Saturday, May 17, 2008

Robert Mondavi: Northern California Wine Pioneer

Napa wine pioneer Robert Mondavi dead at 94

Jon Bonné - Chronicle Wine Editor - May 17, 2008

YOUNTVILLE -- Robert Mondavi, the charismatic Napa Valley vintner whose work helped establish California wines as among the world's best, died Friday morning. He was 94.

A spokeswoman for the Robert Mondavi Winery confirmed that Mr. Mondavi "died peacefully" at his Wappo Hill home near Napa Valley's Silverado Trail.

A popular and tireless figure in the wine world, Mr. Mondavi was relentless in his drive to make wines that could compete with the finest in the world. His winery, established in 1966 when Mr. Mondavi was 53, became a symbol not only of California's emergence as a wine powerhouse but of the lifestyle that Mondavi embodied - one that placed wine in context with good food and a culture of hospitality.

"He's left us, but his vision remains," said Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars who once worked as Mr. Mondavi's assistant winemaker. "His legacy and ... his vision for what California could do remains with us as guidepost and a source of aspiration."

Although Mr. Mondavi and his family sold their winery to Constellation Brands for $1.03 billion in November 2004, he remained tied to his namesake property, making public appearances as recently as last year. In March 2007 he was inducted as the only living honoree in the inaugural class of the Vintners Hall of Fame.

More businessman than winemaker by trade, Mr. Mondavi found his calling when he broke from his family's Charles Krug winery in 1965 and struck out on his own. With help from a high-profile succession of winemakers, including Miljenko "Mike" Grgich and Zelma Long, as well as his son Tim, Mr. Mondavi soon became synonymous with the best of California wine.

The Mission-style winery facade designed by architect Cliff May that graced his labels became a symbol of the state's bounty.

His winery gained renown for such modern techniques as the use of steel fermentation tanks and small French oak barrels. Mr. Mondavi frequently sponsored technical groups and traveled worldwide in search of new methods.

"What surprised me most about Robert was his very real interest in what others were doing in fine winemaking," said Paul Draper, CEO of Ridge Vineyards.

But Mr. Mondavi primarily made his name as a marketing mastermind, especially after his decision in 1968 to make wine from Sauvignon Blanc, at the time an obscure varietal, in oak barrels. Recognizing the appeal of a fancy name, Mr. Mondavi christened the wine "Fumé Blanc" and watched sales skyrocket.

'A lasting impact'

"It is hard to imagine anyone having more of a lasting impact" on the state's wine industry, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement Friday.

None of it would have happened without Mr. Mondavi's singular drive to prove that the state's wines - and his in particular - were some of the best in the world. He traveled endlessly, proselytizing to anyone who would listen. He loved to welcome visitors to his Oakville winery, often opening top wines from France's Bordeaux region alongside his own, asking guests to compare the two.

Always demanding, Mr. Mondavi placed a premium on loyalty. Grgich recalls asking for help crushing grapes while struggling to complete his own winery. Mr. Mondavi quickly agreed but noted that he built his Mondavi facility on an even quicker schedule. Grgich's winery was finished in time for harvest.

"He was, while I was working with him, the best friend that I could have," said Grgich, who worked for Mr. Mondavi from 1968 to 1972. "I became a family member, and I remained a family member from then until today."

The enthusiasm rubbed off. Wine lovers soon flocked to Napa's Highway 29 to visit the Robert Mondavi Winery. Mr. Mondavi believed that hospitality was key to selling wine and to his winery's image. He threw lavish public dinners and hired a chef for the winery, becoming one of the first California vintners to portray wine as an accompaniment to food.

Later the winery inaugurated a "Great Chefs" program, hosting Julia Child and Alice Waters, among others. That context was important. As Joseph E. Gallo, CEO of E&J Gallo Winery, put it in a statement, Mr. Mondavi "successfully advocated that moderate wine consumption is a complement to better everyday living."

Mr. Mondavi's winery also inaugurated a long-running concert series, and in 1988 Mr. Mondavi and his second wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, joined with fellow vintners to plan Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts.

Their biggest gift, however, was $35 million to UC Davis in 2001 to fund an institute dedicated to wine and food science as well as a performing arts center.

