The American Vintner

So let’s leave it here, not because it’s the words of Eric Asimov in his latest blog, and not because it’s the sentiment everyone in the industry has spoken, but only because we know it’s true, Robert Mondavi was the most influential American winemaker to date.

Robert Mondavi, the vintner who opened the wine industry to a generation of Americans, and who above all thumb tacked Napa onto the map, died last week at the age of 94.

In a legacy that Asimov himself called a “Greek tragedy”, Mondavi leaves us with a testament to American oenology that has, and will, influence California winemakers for generations to come.

For those who know the name, but less likely to know the story, the name Mondavi translates into many things, many things of which Robert—or Bob—as he preferred to be called, attempted to derail. 

He left his father’s winery, Sunny St. Helena, in the midst of legal and personal battles with his brother, Peter Mondavi, in 1965 and set out to produce a high quality product of his own.  With capital procured from investors, he purchased a vineyard in Oakville, just south of his family’s winery and began his first vintage under his name.

Robert Mondavi was praised for his wines and their quality.  He utilized European winemaking techniques—French oak aging and stainless-steel fermentation—to yield a product that he felt could challenge the rarest of French wines.  He also insisted on using varietal labeling which became the standard in New World wines.

His collaborations with Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Chateau Mouton-Rothschild have been highly acclaimed, with such successes as Opus One in the Napa Valley.  The winery yields California’s most expensive and coveted wines, which go for a hefty $350.00 a bottle.  Mondavi and Mouton-Rothschild also opened the doors to a thriving Chilean and Latin American industry that have become some the most appreciated wines among wine-drinkers.

Yet with such ardor of promoting the highest quality in his products, the Mondavi name will perhaps forever be tainted by the family infighting and the near-sided business practices of his sons.

When the company went public in 1993 his children began selling off the shares, eventually losing control to Constellation Brands.  It was at this time he publicly rebuked his sons, who were co-chairmen of the company, for their emphasis on the production of low-end wines.

Under his control his winery became a $500 million-a-year business and helped develop a once forgotten landscape into one of the most lucrative and appreciated wine regions in California and the world.

The New York Times for once saying of Mondavi noted Andre Tchelistcheff, winemaker of Beaulieu Vineyards:

“He wanted everyone to make it… He wanted all California wines to be world class.”

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