October 12, 1998 12:00 PM

Here we are with the finest wines in the world, and we’re sipping iced tea,” says Robert Mondavi with a laugh. Relaxing with his wife, Margrit, 72, on a sweltering evening in the 70-foot tower of their modern mission-style home in Napa Valley, an hour north of San Francisco, the 8 5-year-old pioneer California winemaker seems the soul of placid satisfaction. Why not? His empire includes 5,100 acres of grapes, the heart of Robert Mondavi Winery, a business that this year will ship 6 million cases for sales of $326 million. He long ago secured his place in the history of wine. Pre-Mondavi, California wine usually came in a jug and was good for little more than washing down spaghetti. But in 1976, Mondavi heartily backed a move to challenge the French wine industry to a blind tasting. Many of the American varietals won, and today, pricey California wines stand in quality cellars alongside their French counterparts. “I knew we had the climate, the soil and the grape varietals to be among the great wines of the world,” says Mondavi.

Not everything has been sunshine and Chardonnay. Passionate and prescient, Mondavi, over the past 60 years, has stepped on more than a few toes, many belonging to his own family. Just this year his winery paid a $120,000 fine for giving illegal gratuities to former U.S. agriculture secretary Mike Espy in 1993-94. Espy, whose trial on charges involving several other companies is scheduled to begin this month, received six bottles of wine and a $207 dinner from the winery while matters affecting the wine industry were before his agency. Mondavi may also ruffle some family and business feathers in his just-published autobiography, Harvests of Joy. And he’s still making his marks—and provoking controversy.

Hoping to give valley tourism a classy focus, Mondavi plans to open a $50 million cultural complex in the town of Napa (population 70,000) in 2001. It would include an amphitheater, art-exhibition space and gourmet restaurants. “It will be a shining light,” argues Mondavi, who has sunk $7 million of his own into the project. (The rest is being raised from public and other private funds.) “We are much more civilized than the world perceives us to be. This is something that has to be done.”

Not everyone agrees. “We’re still a blue-collar community,” says Harry Martin, a city councilman. “We are taking money from neighborhood projects to support his vision. Twenty percent of development money for low-income housing is now going to his center.” But, he notes, “whatever Bob Mondavi wants, he gets. The governor flies in for his birthday. He’s very powerful.” Mondavi avows innocence. “I bend over backwards to try to work with people,” he says. “Is that ego?” The answer, thinks celebrity chef Julia Child, a longtime friend, can be found in his upbringing. “Bob’s grandparents were Italian sharecroppers,” she says. “He really had to make himself.”

Robert was the third of four children born in Minnesota to Italian immigrants Rosa, who ran the family boarding house, and Cesare, a grocer. His parents, who moved the clan to Lodi, Calif., in 1923, “never taught me fear,” says Mondavi. “They always stressed confidence and their belief in me.” Robert excelled at Stanford University, where, he says, “I wasn’t big enough to play against the giants on the football team, so I went out for rugby. It was common sense.” Not so sensible, however, was the gamble he took after graduation, in 1937, not long after the repeal of Prohibition. “My father suggested I become a winemaker,” he says. “It was a new industry, and I decided to grow with it.”

Mondavi apprenticed at Napa Valley’s Sunny St. Helena Winery, in which his father had an interest, and where his romance with the grape and his obsession with detail were both nurtured. “I saw early on that people are basically lazy,” he says, “and that it took time and money to make good wine. I saw that if I devoted myself entirely over a number of years, I would win.”

Mondavi married his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Declusin, in 1937 and fathered three children, all of whom have joined the family enterprise. (Michael, now 55, is CEO; Tim, 46, is the head wine-maker; and Marcia, 51, is a board member.) Eager to expand, Mondavi in 1943 convinced Cesare to buy the struggling Charles Krug Winery for $75,000. Cesare had one condition: that Robert and his brother Peter, now 84, share the business. For the next 23 uneasy years they clashed over their product. “I wanted to make fine wines,” says Robert. “Peter was always holding back.”

In 1965, Peter accused Robert of spending too much money to promote the winery. The two argued and came to blows over it in front of the whole family. The following year, Robert’s son Michael wanted to join Krug. Peter wouldn’t allow it. “Everybody has their own version of the story,” says Peter, president of Krug. “He loves to talk about it. I don’t.” Robert then decided to strike out on his own. Peter considered such a move direct competition, and the matter headed into litigation. Seeking his share of Krug, Robert sued Peter as well as his own mother. (Cesare had died in 1959.) The suit was settled in 1978, with Peter handing over an undisclosed sum, plus some vineyards. “I never wanted to go against the family,” says Robert. “Mother understood that I had to sue her as well. I would see her often. She would feed me—as long as my brother wasn’t around.”

Life at home was also tangled. Consumed with starting a new business at 52, Mondavi grew increasingly distant from Marjorie. Also, a winery tour guide, Margrit Biever, had caught his eye. “There was an initial attraction,” says Margrit, “but it was complicated. Like a soap opera.” Not for Mondavi. He divorced Marjorie in 1979 (she died in 1990) and married Margrit the next year. Michael, who helped his parents through what he calls “the most amicable divorce in history,” says the change was good. “He is happier today than I have ever seen him.”

Robert’s wines gained acclaim in the ’80s, but he and his sons suffered sour grapes. Though promoted to run the winery (Robert remains chairman of the board), Michael and Tim felt they were constantly second-guessed by their father. Michael suggested they see a psychotherapist. “It helped,” says Robert. “They felt I was criticizing, and I thought it was open discussion.” Adds Michael: “My father went from being my boss to being my mentor, teacher and father again.”

Even the peripatetic Mondavi takes a moment to reflect on his achievements. “I’ve learned step-by-step,” he says, “and I’ve passed that on to the next generation. That’s the difference with a family-owned business: We can pass on the passion.”

•J.D. Reed

•Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Napa Valley

You May Like

EDIT POST