Who owns a name? Celebrating Robert Mondavi’s centenary
“Salut” Seven glasses of wine chinked together in the middle of the table for the third time that evening. We were celebrating the birthday of a man we’d never met who would have been 100 years old that day. A man who was the son of Italian immigrants to the US, from humble beginnings but who went to Stamford, who fell out spectacularly with most of his family and died in 2008 leaving a legacy that we were drinking today. A man who could be named responsible for the acceptance of ‘New World’ wine and certainly putting Californian fine wine not just firmly on the map, but Napa on the wine lists of some of the best restaurants in the world. We were toasting the life of Robert Mondavi.
Possession, the theme for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge, got me thinking about Mondavi and how it ran like a thread through his personal history. He’d returned home from university in 1936, two years after the end of Prohibition, and was expected to pitch in and contribute to the family wine business. His father had recently invested in some wineries after building a successful grape shipping business based in Lodi, Central Valley, California. Although there was a boom in wine, the industry was in a pretty poor state after years of neglect. The Mondavis produced cheap ‘jug’ wine in the main but Robert could see that the grapes grown in Napa were better quality and this, combined with the pressure of lower production costs in Central Valley for bulk wine, made a good case for trying to produce much better quality wines in their Charles Krug vineyard in Napa.
Robert pursued his goal relentlessly, learning as much as he could about fine wine was made in Europe plus introducing his own improvements such as pioneering the use of sterile conditions to combat oxidation. He replanted the vineyard with a range of classic European varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, he engaged winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, and in 1962, when he was nearing 50 years of age, he made an extensive trip through the vineyards of Europe. On his return, his renewed vigour and single-mindedness about making world-class wines in Napa didn’t go down well with his family. Culminating in a fist fight with his brother, he was told to leave the winery by his Mother.
This loss of possession was the turning point for Mondavi. Aged 52, he was on his own, adrift from the Mondavi family business. He borrowed $100,000 and focussed all his energies into making Napa Valley wine that would compete with the best in the world. Ten years later, as a result of a settlement when he sued his brother for his share of the family business, he ended up owning most of their key vineyards in the Oakville area. He set about changing the perception by Americans that Californian wines were only good for budget quaffing by comparative tastings. He’d book a table at a smart East Coast restaurant, order a bottle of top Bordeaux then invite the owner to taste it alongside one of his own wines that he’d brought along, such as the 1966 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon.
Mondavi’s obsession with creating world leading wines in Napa led him into some precarious financial situations – at one point he owned only 18% of the company that bore his name. However, his marketing innovations led to growth in both volume and reputation. Hard now to remember a time when Sauvignon Blanc was unloved by the consumer. Mondavi cleverly named his ‘Fume Blanc’ on the back of the appeal of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume; now it’s often used as a generic term for SB in California. His joint venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Opus One, became America’s first ‘ultra-premium’ wine. Early this year, a very kind friend invited me round to open a prized bottle of Chateau Lafite and he chose a bottle of Opus One to taste alongside it which would have been inconceivable even a few decades ago.
Mondavi became a public company in 1993, to generate further capital for growth, but following the recession and the effects on consumer confidence after September 11th, in 2004 the board decided to sell the entire company to Constellation Brands after receiving a takeover bid. While Robert Mondavi was retained as an ambassador, he no longer possessed the company that bore his name.
So I was raising a glass to Mondavi at a dinner hosted by the current caretaker of his name and, with French wines still outnumbering those from the US by a long chalk here in the UAE, I was glad to accept and eager to taste. The bar was lively and crowded at Ruth’s Chris steakhouse at The Address, Dubai Marina; I felt a bit bewildered as I was on my own but I was introduced to brand ambassador Jose Hernandez who, in addition to knowing a lot about the wines, had the knack of making everyone feel at ease. A glass of chilled Robert Mondavi Private Selection Sauvignon Blanc in my hand was a great stress buster and oh so good with the appetiser – a Tsarskaya oyster followed by a shot of tomato coulis and quails egg yolk with a morsel of beef carpaccio with a tingly, mouth-watering salty, citrus dressing.
We were seated in the dining room, but with the bar and band still in view it was no stuffy wine dinner. This was a little Middle Eastern extension of events being held at more than 90 Ruth’s Chris steakhouses in the US but our menu had been designed by Chef Paul De Vissier here in Dubai.
French, Italian, American, Indian and British diners on our table were soon tasting the next Californian wine. With a beautiful light green golden colour, a tiny hint of vanilla on the nose, crisp and clean with a soft, slightly buttery palette, the Robert Mondavi 2008 Fume Blanc had me smitten. The starter of crisp prawns in a creamy sauce, although delicious, was perhaps too spicy to be a great match for the wine.
The Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2011 Pinot Noir was served far too cold and even when it warmed up it was a little sterile for my tastes. It had none of the vegetal, mushroomy notes that make Pinot so interesting to me. Smooth red berries, very easy drinking, a Pinot for non-Pinot lovers perhaps. Jose suggested we taste the Robert Mondavi Winery 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Oakville, Napa Valley and this was a much better match for the steak topped with a slice of mango and foie gras. My knife glided through the meat, the caramelised surface blending with the rich berry fruits of the wine. A velvet texture to the mix of taste sensations and it matched the cheese course perfectly too.
Can you really possess another person’s name? Mondavi certainly regretted losing control of his in later life, although his widow Magrit still has associations with the company. The family wine business interests were carried on by Continuum which Robert joined with his son and daughter at the age of 92.
Loss and possession, death and life are one, There falls no shadow where there shines no sun. Hilaire Belloc
Closing date for submissions for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge is 23rd September 2013 – more details here. I’ve made a Pinterest board which links to all the articles so far, around the theme of Possession, here. Voting starts 24th so get reading.