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The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty: Part 4

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

The Mondavis that opened Continuum: Back l-r: Robert, Margrit, Marcia, Tim and Carissa Mondavi (Tim’s daughter)(Image credit: Lifestyling® by Maria Gabriela Brito

Fueled by an injection of cash from the then family-owned Rainier Brewery in Seattle, the Robert Mondavi winery grew rapidly. Robert himself was constantly innovating: he was always the first to adopt new ideas and new technology. Obsessed by quality he was one of the first – perhaps the first – to change the way grapes were bought and sold in Napa Valley.

Today’s major wineries rely mostly on their own vineyards, but at that time most wineries bought grapes under contract from growers. The growers were concerned about two things: tonnage and brix – their vineyard’s yield and the concentration of sugar in the grapes. The price paid to the grower was based on just these two measures, and that set up an intrinsic conflict of interest.

For quality, Robert wanted to limit bunches-per-vine, and for finesse and lively flavor he did not want over-ripe grapes pushed to the limit just for the sake of higher sugar yields. So he contracted with growers at a guaranteed price per acre provided the grower pruned how and when Robert wanted, and picked when he judged the fruit right. That is now standard practice in the valley, but it started with the Robert Mondavi winery.

Along with these and other crucial changes that raised further the real quality of Napa Valley wines, Robert maintained a high profile, for himself and for the winery, both nationally and internationally. He traveled incessantly and brought the world to Napa Valley. His promotional activities – concerts at the winery and cooking seminars with internationally acclaimed chefs – brought a renown and glamor to the valley that changed it forever.

Meanwhile, relations between Robert and his family had deteriorated to a point at which they generated litigation, ended only in 1976. As a result of the judgment, allocating to Robert assets of the Charles Krug winery representing his share of the original family business, Robert acquired the acreage of To Kalon he had purchased for Charles Krug back in 1962 and the winery’s warehouses at Woodbridge, near Lodi.

The Woodbridge property was quickly updated and adapted for the production of the line of quality wines, already introduced by Robert and Michael at a separate price point to take full advantage of the growing Robert Mondavi reputation. Sales had taken off and the Napa Valley winery had been working double shifts, six days a week, to keep up with demand. The growth and profitability allowed the winery to position itself for a public offering in 1993. After a successful launch, the company went through the financial ups and downs inevitable in a business based on agriculture, but it continued to grow and to prosper.

As the Robert Mondavi name became ever more dominant in the quality wine world, so the company became more valuable. But, almost inevitably, public ownership led, in due course, to the family’s loss of control. For the Robert Mondavi family (now, happily, reconciled and reunited with the Charles Krug side of the family), the connection to the winery launched in 1966 with such brilliance and bravura, ended just before Christmas, 2004, when the majority of shareholders in the publicly held company voted to accept an attractive offer for their shares from Constellation Brands. Now, the only formal link is through Margrit Biever Mondavi, Robert’s second wife, who continues to act as an ambassador for the winery.

At breakfast the next day, Robert, ever indefatigably optimistic, is reported to have said to his sons “This is just the beginning.” It was a phrase he had used repeatedly at every step of the growth of the Robert Mondavi winery, and it was not inappropriate now.

Together with his younger son, Tim, and daughter, Marcia, he founded Continuum, a winery to be associated with fruit grown high above the valley floor, the wines reflecting in their intensity and grace the fog-free elevation and the spare nature of the mountainside. Michael set up his own estate, also producing high elevation Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from vines in the Carneros.

Tasting these new wines were highlights of those days of celebration. They brought their own sense of excitement and expectation. We listened to talk of yet more ventures and partnerships being developed among the fourth generation of Napa Valley Mondavis, the great grand-children of Cesare and Rosa. But the most poignant moments of those two days came at lunch in Michael Mondavi’s house when we tasted the Charles Krug 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon, the last wine Peter and Robert had made there together, and the Robert Mondavi 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, the first for which Michael and Tim were jointly responsible. For years that particular wine, still as remarkable as ever after 40 years, was the touchstone against which all other Cabernet Sauvignons produced in Napa Valley were judged. It was a fitting reminder of all the Mondavis had contributed to Napa Valley.

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 3

Written by Gerald Asher

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