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Winemaker Robert Mondavi 1913 – 2008

Linda Murphy salutes the founding father of Californian wine.

In Napa Valley, where formality tends to be reserved for gala auctions and visiting dignitaries, winemaker Robert Mondavi was, and likely always will be, referred to by many as ‘Mister’. Despite his entreaties to ‘Call me Bob,’ those employed by him at Robert Mondavi Winery, others who worked with him to enhance the quality and reputation of California wines, and even some who didn’t always see eye to eye with America’s most important and charismatic wine figure, typically showed their respect by calling him ‘Mr Mondavi.’

Mr. Mondavi died on May 16, one month shy of his 95th birthday. The legendary vintner, who had been frail and in a wheelchair in recent years, died peacefully at his Napa home.

Described as the father/grandfather/godfather/patriarch/ambassador of California wine, winemaker Robert Mondavi waged a 50-year, four pronged campaign: to rally California winemakers to produce better wines; to show the world that California could rival France, Italy and Germany; to encourage Americans, for whom little wine-drinking tradition existed, to include wine as a healthy, food-friendly part of their lives; and to demonstrate that wine, food and the arts were equal components in ‘the good life’.

‘We’ve lost one of the most important leaders in the world of wine, and for those of us in the Napa Valley, it’s as if we’ve lost our second father or grandfather,’ said Linda Reiff, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners association.

In addition to founding the most famous winery in the US,  winemaker Robert Mondavi also helped to create the successful Napa Valley Wine Auction. He shared knowledge with competitors, believing, as Richard Arrowood of Arrowood Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma said, ‘that it would come back to him tenfold’.


‘He is singly responsible for putting California wines on the map. End of story,’ said Arrowood. ‘He brought all the wines from California to the attention of the world – not just Napa.’

Sarah Kemp, publishing director of Decanter (which honoured Mondavi as Man of the Year in 1989) said: ‘Robert Mondavi holds a unique position in the history of wine. This extraordinary man, through his vision, relentless energy and gritty determination, changed the way consumers thought about wine. He was deservedly one of the wine legends of our time.’

One of Mondavi’s proudest accomplishments was the 2001 opening of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, in the city of Napa, to which he was a major contributor. Also in 2001, with his second wife Margrit, he gave $25 million to help establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis, scheduled to open in October, and $10 million to launch the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis.

Jay Indelicato, chairman of the California Wine Institute, said: ‘Over the decades, he encouraged a spirit of cooperation for all wineries in California. He was out there doing it all himself, not just designing programmes. What drove him? True passion.’

Mondavi was born in 1913 in Minnesota to parents who left the Marche region of Italy for America. The family moved to Lodi, California, during Prohibition, and after graduating from university, he joined his father, Cesare, at Sunny St Helena Winery, a bulk wine producer. He later convinced his father to purchase the nearby Charles Krug Winery, where Robert and his younger brother, Peter, began to improve quality.

During an argument with Peter in 1965 over Robert’s purchase of a mink coat for his first wife, Marjorie, to wear to a White House dinner, Robert punched his younger brother, prompting his expulsion from Krug by his mother, Rosa. So, aged 53, Mondavi built Robert Mondavi Winery with his oldest son, Michael. At a time when California wine was considered cheap plonk, the Mondavis made an immediate impact on quality by introducing the use of cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels to their winemaking.

Mondavi had a great eye for talent, hiring several winemakers who went on to stardom elsewhere, including Warren Winiarski and Zelma Long. Along the way, Mondavi met Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild, and in 1979 the two launched Opus One, a specialist in Bordeaux-style reds. The same year, Mondavi bought a cooperative near Lodi that he named Woodbridge, for the production of value-priced wines.


Seeking more growth, the Robert Mondavi Corp became a publicly traded company in 1993, but the family was compelled to sell up to Constellation Brands in 2004. Mondavi was awarded France’s Legion of Honour in 2005, and in 2006, was the first inductee into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame. In 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted Mondavi into the California Hall of Fame.

‘Wine to me is passion,’ Mondavi wrote. ‘It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It’s culture. It’s the essence of civilization and the art of living…when I pour a glass of truly fine wine, I know that wine is, above all else, a blessing, a gift of nature, a joy as pure and elemental as the soil and vines and sunshine from which it springs.

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