When I first moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area from San Diego in the year 2000 I set out to explore, if possible, every winery in the Napa Valley. So, far I have been to 123 wineries and I’ve still got a long ways to go.
The first wineries I wanted to visit were the most historic and well known such as Berginger, Robert Mondavi and Charles Krugg. At the time I was very new to learning about wine and I particularly liked the fact that Mondavi had a really good educational program to introduce their visitors to food and wine pairing, the sensory of wine tasting and other specialty tours. At the time I was really into Italian varietals so when I discovered that Mondavi had an Italian winery, La Famiglia, I joined their wine club and bought 10 shares in the business and made full use of all the benefits it entitled me which included VIP tours of Robert Mondavi Winery. It also included an open door to visiting and touring La Famiglia and Opus One. On one occasion while on a VIP tour I was able to meet Mr. Robert Mondavi who seemed to me to be a very gracious and hospitable gentleman as he thanked me for enjoying his wines.
I remained a club member until Constellation Brands had a takeover of the family business and bought everyone’s shares in 2004. Since then, I haven’t been back to Robert Mondavi Winery or Opus One. Nor have I even bought or even tasted their wines since 2004. It has been almost a decade since that time and I have been curious to revisit these wineries, so this past weekend I made reservations to return to them both.
Whenever I write about my experience at a winery I like to learn as much about them as possible and provide a brief synopsis of its history, the founder, the winemaker and so forth. But Robert Mondavi is so well known and so many articles, books and videos have been written about him that it seems unnecessary. Even more so, he is such an icon that it is difficult to do justice to the person and work to this legend in California’s wine cultural history in such a short article such as this one.
Robert Gerald Mondavi (June 18, 1913 – May 16, 2008) was a first generation Italian immigrant to the United States. His parents emigrated from the Marches region of Italy and settled in the Minnisota City Hibbing. Subsequently Robert was born in Virginia Missisota. From there his family moved to Lodi California where his father, Cesare, established a successful fruit packing business under the name C. Mondavi and Sons, packing and shipping grapes to the east coast primarily for home winemaking. Years later Robert graduated from Stanford University (1937) with a degree in economics and business administration. In 1943, he joined his father and brother Peter after the family acquired the Charles Krug Winery located in St. Helena from James Moffitt which was established by Charles Krug in 1861.
In 1965 Mondavi parted company from the family winery after a dispute with his younger brother Peter over the direction of family business. Subsequently Mondavi founded the Robert Mondavi Winery with his sons Michael and Tim Mondavi along the same highway in Oakville. It was the first major winery built in Napa Valley since the end of the Prohibition. Part of Mondavi’s original estate included the To Kalon (a Greek term meaning “the beautiful”) vineyard originally planted by H.W. Crabb in 1868.
One of Robert’s many contributions to the distinctive Californian style of wine making was the development of a dry oak–aged Sauvignon Blanc which he then labeled “Fumé Blanc.” Most if not all wineries do not put Sauvignon Blanc in oak but rather ferment and age it in stainless steel tanks in order to maintain its razor sharp crisp edge. Fermenting or aging this wine in even neutral oak tends to give it a softer mouthfeel. Some today even go so far as to put it through malolactic fermentation making it Chardonnay-like and in doing so they will also use the name “Fumé Blanc” to designate this particular style of Sauvignon Blanc.
Robert Mondavi Winery was a model for innovation in winemaking in the Napa Valley. Among other accomplishments, he introduced temperature-controlled fermentation, French oak barrel aging, and high-density viticulture to a fledgling American wine industry. He also broadened the American cultural palate by marrying fine wine to food, music, and the arts. In recognition of his achievements, he was one of few Americans to have received the French medal of the Legion of Honor.
