A timely life and untimely death

30 May, 2008

Robert Mondavi, who died

two weeks ago at the age of 94, was one of the key figures in the history of New World wine: a man of passion, ambition, drive, energy, generosity and (when it was needed) no little ruthlessness. I only met the man properly on one occasion, when I attempted to interview him at Vinexpo five years ago; and he was still remarkably sprightly for a guy in his late eighties.

Why "attempted"? Well, our conversation was continually interrupted by two things. The first was an endless stream of sycophants and well-wishers, who just wanted to shake the great man's hand. The second was his own PR people. While one of them mopped his brow (it was a hot day, but I thought slavery had been abolished in the USA) the other intercepted my more difficult questions and "answered" them on Mondavi's behalf.

They were feeling twitchy because he'd recently given a from-the-hip interview to a local Californian newspaper, in which he

criticised his own sons' running of the family business.

So, journalistically, they turned our conversation into a non event. I'd love to have heard his opinions on

all sorts of things, from globalisation to climate change, Parkerisation to brettanomyces. Alas, it was not to be.

Indirect influence

In one sense, just meeting the man was enough. Very few people have achieved Mondavi's iconic status in the wine world, and I wanted to make his acquaintance. Indirectly, Mondavi played a small part in my own career. The first winery I ever visited (as an English exchange student armed with fake ID) was Mondavi's Oakville base in the summer of 1980. I still have the T-shirt, tighter now than it was then, that I bought after a tour and tasting that day. Twenty-one years later, I won an award sponsored by Mondavi when I passed the Master of Wine exams.

The details of Mondavi's life - as chronicled in his somewhat airbrushed autobiography, Harvests of Joy, and the less flattering The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler - are a mixture of American dream and, towards the end, Greek tragedy.

The son of first generation Italian immigrants, Mondavi was born in

Minnesota, where his father owned a grocery store and his mother ran a boarding house. No silver spoon there. Like most Italian families, the Mondavis made their own wine, but it was the start of Prohibition in 1919 that presented Cesare Mondavi with a business opportunity. He moved his family to California and started a grape wholesale business supplying fruit for home use "sacramental wine". (It is a little known fact that, thanks to this loophole, wine consumption in the USA more than doubled during Prohibition.

Robert Mondavi followed his father into the wine business, starting as a cellar rat at the Sunny St Helena winery after graduating from Stanford. In 1943, he persuaded Cesare to buy the Charles Krug winery for $75,000. Initially Robert, who did the marketing and PR, worked alongside his brother, Peter, who made the wines; but over time the two fell out badly. Krug was a success, both in terms of its wines and its tourist appeal, but it was the (acrimonious) decision to go his own way and open his eponymous winery in 1966 that would eventually turn Mondavi into a vinous legend. Remarkably, he was already in his early fifties at the time.

Defining efforts

The Robert Mondavi Winery transformed the image of Californian wine. Mondavi was a gifted marketer and, for a Francophile, a passionate advocate of what the Napa Valley could achieve. He invested in research and development, pushed the qualitative boundaries for West Coast wines, created Fumť Blanc as a wine style and (in 1979) launched Opus One, a pioneering joint-venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild that was the first of several such projects. He was also a generous patron of the arts and a spokesman for the civilising influence of wine and food.

So what went wrong? Where did the Greek tragedy originate? Some point to the creation of Woodbridge , Mondavi's commercial, mid-priced brand in 1979, as the first step on a road that would lead to the eventual sale of the business to Constellation in 2004. There were other, more telling factors: over-expansion; the uneasy relationship between Mondavi's two sons, Michael and Tim; the winery's decision to go public in 1993, leaving the door open to takeover bids; and criticism of the top wines by leading American critics all played their part.

By 1998, when he published his autobiography, Mondavi had achieved everything he could ever have dreamt of: wealth, fame, power, influence and respect. My life, he wrote, is a "daily feast ... a continuous harvest of joy". Six years later, he was still alive to see the business disappear into the clutches of a multinational. As Julia Flynn Siler puts it: a "vision of dynastic continuity had collided brutally with the unbridled goals of the free market". Unsurprisingly, Mondavi seemed to age overnight.

In one sense, Mondavi's tragedy was that he lived so long. Had he died before 2004, he would have done so a satisfied man. But there is still much to celebrate about his legacy: as a winemaker, spokesman, philanthropist and leader,

Mondavi had few peers. Wine lovers

everywhere should raise a glass to his memory.

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