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Mondavi's Mission : Vintner Mobilizes to Battle 'Neo-Prohibitionists' but Some Credit His Fervor to Lagging Sales

October 14, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

NAPA, Calif. — The roadside sign greeting visitors to the vineyards of Napa Valley quotes Robert Louis Stevenson: ". . . Wine is bottled poetry."

But some wine makers see a move afoot to censor that poetry, and they're not about to let their rights be crushed by a cluster of "neo-prohibitionists."

Leading the counterattack against the "health fascists" who allegedly would curtail Americans' appreciation of wine is 74-year-old Robert Mondavi, the patriarch of California vintners. On Thursday, in an address at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London, Mondavi is scheduled to launch a crusade to educate the world about the virtues of the fruit of the vine.

Not Mere Sour Grapes

At Mondavi vineyards near Napa, staff members already speak with quasi-reverence of "the Mission." They deny that their zeal is mere sour grapes over slumping wine sales.

You wouldn't know that the California wine industry is hurting by driving through the Napa Valley. Even on a weekday afternoon, tour buses and cars full of people wind up and down the vineyard-lined highway. Tourists chatter about wine in an atlas-array of languages. At the Mondavi winery alone last year, 220,000 people took wine-tasting tours, and the vineyard now recommends reservations.

By all indications, though, the wine boom of the 1970s is over. While higher-priced "premium" and "super premium," and "super-ultra premium" wines are selling better than ever, overall sales have leveled off. Americans bought 5% less table or jug wine last year, which saw sales 5% lower than the year before. With a per-capita consumption of 2.4 gallons a year, U. S. oenophiles lag far behind the Italians and French who drink just under 10 times that much.

A Simple Problem

The problem is simple, says Mondavi: Too few people have immersed themselves in the cultural, artistic and gastronomical ambiance of wine. And as long as average Americans don't know the difference between an estate-bottled Cabernet and the fizzly wine cooler those two codgers peddle, they'll be easy targets for the forces who would do away with all drinking, the Mondavi staff believes.

Mondavi and his missionaries are reluctant to name specific "neo-prohibitionists," but John De Luca, president of the Wine Institute, an industry association of 530 wineries, named organizations such as the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which he contends are spreading dubious information.

One of the worst of the new Carry Nations, in De Luca's view, is Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has publicized alcohol-related health issues and proposed higher taxes on wine as part of an array of solutions to alcohol abuse.

"Anybody who says something slightly inconsistent with the wine industry's party line gets labeled as a neo-prohibitionist," Jacobson said.

"The wine industry tries to portray wine as a health food--something people should drink more of. But we have a tremendous problem with alcohol in this country, and if any consumption goes up, we'll have worse problems. We take the position that while there are some slight differences, alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. Some alcoholics drink primarily wine. . . . No product has a monopoly on abuse."

Mondavi is personally affronted by the way some critics lump his product together with other alcoholic beverages.

"My mother used to feed wine to me with a teaspoon," Mondavi said as he sat in his office at the vineyard on the day before he flew to London.

'We'd Be Healthier'

If Americans knew more about wine, they would "be more moderate, would have less drunkenness. Not only that, we'd enjoy our life a lot more and we'd be healthier. . . . Unfortunately (America's) puritanical culture has created hypocrisy," he said. And because of that hypocrisy, "we are not making progress toward gracious living as we should."

To nudge this country's palates toward sophistication, Mondavi plans to hold seminars in five major American cities next year. "Anthropologists, priests, rabbis, ministers, scholars and philosophers" will discuss the integral role wine has played in Western culture, Mondavi said.

Clearly, the grape stakes are high. "All my salesmen and all my marketing people are going to become missionaries," Mondavi said. Their goal will be to proselytize for gracious living and temperate consumption of wine. To that end, Mondavi said, they have collected the wisdom of the ages on the subject of wine and temperance, this anonymous poem being an example:

God, in his goodness, sent the grapes

To cheer both great and small;

Little fools will drink too much,

And great fools none at all.

Jacobson is not familiar with Mondavi's mission. But he is familiar with similar efforts by the wine industry, he said. He has experienced the wrath of the grape growers.

'A Noble Fiasco'

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