A Magnum Force in America's Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Fathers the First U.S. Superwine

“It all comes out industrially uniform, like Coca-Cola.”—Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1973, passing judgment on the wines of California.

Deep in the Napa Valley, in a cellar kept precisely at 65° Fahrenheit and 75 percent humidity, stand 100 Nevers oak barrels whose contents may one day set the enological world on its palate. A year ago each 60-gallon vessel was filled with wine made from locally grown Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The wine is young and thus still “rough.” But the two vintners who have joined to produce it are confident that come late 1983, their purple-hued, made-in-America vintage will have blossomed into nothing less than “the world’s greatest wine.”

That prediction seems wildly extravagant. Yet Robert Mondavi, in whose Oakville, Calif., cellar the superwine is maturing, is hardly noted for reckless hyperbole. Once the guiding force behind the successful Charles Krug Winery, he left that company after an epic feud with his younger brother Peter and founded his own label at midlife. (Peter, incidentally, pronounces the family name Mon-day-vi. Robert has returned to the European pronunciation, Mon-dah-vi.) Today at 67, Robert has become an award-winning vintner as well as a patriarch of the American wine industry. His partner in this latest, crowning endeavor is none other than the master of France’s fabled Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Baron Philippe himself.

To Mondavi, their transatlantic compact symbolizes a renaissance in American wine making. Though the industry was all but wiped out by Prohibition, U.S. vintners doubled their output during the ’70s and now produce 80 percent of all the wine their countrymen drink. And though America’s per capita consumption is a paltry two gallons annually (compared to France’s 26), 1980 promises to be the first year in which U.S. wine sales will match those of hard liquor. Still, the once dubious reputation of California wines cannot be redeemed by quantity alone, as Mondavi is well aware. “At the time the Baron said what he did,” he observes of Rothschild’s withering assessment, “he wasn’t too far wrong. We used the same process on every type of grape, so they did come out tasting very similar. But we had the natural elements here—the climate, the soil, the grape varieties. Baron Philippe knew this. Five years ago, before the great acceptance of American wines, he said, ‘Bob, I feel there is a future for a world-class California red.’ ”

Mondavi had nearly forgotten the Baron’s tentative overture when, in late 1978, he was invited to Château Mouton-Rothschild to discuss creating just such a wine. “The Baron is amazing,” says Mondavi, “like an old shoe with a silver lining. Completely honest, completely open, and he wants to excel in everything he does. We had a beautiful dinner, with a wine that was over 100 years old. The next morning he said, ‘Would you mind meeting in my bedroom? Ninety percent of my business I do in bed.’ He suggested a 50-50 operation completely separate from his winery and from mine, with me running it and with him sending over his wine master. I agreed. I suggested we make only one wine, to be predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. He agreed.” The only disharmony, says Mondavi, came later. “He said, ‘I hear you have quite a bit of land over there—would you mind selling me 25 acres?’ I said, ‘Baron, would you like to sell me 25 acres of your land?’ We looked at each other and laughed.”

Though the two vintners had come to terms easily, their respective attorneys and financial advisers could not. “They had to earn their pay,” says Mondavi, “so they negotiated for about 15 months. The Baron was getting on in years, so eventually he said to me, ‘We don’t have a signed agreement, but would you mind making, say, 2,000 cases?’ ” Mondavi assented, but discovered he still had one person to satisfy: Rothschild’s exacting wine master Lucien Sionneaux. “The French are rather chauvinistic about many things, especially wine,” he says. “Lucien was not that pleased about coming here. He saw our research work, tasted every wine we had, good, bad and indifferent, visited other wineries and then went home, without saying much. But he came back in three months with photographs and detailed explanations of all that they do at Mouton.”

In October 1979 the first grapes were harvested and crushed, and the new wine barreled. Finally Mondavi and Rothschild pressured their staffs into producing a contract that was signed last May. The ultimate character of their yet-unnamed vintage is, of course, impossible to predict, but Mondavi guarantees its uniqueness. “We will have our own style,” he declares. “It will be different in the sense that the great Bordeaux—Lafite, Mouton, Margaux—are different. And it will be sold at the same prices as the great wines of the world”—meaning perhaps $40 a bottle. That, of course, is assuming the wine measures up. If it doesn’t, says Mondavi, “I can assure you nobody’s going to put his name on the label.”

It is this fierce pride in the name he gives to his wines that must have recommended Robert Gerald Mondavi to Rothschild. Born in Virginia, Minn., the third of four children, Mondavi was only 9 when his father was sent west by a local Italian-American club to ship back grapes for its made-at-home wine. Cesare Mondavi liked California, settled in Lodi and sent for his family. As their father’s new grape-shipping business prospered, Robert and his brother Peter pitched in, first as gofers and then nailing shipping crates. “Most people made 1,000 crates a day,” Robert recalls proudly. “We nailed 1,500.” Competitive in other arenas as well (“I enjoyed mixing it up with bigger people”), the 5’8″ Mondavi was fullback on the Lodi football team that won the northern California championship in 1931.