Robert Gerald Mondavi was born June 12, 1913, in Virginia, Minn., the third child of Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, although for all his life he would celebrate June 18 as his birthday.

His parents had been sharecroppers in Sassoferato, Italy, before they moved to the United States. As Italians, they found it difficult to fit into heavily Scandinavian Minnesota.

In 1923, during Prohibition, the Mondavis moved to Lodi, where Cesare went into the grape business.

A top athlete and high school class president, Mr. Mondavi majored in business at Stanford University but heeded his father's advice to go into wine. After briefly studying enology, Mr. Mondavi moved to St. Helena, following Cesare's counsel that a little-known spot called Napa Valley was producing California's best grapes.

Robert Mondavi married his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Declusin. The couple had three children: Michael, Marcia and Timothy.

Mr. Mondavi worked as a bulk wine broker, but was impressed by the quality of wines from pioneers like Beaulieu and Inglenook. "I always felt that I wanted to do something that would be comparable to what they were doing," Mr. Mondavi recalled in a 1984 interview. So he convinced his father in 1943 to buy the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena and make better wines.

He became Krug's marketer, while younger brother Peter made the wines. The brothers were destined to clash. Robert was flamboyant and ambitious, Peter quiet and careful. Peter felt Robert could be profligate; Robert felt stifled and criticized his brother's cautious ways.

Legendary falling-out

In an incident that would become legendary, Mr. Mondavi punched his brother in the face over a disagreement about a fur coat Robert had purchased for his wife. He was dismissed from Krug, causing a decades-long family rift.

Years later, Mr. Mondavi received a hefty settlement. The brothers eventually would reconcile, even making wine together for a 2005 charity auction.

Mr. Mondavi always found new ways to expand. His vision of making wine on par with the finest Bordeaux was affirmed when Baron Philippe de Rothschild, proprietor of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, suggested a partnership. By 1979, the two had devised Opus One, the most famous French-American partnership in California. Mr. Mondavi looked even farther afield, to a Tuscan partnership with Italy's Frescobaldi family and one in Chile.

In 1979, with the proceeds of the Krug settlement, Mr. Mondavi bought a facility outside Lodi and developed his cheaper Woodbridge brand. Then in 1993, he and his sons took the winery public. That gave them capital to grow but also prompted pressure for greater profits. Some analysts also felt a focus on low-priced wines hurt Mr. Mondavi's image. Mr. Mondavi stepped down as chairman in 2003. His son Michael replaced him briefly before the winery's board installed Ted Hall, a businessman and vintner.

After the family sold its winery in 2004, Mr. Mondavi's children assumed the mantle. Michael Mondavi founded Folio Fine Wine Partners in Napa, while Mr. Mondavi joined with his son Tim, daughter Marcia and Tim's daughter Carissa to create Continuum, which produces high-end Cabernet Sauvignon.

Mr. Mondavi's extraordinary success was not without its stresses. He divorced Marjorie in 1979 and married Margrit Biever, whom he had met at Charles Krug and then hired to cook and to entertain guests at his own winery. Eventually the two became Napa Valley's omnipresent power couple. Even as Mr. Mondavi's health waned, Margrit Mondavi remained a local fixture, her gold Mercedes a frequent sight on Silverado Trail.

Mr. Mondavi is survived by his wife, Margrit; his sons, Tim and Michael of Napa; his daughter, Marcia Mondavi Borger of New York City; his brother Peter of Napa Valley; and nine grandchildren.

Mr. Mondavi's funeral will be private, a winery spokeswoman said, and the winery is closed today. Starting Monday, winery visitors can write in a remembrance book in the tasting room.

Mondavi milestones

Robert Mondavi Winery: He founded the first major winery to be built in Napa Valley since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

First Fumé Blanc: He made the dry wine from Sauvignon Blanc, an obscure varietal grape.

Joint venture: He created Opus One with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of France.

Pioneer IPO: He was one of the first owners to take a winery public.

Philanthropy: He gave millions, notably $35 million to UC Davis for a performing arts complex and a science center.

Life and times of Robert Mondavi

The innovator

1943: Persuades parents, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, to buy Charles Krug Winery. Robert becomes salesman; brother Peter becomes winemaker.

1965: Leaves Charles Krug Winery after dispute with Peter that erupted into a fistfight. The turbulent falling-out lasted for decades and presaged other family conflicts.

