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Robert Mondavi the icon

Here's a toast to Robert Mondavi, the likes of whom we may never see again.

Napa Valley (AVA)

There’s no icon like Robert Mondavi

But who is there to continue his American wine vision?

by Alan Goldfarb
May 6, 2008

Editor's note:
Robert Mondavi passed away on May 16, 2008.

DropCap G48 azing on the indescribable blue of the infinite Sea of Cortez at the southern tip of North America moves me to contemplate a bit. Among the many thoughts that the petty pace of a vacation allows is the noticeable void in the world of wine. The notion comes to me as I take a sip of a delicious Viognier made in the Guadalupe Valley of Baja, California, just as a gigantic wave crashes onto the beach a hundred yards away, which incredibly rocks the villa where I’m staying.

Who, I think, is there left among us to inspire with passion and move us with their wisdom to go and make a truly great wine or even to drink a wine so definitive that it has been embedded into our memory?

Senior-Ed-Alan-Goldfarb.jpgIt came to me just then that we haven’t heard Robert Mondavi speak words of wisdom for what seems forever. In reality, of course - as we’re subsumed with war, gas prices, and primaries – it has been only a few short years.

I call Mondavi the godfather of California wine because of his vision and energy that began more than three decades ago as he attempted to create an American wine culture. Mondavi, who will be 95 in June, is still with us. But confined to a wheelchair, and hardly able to speak, his once powerful and awe-inspiring messages have been silenced.

He would tell anyone who would listen that, like the Europeans, we, too, can learn to appreciate wine and food and art. More than 30 years later, he has been proven right. At last, Americans indeed are embracing wine as never before. There are wine bars erected, seemingly almost everyday on every street corner. There are wine blogs all over the Internet, and there’s more wine being produced and bought than ever before in our history.

We owe much of it to Robert Mondavi.

He inspired one generation of American winemakers to make good, clean wines of balance; wisdom that has been passed onto the current iteration of AA-commentary-250x67.jpgwinemakers, who are producing their own interpretation of wine. And he got his message across to consumers, who listened to him and read his words, and went out and began tasting wine. Their daughters and sons got the message too, and have taken it farther, experimenting with international varieties, and enjoying wines that are bigger and fruitier than any made in the world before.

But who is there now to impart vision and wisdom and inspiration as we wend our way through a period of prosperity in the wine business that is likely to be froth with obstacles due to impending economic and climatic hardships? Who will guide us as we tiptoe between Old World and New World wines; and keep us from falling into the abyss of disparity?

André Tchelistcheff, the patriarch of California wine, single-handedly inspired untold numbers of growers and winemakers beginning in the 1940s. But he was a winemaker’s winemaker, who rarely touched the imagination of the consumer.

The Gallo brothers, who inspired an earlier generation of winemakers, adapted their cellar methods to produce large lots of wine but suffered the ignoble reputation of producing jug wines.

Jess Jackson was most responsible for moving Americans up from white Zinfandel to Chardonnay, albeit a sweet version that wildly appealed to American tastes then. But Jackson, who has been incredibly successful with his Kendall-Jackson brand, never came close to reaching the sage-status of Mondavi.

(The Trinchero family of Sutter Home, by the way, deserve a mention here for their ingenious creation of rosé of Zin, which moved wine along the continuum. But their legacy with the public unfortunately will go down as but a footnote.)

Fred Franzia? No one has sold so much wine (Two Buck Chuck) for so cheaply, in the history of the U.S. But is he an inspiration to anyone other than as a model for commercialism?

No, there is no one in the history of wine in this country, who so utterly managed to proselytize wine that there’s nary an American who has not heard of Robert Mondavi.

I was fortunate, on a December day in 2002, to have spent two hours with Bob Mondavi at his eponymous winery. On that occasion, sitting not two feet away from me and looking fit and fine in earth-tone colored clothes, not once did the mondavi at mondavi 240.jpghard-of-hearing man ask me to repeat a question. On that day at least, shortly before he lost his winery in a corporate takeover, he was as lucid as one can imagine.

As far as I know, it was the last one-on-one interview that Robert Mondavi ever gave. Things began to decline not long afterward. The winery was wrested from his considerable grasp, his health rapidly declined out of his sturdy body, and his mind … well, who knows.

