Napa Valley's Mondavi family is an American success story

  • Robert Mondavi helped turn Napa Valley into the wine powerhouse it is today.

    Robert Mondavi helped turn Napa Valley into the wine powerhouse it is today. Courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery

  • Peter Mondavi Sr. died last month.

    Peter Mondavi Sr. died last month. Courtesy of Charles Krug Winery


Posted7/5/2017 6:04 AM

Without the benefit of computer files or even quill and parchment diaries, the birth of the world's first vineyards is the stuff that wine lovers can only dream.

Was France's great Hermitage planted by a reclusive knight, repenting his sins during the Crusades? Did the vines of Italy's Lacryma Christi spring from the tears of Christ?


Like Santa Claus, if the legends aren't true, we wish they could be.

If current documentation withstands the millennia, what seems like an American legend will be proven a fact with one name: Mondavi.

In 1906, Italians Cesare and Rosa Mondavi arrived stateside, traveling to California to grow grapes for the Prohibition-era home winemaking movement. After the Repeal of the 18th amendment, Cesare acquired Napa Valley's Charles Krug Winery. With sons Robert and Peter, he established CK Mondavi, to this day producers of straight forward, extra-value wines.

But Robert had a different vision. In 1962, on travels to France, he was inspired by the concept of terroir -- the unique interplay of soil and climate that expresses unique wines. He saw in Napa Valley's golden sunshine and varied soil the seeds of world-class wine. Without family support, at Cesare's death, Robert stepped away from Krug. In 1966, at age 52, he established Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW) in the sleepy farm town of Oakville.

Oakville may still be sleepy (especially out of tourist season), but today produces some of the highest-valued flavors on earth. In 2016, tiny Napa Valley contributed $50billion to the U.S. economy in sales, jobs, taxes, tourism and goodwill. If one person can receive credit for this fantastical success, few dispute that person is Robert Mondavi.

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Robert Mondavi Winery's estate bottlings, Reserves of finest vineyard blocks and Opus One -- a the groundbreaking partnership with France's famed Chateau Mouton-Rothschild -- established Napa Valley as one of the world's finest wine growing regions. The family name, which encompassed sons Michael, Tim and daughter Marcia, became one of the world's most prestigious brands.

A quality/ value label -- Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi -- created in 1979, paid the bills. Almost.

As Woodbridge soared to 9.7 million cases, the strain of managing a multimillion case winery took its toll.

"We were spending more time with accountants than with our growers," recounts Michael Mondavi over our recent luncheon.

In 1993, the family went public with Robert Mondavi Corporation. In brief, it didn't go well. Michael resigned, Tim resigned.

Then on November 4, 2004, the wine world awoke to the stunning news: Beverage Goliath Constellation Brands acquired Robert Mondavi Corporation for $1.3 billion cash and assumption of $325 million in debt. Marcia remained on the board; Robert continued as "brand ambassador." But the name that defined American wine throughout the world no longer belonged to the family who bore it.


In 2005, Tim hunkered down high up in the Vaca Mountains overlooking Oakville. With Robert and Marcia, he founded Continuum Estate, with elevations up to 1,600 feet, producing one of Napa's most sought-after Cabernets.

Michael had a different vision, an international one.

In 2004, he established Folio Wine Partners, uniting the world's finest family-owned and operated producers. This reporter was invited to Folio's launch and had her doubts: How could a new company, entering a saturated wine market, succeed?

Today, with a portfolio including Bruno Giacosa and Frescobaldi (from Italy), Grupo Pesquera (Spain), Susana Balbo Wines (Argentina) and Champagne Charles Heidsieck (France), and business growing double-digits, my doubts have proved dead wrong. I asked Michael, "How'd you do it?"

"We run on family values," Michael explained. "We encourage each employee and partner to pursue their highest goals. If an employee moves on, I always leave the door open for their return." Here he laughs, "I usually get a call from them in about a year."

Folio also represents Michael Mondavi Family Estate where -- with wife Isabel and children Rob Jr. and Dina -- Mondavi creates wines that express the unique Napa terroir:

2013 "Animo" Cabernet Sauvignon ($85)

Dina dubbed this Atlas Peak vineyard "Animo" as having an energy all its own. Rocky elevation up to 1,350 feet, extended ripening and hand-tending of each vine in the 15-acre vineyard express length, depth and volume. Flavors of ripe berries and cocoa are defined by fine tannins, exemplifying the vintage's beauty. Drinking superbly now; will evolve gracefully for 30 years.

2013 "M" by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon ($200)

Inspired by the famed RMW Reserves, which Michael crafted during his winemaking tenure, which in turn was inspired by great Bordeaux, "M" reflects the legacy of the world's finest Cabernet. Flavors of muddled boysenberries, toasted vanilla and exotic spice with rich tannin and superbly lengthy finish. 300 cases produced, allocations available through the winery at

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Her classes on wine and food are offered through The Chopping Block, Chicago. Write to her at food@daily

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