1966: Founds the Robert Mondavi Winery, which becomes the first major winery built in Napa Valley since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The winery's Mission-style building is an homage to California history and includes public spaces for education and entertainment. Mondavi champions the winemaking technique of cold fermentation and the use of steel fermentation tanks and small French oak barrels.

1968: Makes a dry wine from Sauvignon Blanc, an obscure varietal, and renames it Fumé Blanc. Sales soar.

1974: Son Michael Mondavi masterminds low-end line to sell wine made from the year's grape glut. Robert Mondavi Red and Robert Mondavi White are bottled in magnums and sold for $2.50.

1979: Buys winemaking cooperative near Lodi, renames it Woodbridge and makes value-priced wines with barrel aging and other winemaking methods generally reserved for premium wines.

1979: Enters into joint venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of France to create Opus One.

1993: Takes Mondavi Corp. public in one of the first winery IPOs. Family shareholders retain control of company.

2004: Sells Robert Mondavi Winery to Constellation Brands, along with his other wine brands and partnerships.

2004: Creates Continuum Partners with other family members to produce high-end Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville.

The philanthropist

1981: With Julia Child, founds the American Institute for Wine and Food, dedicated to promoting the importance of good food and dining together. The institute now has 25 chapters and 4,000 members nationwide.

1988: Gives $20 million to establish Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, which opened on the banks of the Napa River in 2001.

1997: Co-founds The Oxbow School, a visual arts center for high school students.

2001: Gives $35 million to UC Davis for a performing arts center and a wine and food science center.

2002: The Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts opens.

2008: The Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science is scheduled to open in October.

Article Link at (w/images)


Calif. wine patriarch Robert Mondavi dies at 94

Michelle Locke - Associated Press Writer - May 17, 2008

Berkeley, Calif. (AP) -- Robert Mondavi, the vintner who built his career and helped an iconic Northern California industry blossom by insisting that Napa Valley wines can compete with the best in the world, died in the valley Friday. He was 94.

Mondavi died peacefully at his home in Yountville, Robert Mondavi Winery spokeswoman Mia Malm said.

"It is hard to imagine anyone having more of a lasting impact on California's $20 billion-a-year wine industry than Robert Mondavi," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. Mondavi, said the governor, was "a tireless entrepreneur who transformed how the world felt about California wine, and an unforgettable personality to everyone who knew him."

Mondavi was 52 and a winemaking veteran in 1966, when he opened the winery that would help turn the Napa Valley into a world center of the industry. Clashes with a brother that included a fistfight led him to break from the family business to carry out his ambitious plans with borrowed money.

When Mondavi opened his winery, California was still primarily known for cheap jug wines. But he set out to change that, championing use of cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, all commonplace in the industry today. He introduced blind tastings in Napa Valley, putting his wines up against French vintages, a bold move.

His confidence was rewarded in 1976 when California wines beat some well-known French vintages in the famous tasting known as the Judgment of Paris.

"He had the single greatest influence in this country with respect to high quality wine and its place at the table," wine critic Robert Parker wrote in a chat room posting on his Web site Friday. He called Mondavi "an exceptional man....a true pioneer...a legendary pathfinder.....and I feel so priviledged to have known him...a sad day...but also one to pay homage to his enormous contributions."

Always convinced that California wines could compete with the European greats, Mondavi engaged in the first French-American wine venture when he formed a limited partnership with the legendary French vintner Baron Philippe de Rothschild to grow and make the ultra-premium Opus One at Oakville. The venture's first vintage was in 1979.

The success of the Mondavi winery allowed him to donate tens of millions of dollars to charity, but a wine glut and intense competition gradually cost his family control of the business. In 2004, the company accepted a buyout worth $1.3 billion from Fairport, N.Y.-based Constellation Brands.

Mondavi was an enthusiastic ambassador for wine — especially California wine — and traveled the world into his 90s promoting the health, cultural and social benefits of its moderate consumption.

"He had an amazing life," said Robert C. Koch, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. "He was a major driving force and an incredible promoter for California wine and the Napa Valley."

Born in Virginia, Minn., Mondavi got an economics degree from Stanford University in the 1930s and went to work at the Charles Krug Winery, which his Italian-born parents had bought after moving to California from Minnesota.