Who knows if Robert Mondavi has fully realized how much his dream, his words, his inspiration, have gained a foothold that enabled wine to be embraced in this country? I don’t know if we’ll ever see another like him.
Photos of Robert Mondavi courtesy of Icon Estates

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [22]

M Perrone
I agree wholeheartedly with your comments as someone who once worked for the Robert Mondavi company, and I too, was taken by this man's singular vision, a voice for California wine heard above all others. “Great men die twice”, Valery says, “once as men and once as great”. Let us celebrate the passion and enduring legacy that will always be Robert Mondavi.

Morris Zwick , President
Terrapin Station Winery, Maryland
Robert Mondavi is an icon that will be sorely missed. And I am not sure he IS directly replaceable as the world has changed substantially since he opened his winery. We can all be thankful for his contribution to wine history and try to follow his leadership example!

Rob Mondavi , president winemaking, Foliowines.com
Folio Fine Wine Partner's, Napa, CA
Thank you for such warming words. Your thoughts were very well put and I do agree there will never be another man like Bob. He is still with us yet limited as you described. We celebrate the life he has had much as you have with your words here today.
~ Rob Mondavi

Jo Diaz , Publicist
Diaz Communications, Windsor, CA
You're so right. I was fortunate to have spent five months at Robert Mondavi Winery. I was a wine educator, on my way to a full-time employee PR position elsewhere, before going solo. Those five months have been the most profound and powerful for me in my process. I thank RM for all that he did, clearing a path for us all. Having been with RMW, it gave me credentials that no other wine company - at that time - could have possibly given me. It added such respect and credibility from others to my resume. I'm forever indebted to Mr. Mondavi. He may not even know who I am - because we were 900 employees at the time - but I surely know who he is... An eternal wine icon!

Andrew Glazier , owner
Nice Story. He is a heck of a guy. Many famous people in the valley worked at his place in the past. I thought Mike Grgich should be mentioned as he took old world tradition and married it to the use of technology to improve American wines. He worked for Robert Mondavi also.

Edward F. Zeigler , Principal/Owner
The Zeigler Company, Humboldt, KS
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hi Alan,
Just now I finished reading your article about Robert Mondavi and I couldn't agree more with your thoughts concerning Mr. Mondavi. Many of us have been inspired by his persistence to do whatever you do, do it well, and always strive for perfection! I am 73 years old and I know (from experience) that to do so, many times, causes one to receive the wrath of many instead of praise and it takes “an exceptional individual” to stand strong alone and never give up the dream!

One thing that I wish you had included in your article was a contact address where we could let Mr. Mondavi know just how much we “wine drinker and entrepreneurs of the world” appreciate him and his efforts; and, where we could wish him well, a safe journey and much success in his next endeavor. I definitely think that in this time in his life he would appreciate hearing from us!

Ed Zeigler

Michael Weis
Alan, thanks for the great tribute to Mr. Mondavi. I had the privilege, as have many folks in the California wine business, to be associated with the Mondavi family over the years. Mr. Mondavi is truly the “godfather” of the California wine industry. His message was always loud and clear and never wavered - California can make wines to compete with the best in the world. Thanks to him and his vision we are, in fact, competing with the best in the world.

Erica Valentine , Estate Director
Icon Estates, Napa Valley, CA
What a great tribute that's even better by the fact that Robert Mondavi is still around and able to hear this praise. His leadership has been the architect of wine's place today in the entire world.

As a native Napan who has been fortunate to have a career in the wine industry, Robert has always been one of the most important role models for me.

Robert's clear and brilliant focus on the loftiest of goals, his consistent and insistent messages throughout his entire life taught me the most important aspects of brand building. He is father to thousands of careers like mine and I will forever be grateful.

Thanks for the opportunity to express this.

David Gaier , Editor
Wine-Flair.com, Metuchen, NJ
Robert Mondavi, along with Jack and Jamie Davies, were true pioneers and have been an inspiration to me in not just pursuing a wine career, but in pursuing excellence in everything. God bless Bob Mondavi and his brother Peter, too, for the gifts their families have given to American winegrowing and winemaking.
Cheers, Bob and Margrit!!

Tony Lombardi
J Vineyards & Winery, Healdsburg, CA
Well done. What a nice tribute to "the Grandfather of California Wine". Thanks for keeping him on the front pages!

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