Another successful innovation was the successful development a number of tiers of wines aimed at different price points which are suited to meet the desires of every type of consumer. In 1979, he built the Mondavi Woodbridge Winery in Lodi which developed an affordable a line of economy class of wines which usually sell for $6-$10. The next tier was the “Coastal” wines, later renamed “Private Selection,” which targeted the $8-$12 consumer. These are widely available at local grocery stores. This was followed by the premium Robert Mondavi premium wines from the Napa Valley ($20-$60) which are available a fine wine shops or directly from the winery. The top tier was the Robert Mondavi luxury reserve wines ($60-135) and a world class Bordeaux style blend named Opus One ($135-$235). The latter wine was a joint venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild.
The End of an Era – Robert Mondavi Winery Sold to Constellation Brands
On December 22, 2004, Constellation Brands acquired the Mondavi winery in a controversial takeover for nearly $1.03 billion in cash and assumption of debt. Constellation purchased all of the outstanding shares of Mondavi for $56.50 per share for Class-A common stock and $65.82 for the Class-B shares, which were held by members of the Mondavi family. At the time of the sale I was a club member and a minor stock holder and I was saddened by this event. Since then a number of other family-owned wineries in the Napa Valley have sold to large conglomerate companies. On the upside, so far most of these wineries have managed to continue to produce high quality wines and without diminishing the original personality and character of the winery.
The Family Legacy Continues
When the Robert Mondavi Winery went public in 1994, and Robert’s son Michael was serving as President, CEO and Chairman until he left in 2004 to start his own winery. Today, with son Rob Mondavi, Jr. at the winemaking helm, Michael and the family craft a collection of world-class wines at the Michael Mondavi Family Estate.
Following the sale of the company, Robert partnered with his youngest son Tim Mondavi and daughter Marcia Mondavi to make a premium wine from a single estate called Continuum Estate. Then on May 16, 2008 Robert Mondavi died at his Yountville home at the age of 94. Today the family partnership Continuum Estate is still run by Robert’s son Tim, daughter Marcia and grandchildren Carissa Mondavi, Chiara Mondavi, Carlo Mondavi and Dante Mondavi.
While re-visiting Robert Mondavi Winery I sampled the following wines:
The first pour was the 2010 Unoaked Chardonnay. This wine is 100% stainless steel fermented and aged with no malolactic fermentation. This wine is clear and light straw in color and on the nose it has aromas of granny smith apples, pears and a hint of melon. On the palate it is very crisp, medium- in body with additional notes of apricot and other stone fruits as well dried pineapple on a medium+ length finish. This wine was a bit too austere for my palate, but if you prefer a minimalist approach to Chardonnays you may like it. This wine sells for $34 a bottle.
The second sample was the 2010 Pinot Noir – Napa Valley. This wine exemplifies the Carneros profile for Pinot Noir. Visually it is bright ruby red and on the nose it exudes pronounced aromas of roses, pomegranates, cherry lozenges with a hint of spice. On the palate it is dry, crisp, with medium body and it is very fruit forward. This wine sells for $27 a bottle.
The third wine was the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville District. Visually this wine is dark ruby red at the core to light plum at the rim. On the nose its has aromas of blackberries, black currants a hint of herbs and green bell pepper. On the palate it has HUGE tannins with a lot of grip on the gums, it is fruit forward on entry with medium+ body and a medium length finish. This wine seems way to young to be drinking now and will probably be more impressive in a couple years. At this point it seems a bit out of balance as the tannins overwhelm the palate. This wine sells for $55 a bottle.
The fourth pour was the 2011 Moscoto D’oro. This wine is clear and almost water-white. On the nose it is very floral with notes of honey, orange and fruit cocktail. On the palate it is crisp, medium- body and it has a medium length finish. This wine sells for $20 for a 375 ML bottle.
To see more pictures of Robert Mondavi Winery, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:
To visit or for more information:
Robert Mondavi Winery
7801 St. Helena Highway
Oakville, CA 94562
 To learn more about Robert Mondavi I highly recommend reading Chapter 10 “The Rise of Robert Mondavi” in George M. Tabor’s Book Judgment of Paris (New York: Scribner, 2005).