He married his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Declusin, in 1937, and they had three children, Michael, Marcia and Tim.

For 20 years, the winery was a family business. But Robert clashed frequently with his younger brother, Peter, who had a more conservative approach the business. According to Robert Mondavi's autobiography "Harvests of Joy," matters came to a head with a November 1965 fistfight.

"When it was all over, there were no apologies and no handshake," wrote Robert Mondavi.

In the late 1970s, Mondavi's first marriage ended; in his autobiography he wrote that his single-minded pursuit of the wine business was partly to blame. In 1980, he married a second time, to Margrit Biever, a native of Switzerland who had worked at the Mondavi winery since the late '60s.

By the mid-1990s, Mondavi had turned over operation of the company to his sons. But like their father and uncle before them, Tim and Michael clashed over management styles.

More troubles emerged as a grape glut soured the wine market in 2002 and lower-priced wines in the Mondavi portfolio faced tough competition from cheaper Australian imports and domestic brands like California's Two Buck Chuck.

Also a problem were the millions in charitable donations Mondavi and Margrit had pledged, including helping found Copia, The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, in Napa and giving $35 million to the University of California, Davis.

In her 2007 book, "The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty," author Julia Flynn Siler wrote that declining stock prices later left Mondavi in danger of not being able to cover the millions in gifts he and Margrit had promised.

A corporate restructuring in August 2004 boosted the stock price, but undercut the family's control of the company. By time it was bought out, Michael Mondavi, who disagreed with the board strategy, had already left the company, and Tim Mondavi had loosened ties.

Later there was a bittersweet family moment when Robert and Peter Mondavi, aided by members of the younger generation, made wine together for the first time in 40 years. Using a 50-50 split of grapes from Robert Mondavi and Peter Mondavi family vineyards, the brothers made one barrel of a cabernet blend that sold for $401,000 at the 2005 Napa Valley wine auction.

The auction lot was called "Ancora Una Volta," or "Once Again."

Article Link at (w/images)


Mondavi's gifts to UC Davis opened a new era

Larry N. Vanderhoef - May 16, 2008

We at UC Davis wish to pay tribute to a magnificent man of compelling vision, Robert Mondavi. Like a university, Robert was always guided by an inherent spirit of discovery and the pursuit of excellence. In fact, he acted and thought as if his winery were a university and he a curious and passionate professor. Mondavi shared his discoveries with everyone. His goal wasn't simply to better the bottom line, but to pioneer the California wine-making techniques that ultimately yielded worldwide recognition. Much has been written about his entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, we at UC Davis have been honored by our association with Mondavi and our parallel paths of progress and innovation.

In 2001, Mondavi and his wife, Margrit, gave $25 million to help establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which is scheduled to open in October, and $10 million to help launch the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2002 and is now a regional performing arts landmark.

Indeed, Mondavi and his family have given much to UC Davis, and not just through his time and financial support, but also through the association of the Mondavi name. His generosity touched so much of the transformational research, stellar teaching and superb programs that this campus offers today.

That's why, in June 2004, UC Davis presented Robert and Margrit Mondavi with the UC Davis Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the university. But what I will treasure most about our friendship with Bob Mondavi was his sense of destiny.

I remember him saying once, "If you wish to succeed, you must listen to yourself, to your own heart, and have the courage to go your own way, to find the right direction." There's no doubt that Mondavi accomplished his mission - to the betterment of the university, the wine industry, agriculture, the state of California - and beyond. And the Mondavis' belief in UC Davis emboldened each of us to reach even higher.

Through his leadership, Mondavi truly opened a new era of opportunity for UC Davis. We are deeply grateful for his inspiration. He believed that our university was worthy of his support. He was convinced that the sciences and the arts were essential companions. He reassured each of us - no matter our calling in life - that we were capable of and responsible for creating a magnificent and enduring legacy.

Today, the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts stands as a sparkling monument to all who embrace the arts. Across the street, the soon-to-be-opened Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science is an inspiring testament to Robert's bold aspirations. There is no doubt that Robert's legacy for many cultural and educational institutions has been substantial and enduring. But in the end, we are most grateful for his faith in UC Davis, and for his friendship.

Larry N. Vanderhoef is the chancellor of the University of California, Davis.

