Robert Mondavi, a colossus of the Californian – and world – wine industry, has died aged 94.
Mondavi, the ‘Father of Napa’ and Decanter Man of the Year 1989, dominated California winemaking for decades. He was credited with – almost singlehandedly – making Napa the force it is in the global wine world.
He died peacefully at home at 3am today, 16 May.
Sarah Kemp, publishing director of Decanter 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. By putting California wine on the map he ensured the world knew that some of the worlds great wines could be made outside Europe, at the time a revoluntary concept He was deservably one of the wine legends of our time.’
A descendant of feudal Italian farmers – ‘My grandparents were sharecroppers’, he would tell interviewers – he forged lasting alliances with the great aristocratic wine families of Europe.
In 1979 he met Baron Philippe de Rothschild at Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux. As he liked to recount it, Mondavi was shown into the baronial bedchamber where the the Baron sat in state, a brace of dogs at the foot of the bed.
That meeting resulted in Opus One – a wine that still enthralls vintners and collectors alike.
In 1995 he set up Luce della Vite in Tuscany with the Frescobaldi family, and in 2002, the Robert Mondavi Corporation bought Tenuta dell’Ornellaia from Ludovico Antinori and promptly sold 50% to Frescobaldi.
That Mondavi was an extraordinarily powerful figure – the word ‘colossus’ is no exaggeration – is not in doubt. As one of his senior executives told decanter.com a few years ago, ‘In his 90s, Bob’s got more balls than any man half his age.’
Indeed, in 2004 his son Michael Mondavi, vice-chairman of the corporation, took an extended sabbatical, citing his father’s overwhelming ‘presence’ (Mondavi senior, 91, was chairman emeritus) as his reason for stepping out. His winemaker brother Tim had already taken the same route a year earlier.
Into his 90s Mondavi would describe his sons – influential executives running huge departments of the corporation – as ‘my boys.’
It is up to history to decide how acute a businessman he really was. In 1993, in search of yet more growth, the Robert Mondavi Corporation was floated and became a public company.
In the eyes of many, the company never quite recovered, despite partnerships with the Frescobaldis, the Chadwicks of Vina Errazuriz in Chile, and Rosemount in Australia.
By 2000 the Mondavi Corporation was in financial difficulties, and members of the board – including Michael and Tim – were at loggerheads. Late in 2004, Constellation Brands bought the entire company, with Mondavi staying on as figurehead.
News of Mondavi’s death has spread around the world. Describing him as ‘a true California legend’ Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘It is hard to imagine anyone having more of a lasting impact on California’s £20bn a year wine industry than Robert Mondavi.’
Ted Baseler, president of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, near Seattle, said, ‘Long before Washington State became recognized as the great wine region it is today, Bob tasted our wines and gave us detailed, positive feedback. When Bob Mondavi said your wines were good, people took notice.’
‘He had the single greatest influence in this country with respect to high quality wine and its place at the table,’ Robert Parker wrote on his website. ‘I feel so privileged to have known him.’
In New York, Kevin Zraly, the founder of Windows on the World Wine School, said, ‘Robert Mondavi was a Renaissance man, not only of wine but through his passion for food, music and art. When you talked with him, it was always about quality. He forged the path for American wines, and that legacy will remain.’
Frederick Frank, perhaps New York State’s top vintner, said: ‘We appreciated Robert Mondavi for being inclusive and respecting other American wine regions’ and for promoting them. Frank, president of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, in the Finger Lakes, is the grandson of the founder of this New York winery and the son of the late Willie Frank, who ‘knew and respected Mondavi’ and who was sometimes called ‘the Robert Mondavi of the East.’
Later in life Mondavi devoted himself to philanthropy and the arts. He donated millions of dollars to the University of California at Davis, and founded the the art and wine centre Copia in Napa town.
He was also reconciled with his brother Peter, with whom he ran the Charles Krug winery until a memorable fist fight in 1966 – over the purchase of a mink coat for a visit to the Kennedy White House – which led to a 40-year estrangement and the foundation of Robert Mondavi Winery. The whole episode is detailed in his 2000 biography, Harvests of Joy.
At once a sophisticated man and a peasant, as one senior wine industry figure described him, he was respected, loved – and sometimes feared – by many. He leaves his wife Margrit, sons Michael and Tim and daughter Marcia, and nine grandchildren.
Full obituary to follow
Additional reporting by Howard G Goldberg in New York
Written by Adam Lechmere