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Robert Mondavi, 1913 - 2008

California wine came of age under him Vintner elevated state's wines

A skilled vintner and talented salesman, he weathered family rifts to aid Napa Valley's rise.

May 17, 2008|Shawn Hubler | Special to The Times

Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley vintner whose drive and salesmanship revolutionized the way the world thought about California wine, died peacefully Friday at his Yountville, Calif., home, a spokeswoman for the Robert Mondavi Winery said. He was 94.

The son of an Italian-born grape wholesaler from the Central Valley, Mondavi was, at the end of his life, one of the best-known figures in American viticulture, with a name that was almost synonymous with California wine. His Cabernets and Chardonnays have been served at the White House and sold by the glass at Disney theme parks. His Cain-and-Abel exile from his family business after a fistfight with his brother was the source of legend.

His Mission-style winery in Oakville is a landmark and wine label icon. Though he had little formal training in winemaking, he is credited with concocting Fume Blanc in the 1960s, and with popularizing Chardonnay, in the words of Wine Spectator, "as the great California white."

At a time when the phrase "fine domestic wine" was considered an oxymoron in the United States, Mondavi insisted that California wine could be positioned as a status symbol -- a strategy that cleared the way for the modern era of $2,000 cult bottles of Screaming Eagle and trophy wineries.

When Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of Bordeaux approached him about a Franco-American collaboration -- the equivalent, in the words of wine industry consultant Vic Motto, of "Goliath coming to David to learn how to throw stones" -- the resulting Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon not only sold for a then-unprecedented $50 a bottle but validated his vision for the industry.

In a statement, state Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) called Mondavi "the godfather of American wines."

"His passion for excellence and his ability to inspire people were the keys to his success. . . . He put Napa on the map," said Wiggins, who heads a Senate committee on California's wine industry.

Mondavi also put wine on the dinner tables of Americans, said Thomas Keller, owner of Yountville's French Laundry and Per Se in New York City. "By bringing wine to the forefront, he helped establish the culinary fabric of the country and the pleasure we find sitting around the table with friends and family," Keller said Friday.

And Doug Shafer, president of Shafer Napa Valley Wines, told The Times: "Napa Valley wines are considered among the best in the world because of Robert Mondavi's vision. He believed in California wine with every bone in his body."

Like most salesmen, Mondavi understood the power of a good story. He spoke freely and frequently with reporters and historians and, in 1998, published "Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business," his autobiography.

Rivals occasionally resented his innate gift for public relations. Some complained that he took too much credit for shaping the industry and Napa Valley. Others contended that he took too little blame for the elitism and commercialism that eventually vexed both, and snidely nicknamed his Opus One winery "O Pious One."

As Mondavi's focus shifted to philanthropy in the 1990s, he eventually gave $35 million to UC Davis to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and a center for performing arts. He donated millions more to create an opera house and his most cherished project, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa.

For all this, Mondavi was viewed as a powerful ambassador for wine and California, and he was recognized worldwide, even when the family lost controlling interest in the winery after a 2004 sale to Constellation Brands. The company's labels ranged from his signature Robert Mondavi Reserve to the mass-market Woodbridge, and included collaborations with wineries in such far-flung places as Chile and Tuscany.

"Robert Mondavi had a vision for California, where it needed to go and what it would take to get there," James Laube, a senior editor with Wine Spectator magazine, said Friday. "It wasn't enough for Mondavi to succeed as a winemaker. Napa and California had to succeed as well."

Robert Gerald Mondavi, born June 18, 1913, in Virginia, Minn., came into the world just 5 1/2 years before the ratification of 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the manufacture, sale, importation, exportation and transport of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

Domestic wine was then associated with immigrants like his father, Cesare Mondavi, who came to this country in 1906 from the isolated farm town of Sassoferrato in central Italy. Cesare Mondavi had followed an older brother to the Minnesota iron mines. In 1908, he returned to Italy to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rosa Grassi, a sharecropper's daughter, and moved to Virginia, Minn. He opened a grocery and then a saloon while his wife gave birth to four children, Mary, Helen, Robert and Peter.

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