Article Link at


Robert Mondavi [from Wikipedia]

Robert Gerald Mondavi (June 18, 1913 – May 16, 2008) was a leading American vineyard operator whose technical improvements and marketing strategies brought worldwide recognition for the wines of the Napa Valley in California. From an early period, Mondavi aggressively promoted labeling wines varietally rather than generically. This is now the standard for New World wines.

Family history

Robert Mondavi's parents emigrated from the Marche region of Italy and settled in the Minnesota city of Hibbing. Robert Gerald Mondavi was born in Virginia, Minnesota. From Minnesota the Mondavi family moved to Lodi, California, where he attended Lodi High School. In Lodi, his Father, Cesare, established a successful fruit packing business under the name C. Mondavi and Sons, packing and shipping grapes to the east coast primarily for home winemaking. Mondavi graduated from Stanford University in 1937 with a degree in economics and business administration. While at Stanford he was a member of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity. He joined his Father and brother Peter after the family acquired the Charles Krug Winery from James Moffitt, established in 1861 in the Napa Valley. Mondavi is the first major winery built in Napa Valley in the post-Prohibition era.

After a feud between himself and his younger brother Peter, Mondavi left Krug in 1965 to establish his own winery in Oakville. Part of Mondavi's original vineyard land included the To Kalon (a Greek term meaning the good one) vineyard originally established by Napa Valley pioneer H.W. Crabb in 1868. The winery bearing Mondavi's name produced high quality wine in the California mission style.

In 1966, he founded the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley with the goal of producing wines that would rival the finest wines of Europe.

In 1967, the woman who would later be Robert Mondavi's wife, Margrit (Kellenberge) Biever Mondavi, joined the winery. They married in 1980 in Palm Springs, Califonia, almost immediately after his divorce from his first wife, Marjorie Ellen (Declusin) Mondavi.

Wine history

In 1968 he made a dry oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc, an unpopular variety in California at the time, and labelled it "Fumé Blanc." The wine was a success and, in time, Fumé Blanc became accepted as a synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.

Mondavi successfully developed a number of premium wines that earned the respect of connoisseurs and vintners alike. In 1979, he built the Mondavi Woodbridge Winery in Lodi, California developing it into a leader of popular-premium wines. He also entered into a joint venture the Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild to create Opus One Winery, and since the 1990s has set up joint ventures with local partners in Europe, South America and Australia.

In the Grand European Jury Wine Tasting of 1997, the Robert Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve was ranked number one.


Robert Mondavi was selected as the Decanter "Man of the Year" in 1989. His autobiography Harvests of Joy was published in 1998.

In 2003, Mondavi expressed regret and criticized his sons for the business strategy that emphasized the inexpensive Mondavi lines, Coastal and Woodbridge, over the premium wines, allowing the company name to lose its association with fine wine it held in the past. He said, "We've got to get our image back, and that's going to take time."

In the 2004 documentary film Mondovino, the Mondavi family featured prominently, in close application to its theme of globalization. At the time, the Mondavis had recently acquired the Italian "cult wine" Ornellaia winery, Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia.

On December 22, 2004, Constellation Brands acquired the Mondavi winery for nearly US$1.36 billion in cash and assumption of debt.

Due to the contributions of Robert and Margrit Mondavi, the Mondavi Center at UC Davis in Davis, California for performing arts was named after him.

The two are founders and major benefactors behind COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, which opened November, 2001 in the city of Napa, California. Robert and Margrit are also founding supporters of the restoration of the 19th-century Napa Valley Opera House and the Oxbow School, a new art school in Napa that provides grants and instruction to art students in their junior year of high school. They have contributed to the restoration of the Lincoln Theatre in Yountville, California, and have supported the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

On December 5, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Mondavi into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.

Vintner's Hall of Fame

Robert Mondavi was nominated and inducted in the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America. The election was based upon ballots from seventy wine journalists. The decision for their election of Mondavi is for contributions to the wine industry of California during his life-time.

Inductions with Robert Mondavi on March 7, 2007 included Agoston Haraszthy, Andre Tchelistcheff, Georges de Latour, Charles Krug, Gustave Niebaum, Timothy Mondavi, Maynard Amerine and Harold Olmo.

Wikipedia Link with further resources

Robert Mondavi Winery [official site]

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