There was a throbbing sound in the sky, an ominous swish-swush-swish-swush. At the southern end of the Napa Valley, people began looking up.
Napa had already suffered a wine-maker's nightmare: rainfall just before the harvest. Moisture on grapes can cause rot, and rotten grapes make rotten wine. The vintage, which had looked like a good one, could turn out to be a disaster.
Now that the rain had ended, wine makers were wringing their hands and praying for a miracle. But what was that swishing noise?
The sound grew louder and louder. Then, over the horizon, as in a Vietnam War movie, came a fleet of helicopters. Robert Mondavi had hired helicopters to hover over his vineyard and fan the vines dry with their propellers.
A number of his fellow wine makers begged to doubt that it made any difference to the wine. Still, it was a classic Mondavi move, bold and public, the sort of thing that has made Robert Mondavi the most famous wine maker in the country.
In fact, America's No. 1 wine celebrity and pitchman isn't really a wine maker at all--he started out in the business as a sales director. (He's still a master salesman. His latest coup was the White House luncheon for Queen Elizabeth II of England on May 15. Traditionally wines of different producers are selected for such events, but on this occasion nothing was served but Mondavi: the 1989 Fume Blanc Reserve, the 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1985 Botrytis Sauvignon Blanc.)
He certainly knows how to hire wine makers--Mondavi has a brilliant palate--and he has shrewdly found a string of good winemakers, including Warren Winiarski (now owner of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars), Mike Grgich (now of Grgich-Hills) and Zelma Long (now at Simi). But even with the best of help, and despite Mondavi's lifelong fascination with the latest wine technology, his wines did not get onto the best tables in the nation because they are always the best. They got there through the sheer force of his will.
For example: 25 years ago, when Mondavi built the first new winery in the Napa Valley since the early '30s, he did so with theatrical flourish; the Mondavi Winery is a huge, eye-catching Spanish-style structure. But the Oakville spot where he broke ground on July 18, 1966, was chosen for reasons quite different from those of other wine makers, who tend to look for some special combination of soil and microclimate. "Bob knew right at the beginning that for wine to be a success, you had to have the public in mind," says his close friend Barney Rhodes. "He positioned his winery at the south end of the valley, so visitors from San Francisco would see it first."
Mondavi is above all a promoter, a larger-than-life character on the order of P.T. Barnum or Francis Coppola, who is surrounded by hoopla wherever he goes. Honorable hoopla, basically; the sincere hoopla of a true believer. He's a tireless promoter of "wine, culture and the good life," as he calls it--a founding member and ardent supporter of the American Institute of Wine and Food (at A.I.W.F. functions, Mondavi wines are usually poured); a stager of cooking classes and concerts at his winery; a supporter of charities (where his name is prominent), and a speaker at lectures and symposiums around the world (and when he's not a speaker, he's in the front row of the audience and usually the first to stand up when it's question-and-answer time).
He has developed the Mondavi Mission, a multimedia program to tell the history, romance and religious story of wine through the ages. His attempt to convey the message of the Mondavi Mission on the back labels of his wines has led him into a widely publicized conflict with the government, whose Surgeon General's warnings against alcohol use he considers the work of neo-Prohibitionists. Last year he opened a Mondavi wine center in Southern California.
Mondavi's success has embittered some in the wine industry, who tacitly acknowledge his accomplishments but are loath to praise him, viewing him as a self-promoter.
"It's just jealousy," counters one longtime Mondavi employee. "Every time Bob comes up with another idea that promotes his wines, he contributes to the image of the (Napa) Valley, which helps them all, but these people get jealous."
Robert Mondavi began his odyssey at the family-owned Charles Krug Winery, where, as sales director, he was constantly poking his nose into younger brother Peter's production techniques. Later, when the brothers split in an infamous "Falcon Crest"-like scenario, the obsession to make quality wine drove Robert as it has perhaps no other man in California wine history.