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The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty: Part 3

Read part three of our special four part insight into the Mondavi legacy, looking back over four generations worth of winemaking and the events that bought the family's Californian wines to international acclaim.

The first vintage (1966) of Robert Mondavi Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon is released in 1968 (Image credit: Robert Mondavi Winery)

Also in 1962, Robert and his wife, Marjorie, made their first trip to Europe. They toured the wine regions, met and talked with winegrowers, and paid great attention to everything they saw. On his return, Robert was keen to apply some of what he had learned at the Charles Krug winery. His enthusiasm knew no bounds and perhaps for that reason alone, met with stiff resistance from Peter, who, as winemaker, might have taken the proposed changes as implied criticism of what he had been doing.

It was doubtless difficult for him to accept what were, to him, arbitrary changes, when the winery had been receiving nothing but accolades. In any case, Peter’s resentment and refusal to co-operate with Robert’s ideas, led to increasingly bitter confrontations. Eventually, in 1965, their mother, chairman of the winery since their father’s death, told Robert to take a leave of absence and to cool down.

Robert took time to reflect and talk to friends. Convinced that if Napa Valley – and California – was to take its proper place in the greater world of wine, it had to absorb the lessons already learned by others and to compete with them on their own terms, he put together loans and investments and on land adjacent to the To Kalon vineyard at Oakville, he built a new winery. It was in every sense a dramatic statement.

From the beginning, the iconic arch and tower of the Robert Mondavi Winery, with its echo of early Mission architecture but a modern, open design, were seen as both symbolic of the past and a pledge to the future. Today, more than 50 years later, it has become the most widely recognised symbol of Napa Valley.

The split in the family caused considerable grief, both to the Mondavis themselves and to their friends. But with hindsight, we can see that even had Robert and Peter been able to come to terms, the result would have been at best a lukewarm compromise. Peter felt instinctively that there was too much at stake in what had been achieved at Charles Krug to move dramatically in a new direction.

Robert knew that his ideas, based on what he had seen and learned, had to be grasped wholeheartedly or not at all. And, though probably unaware of the extent to which his gesture would change the image and future of Napa Valley and of viticultural California as a whole, grasp them he did.

He set to work: his team crushed 1966 grapes even before the roof was on the new winery (it was a cool year with a delayed harvest, which helped). From the beginning, Robert had an unerring sense of quality – not only in the fruit he bought, but also in the talent he hired to get the new winery started. The winemakers who joined him in those early years included Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich, both soon to produce wines that stunned tasters at the memorable California-France Paris tasting of 1976, and Zelma Long, whose international reputation is now probably unrivalled.

In his memoir. Harvests of Joy, Robert explains that his focus was on Cabernet Sauvignon, but he knew none would soon be ready for sale. Cash flow demanded that he also pay attention to wines that could be ready sooner. He made a light, Gamay rosé, fermented at low temperature to retain its fruit and grace. It was not the wine by which he wanted the new winery to be identified, but it was released the following spring to an enthusiastic reception. He had also been successful in obtaining some exceptional Sauvignon Blanc.

Because of mishandling, the variety had a weak reputation in California – poor man’s Chardonnay, it was called – and Robert knew that no matter how appealing the wine he might make, the variety’s associations would be an obstacle. Yet he knew that as blanc fumé the very same variety was used to produce exceptional wines at Sancerre, Pouilly-sur-Loire and elsewhere along the Loire valley.

After cool fermentation to preserve the variety’s lively aroma, he gave the wine a short aging in French oak barrels to round it out and give extra depth. He then modified the French name of the grape to Fumé Blanc and released it to immediate success.

That wine reversed the fortunes of Sauvignon Blanc in California, and whether under that name or as Fumé Blanc, it has remained a varietal mainstay ever since.

See more:
The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty: Part 1
The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty: Part 2
The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty: Part 4

Written by Gerald Asher

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