Some of California's best known winemaking stars turned out for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Robert Mondavi winery. William Kelley had a front-row seat...

A gala dinner was held in Oakville last week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Robert Mondavi winery, the culmination of three days of tastings, lunches and dinners commemorating this momentous occasion in the history of California wine.
A select group of winemakers, grape growers and visiting luminaries gathered to pay tribute to a man who did more to transform the Napa Valley than any other, and to reflect on his legacy.

As guests savoured their glasses of the still-youthful 1966 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery’s inaugural vintage, the legendary Warren Winiarski, Mondavi’s winemaker in those early days, remembered crushing the grapes, surrounded by carpenters, plumbers and builders—all hurrying to complete construction in time for the winery’s grand opening later that year.

Winiarski, who went on to establish Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (where he crafted the Cabernet Sauvignon which triumphed in the 1976 Judgement of Paris), was only one of several celebrated Mondavi ‘alumni’ who enriched the evening with their presence and reminiscences.

Another was Paul Hobbs, one of California’s most successful globe-trotting winemakers and consultants, who began his career at the Mondavi Winery in 1978. Hobbs recalled Robert Mondavi’s relentless pursuit of improvement with admiration, observing that ‘experimentation was in his D.N.A.’

Many others paid tribute to Mondavi’s generosity with advice and resources, probity as a businessman, charisma as a leader, and above all vision as a pioneer.

But no tributes were more touching, nor served more vividly to recapture Mondavi’s personality to those who never met him, than the vivid vignettes and anecdotes of his wife Margrit, who evoked alike the excitement of the early years and the satisfaction that came with ambitions realised.