. Today, the wine coming out of Napa Valley is considered on par with the greatest Italian and French wine producers in the world. The best Napa Valley hotels are thousands of dollars a night, Michelin-star chefs rule the culinary scene, and this small valley attracts wine enthusiasts, and the wine curious, from around the world.

While no one man is responsible for this growth, if wine historians were to point to one figure who had an oversized impact on the evolution of Napa Valley, they would name Robert Mondavi as the man who put the dream of a modern Napa Valley in motion.

A sculpture of Robert Mondavi at the Robert Mondavi winery in Oakville, Napa Valley.

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Imagining a New Napa Valley

1966 was an important year in Napa Valley. It was in 1966 that Robert Mondavi became the first winemaker to build a large-scale winery in Napa Valley post-Prohibition. The significance of this can’t be understated. In the decade following the repeal of Prohibition, the Mondavi family name was on the ascension. In 1943, the family acquired one of Napa’s better known wineries, the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, California. When others in the region learned that Robert Mondavi had struck out on his own, and was investing in the creation of a brand new winery, and acquiring vineyard land, it inspired others who may have been hesitant, to follow in his footsteps.

Although 1966 was just over thirty years after Prohibition, bear in mind that when Prohibition ended in 1933, Napa Valley was slow to recover from this jarring interruption to the burgeoning wine industry that was still trying to establish a foothold in the region. Labor, infrastructure and money were scant. And, the process of replanting vineyards, essentially from scratch, took years. Depending on the variety, newly planted vines can take four to five years to bear grapes. Needless to say, in the early to mid-60s, the California wine industry was still in flux.

Add to this that American drinking culture didn’t gravitate towards wine in the pre-Prohibition years, so once the law was repealed, wine wasn’t the kind of libation consumers were clamoring to get their hands on - most sought out hard liquors like gin or bourbon.

The intrepidness with which Mondavi is known for may lead one to believe that pursuing this vision of a bustling Napa Valley wine community was the work of a young ambitious man, but Mondavi was in his early 50s when he both made the decision on his own to create his own wine brand, and was simultaneously kicked out of the family business.

Mondavi striking out on his own may never have happened had it not been for a massive dispute between him and his brother Peter. But, what ensued between the two brothers seems to have turned into a case of something good coming out of something bad. Mondavi left the family business, took the knowledge he acquired, and created his own vision of world-class California wine.

The iconic arch of the Robert Monday winery in Oakville, Napa Valley

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Robert Mondavi: Innovator

Mondavi wasn’t shy about what he was trying to achieve in Napa Valley. He wanted to make Napa Valley wine that was on par with the best domaines in France. Where other wineries wanted to make money at all costs, which usually involved a business model that championed quantity over quality, Mondavi saw long term success in the industry as one based on using quality grapes, having well-kept vineyards and “estate” bottling wine.

When a wine is an “estate” wine, that means that every piece of the winemaking process happens “in-house”. So, grapes are grown at the winery’s vineyard, grapes are fermented at the estate winery, and the subsequent juice is bottled by the winemaker. Estate bottlings were how wineries could build a brand and establish a name for themselves.

One grape that Mondavi used to differentiate himself from other winemakers was sauvignon blanc. If you’ve ever seen sauvignon blanc labeled as ‘fumé blanc’, you can thank Robert Mondavi for that. At a time when Napa Valley sauvignon blanc was aged in stainless steel barrels, Mondavi advocated aging the wine in French oak, which at the time was a radical idea.

To further refine his vision for Napa Valley, in 1980, Mondavi partnered with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, of the world famous Bordeaux house Château Mouton Rothschild to create Opus One. If you look closely at the Opus One logo, you will see that it is, in fact, made of silhouette portraits of both mens’ heads.

Forty years after its founding, Opus One remains one of Napa Valley’s most coveted cabernets!

The barrel room
The barrel room at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville

Robert Mondavi the Mentor

Mondavi’s success and influence wasn’t limited to his own endeavors. He also had a keen eye for winemaking talent, among them Warren Winiarski, who would go on to found Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, who founded Grgich Hills Estate, and was also the head winemaker for Chateau Montelena. If the names of those two winemakers are familiar, that’s because the wines of both men won the world’s most famous blind tasting, the Judgment of Paris. Stag’s Leap Cabernet beat out some of France’s best Bordeaux, while Chateau Montelena shocked France’s top white Burgundy producers.

Grgich and Winiarski were the first two winemakers Mondavi hired to help him achieve the world-class wines he thought Napa Valley deserved, but they weren’t the only ones who went on to create wines of this caliber on their own. Mondavi also mentored Paul Hobbs, of Paul Hobbs Winery, Zelma Long, who today is considered a California wine icon in her own right, and Charles Thomas, who would become the winemaker for Quintessa, before starting his own label, Thomas-Hsi Vineyards.

At a Robert Mondavi Winery anniversary dinner in 2016, it was Charles Thomas, who summed up his mentor’s influence on California wine best. What’s the history of Napa Valley?” he asked the crowd.

“There are two eras: before 1966, and after 1966. Some called him crazy; that’s another word for visionary.”

Charles Thomas

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