After Robert entered Stanford to prepare for a business career, Cesare was invited to invest in a winery. “My father was pretty well off by then,” Mondavi remembers, “but he felt there was a future in the table wine business. He also felt there was no use getting into it unless my brother and I were interested. My father had always made wine at home, but I’d never seen it made in a winery. Still, I thought, why not start with a young industry and grow with it? My senior year I took ‘bone-head’ chemistry, and I was tutored that summer by a professor of enology.”

Meanwhile, Mondavi Sr. had become majority shareholder in the Sunny St. Helena Winery, which made bulk wine that was shipped east in tank cars. The business went well, but Robert realized that cheaper grapes from the San Joaquin Valley to the south would eventually force the family out of the business. Fine wines were the only alternative.

The chance to make the switch came in 1943, when the dilapidated Charles Krug Winery went on the block. Though Robert estimated that the facility needed as much as $750,000 in repairs on top of a $75,000 purchase price, Cesare Mondavi signed a contract just two days after the deal was broached. Robert was put in charge of developing and marketing the winery’s two lines—Charles Krug fine wines and CK Mondavi table wines—and Peter was assigned to head up production. Almost from the beginning, there was friction over Robert’s expenditures for research and promotion. He recalls, “Peter and I had honest differences over the rate at which we could increase our operations. I wanted to move faster than my brother. But as long as my dad was living, he settled all issues.” Robert still takes pride in the fact that Krug helped pioneer such advances as cold fermentation, sterile filtration and vacuum corking, all of which are now standard techniques.

After Cesare Mondavi’s death in 1959, his wife, Rosa, proved less adept as a mediator. In 1965 her sons had a fistfight. “Only a couple of blows,” says Robert, “but it prompted my mother to separate us.” Told to take a six-month leave, Robert never went back. With two partners, he scraped together $100,000, bought 12 acres just seven miles from the Krug estate and at 53 founded the Robert Mondavi Winery. In its first year, the winery crushed a mere 461 tons of grapes, but business grew fast enough to support continued experimentation. It was Mondavi who helped popularize aging in oak barrels (rather than in stainless steel vats), a breakthrough that allowed American vintners to develop distinctively varied wines in the European mode. By the mid-1970s, his operation had reached break-even.

Within the family, however, stormy weather prevailed. Though Robert was still a partner in the corporation that ran Krug, he became convinced he was being taken advantage of. In 1972, while still living on the Krug estate, he filed suit against his mother, brother and one of his sisters, demanding that the company be sold and the profits split. Four years later, during a bitter 103-day trial, Rosa Mondavi died; at the funeral, her sons greeted each other coldly, in silence. Finally, the judge ruled for Robert, and ordered the Krug winery put on the block. More than $40 million was offered, Robert says, but the brothers arrived at their own settlement. According to the terms of their agreement, Peter bought Robert’s shares in Krug, while Robert was compensated with land, wine inventories and cash. Using these as collateral, he arranged a loan to buy total ownership of his own winery. “That’s what I wanted all the time,” Robert says. “Peter is doing very well financially, which proves we had a fair deal. He is adding to the Valley in his way with his winery, we’re adding to the Valley with ours.”

Today Robert’s company owns 1,400 acres and crushes some 23,500 tons of grapes a year, producing 10 fine wines and three jug wines. Though Mondavi was divorced in 1978 from Marjorie, his wife of 38 years, the couple’s three children promise to provide a continuing family presence in the business. Michael, 37, is company president (his father is chairman); Tim, 29, is head of production; and Marcie, 33, runs the New York public relations department. Remarried last May to Margrit Biever, the winery’s former PR director, the elder Mondavi now lives in a condominium five miles from the winery and is designing a new house overlooking his Oak Knoll vineyard.

Because he pays his 280 employees above union scale, Mondavi was spared the labor unrest that plagued other California vintners this summer. He swims and plays tennis but is generally all business. Though he had never been abroad until 1962, he now visits Europe at least twice a year and has introduced his wines there and in Japan. Whether traveling or sticking close to his winery, he is rarely diverted from enological matters. “With my meals,” he says, “I drink about a fifth of wine a day, made up of glasses from several of the finest Californias and Europeans. Wine always tastes different with food than in a lab or at a tasting, and it keeps me aware of what the other top vintners are doing.”

Ultimately, Mondavi prefers to regard his work as something more than mere commerce. “Anyone who can read a book can make wine,” he observes. “But there are some 400 variables, and like children, they change all the time. When you can adjust to bring out the best in a given crop, I call it art.” Like any artist, he enjoys the notion that his work will live after him. “I went to a tasting of 18 decades of Lafite,” he recalls with a smile. “They were all sound wines, and when you drank them, you correlated them with history. Why, 180 years ago Napoleon was alive! It gave me the funniest feeling on God’s great earth.” Stranger still, perhaps, is the understanding that the wine he has made with the Baron—the fruition of a lifetime’s knowledge and diligence—will reach its peak when his five young grandchildren are grandparents themselves.

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