The sale of Robert Mondavi Winery to Constellation climaxed a series of family feuds among members of California’s great wine dynasty. Three years on, it’s reconciliations all round, writes Linda Murphy
They say time heals all wounds. The near-three years since Robert Mondavi and his family lost their Napa Valley winery have been a regenerative salve, a period in which the clan, torn apart by business disputes that ultimately led to the sale of Robert Mondavi Winery to Constellation Brands in 2004, is being put back together again.
At 93, Mondavi is frail, in a wheelchair, doesn’t speak and drinks his wine in thimblefuls. Yet he has enough energy to join his younger son, Tim, daughter Marcia Mondavi Borger and his wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, in a new wine venture called Continuum.
After 50 years of feuding and 40 more of silence between them, Mondavi has made amends with his brother, Peter Sr, 92. Mondavi’s elder son, Michael, the former CEO and chairman of Robert Mondavi Corp, who gave up his board seat just prior to Constellation’s $1.3 billion grab, has quickly started an import and production company called Folio Fine Wine Partners, with his children, Rob and Dina Mondavi. The family, its members say, is on the mend.
‘2004 was not a good year,’ says Michael Mondavi, aged 64. ‘There was a lot of angst, disappointment, lack of trust and communication among family members, and a division between family members and the brand. We found we weren’t a family, we were a business. With time passing, we’re starting to discover the family benefits.’
For half a century, Robert tirelessly urged his Napa Valley peers to make better wines. He roamed the earth to extol the virtues of wine as part of ‘the good life’, and shared vineyard and cellar research results with the industry. Yet he could not remedy the distress his company suffered after it went public in 1993, nor could he keep peace in his own family.
In early 2004, the board suggested the unthinkable: sell Robert Mondavi Corp’s luxury brands, including Robert Mondavi Winery and its 50% share in Opus One, and concentrate on inexpensive volume brands Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi and Robert Mondavi Private Selection. Only Constellation’s jumbo bid allowed the company to maintain its brand status quo, but it also closed the door on Tim as director of winemaking, leaving Robert with the title of chairman emeritus.
Now Bob and Tim are back with Continuum, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Petit Verdot-Cabernet Franc blend, the first vintage of which (2005) will be released in March 2008.
‘I’ve never had more fun making wine,’ says Tim, 56. ‘I think Continuum is the best wine I’ve made, with suppleness, richness and density.’
The price, he says, ‘will reference Robert Mondavi Reserve and Opus One.’ Mondavi Reserve Cabernet retails for $125, Opus One for $165.
Constellation’s purchase of Robert Mondavi Winery included the vineyards but, as a goodwill gesture, Constellation sold Tim grapes from its Wappo Hill Stags Leap District vineyard near Robert’s house, and from a block within the famed To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville (Marjorie’s Vineyard, named for Robert’s first wife and the mother of Tim, Marcia and Michael).
‘We hope to have continuity, to get a teensy bit of the vineyards back,’ says Tim, who is negotiating with Constellation to buy the two parcels. A winery will also be constructed, ‘no doubt about it’.
After breaking away from Robert Mondavi Corp, Michael hit the ground running with Folio. His first clients were Marchesi de Frescobaldi and Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia in Italy. Folio also makes its own California brands, including I’M, Oberon, Bocce and Hangtime; an Oregon Pinot Noir is on the way. His most recent move was to purchase the Mahoney Vineyards winery in Carneros in late 2006, as a production home for Folio and as leased studio space for small producers.
Michael says the absence of the pressures of running RMW has also allowed himself and Tim to come back together. ‘We’re very happy for the other one to do what he wants, and to do things without being partners,’ he says. ‘Tim looks more relaxed and happier than he has been in years. People say it’s too bad we sold; I say too bad we didn’t do it sooner.’
At a recent luncheon, teh whole family sat at the same table. ‘For the first time in his life, Dad is acting his age,’ says Michael, ‘but at the lunch, his eyes danced and he had a big smile. His eyes never danced like that when we worked together at Robert Mondavi Winery.’
Napa eyes are now on Constellation to see if the world’s largest wine company will be a kindly caretaker of the Mondavi brand. Time will tell, although Chris Fehrnstrom, president of Icon Estates, the luxury-brand arm of Constellation, says splitting up the sales teams for the high-end Robert Mondavi Winery wines and the lesser Woodbridge and Private Selection brands has already made a tremendous difference.
‘Before the purchase, RMW had declining sales,’ says Fehrnstrom, ‘and we’ve reversed that. Mr Mondavi’s vision is still the guiding vision of the winery, and the employees know that.’
Genevieve Janssens took over from Tim as director of winemaking. ‘It’s important to be who you are and what you are,’ she says. ‘This winery is a landmark in the history of wine in America. You cannot erase that, it’s embedded.’