Saturday, May 10, 2008

Robert Mondavi: Napa Valley's Wine Messiah

Robert Mondavi, who died last week at age 94, was a transitional wine industry figure who grew up in one era and helped pull the rest of us into a different age. When Mondavi, already a mature 53 years old, founded his own winery in Oakville in 1966, very few Americans drank fine wines, and those who did drank French.

More than any other person, he changed all that.

Mondavi's challenge, as he saw it, was a two-step goal: Work unselfishly with his fellow Napa Valley vintners to make world-class wines, and then rapidly convince the rest of the world of this new reality. Not that he didn't have help. Andre Tchelitschef, Joe Heitz, Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski, and Jack Davies were all quality pioneers, but none had the leadership drive and capabilities to match Mondavi.

Having led this miraculous transformation of the Napa reputation by the 1980s, Mondavi sought to use his new-found wealth and admiration to become a world leader in winemaking, and, for a while, he was. But, like a tiring race horse at the head of the stretch, he and his business model began to stumble during the 1990s. By the time of his death, his eponymous winery (like so many eponymous California wineries founded during the heady 1970s and 1980s) had been sold to someone else.

Those of us wine writers who met Robert Mondavi and his sons Michael and Tim during the 1970s know that we are all marked by Mondavi's aura as well. We visited the Mondavi winery shrine in its glory days, heard the master's message, and all willingly and fervently spread it.

And, in our own ways, that's what we still are doing.

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

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