Note: Mario Andretti is widely acknowledged as the world's best race car driver. Modest and charming, he has a world-class palate for wine and food. Since its inception in 1996, the Andretti Winery has earned a reputation for producing excellent super premium wines. We spoke to Mario about the wine business, which has become a second career to him.
Where exactly in Italy did you grow up?
Mario Andretti: I spent the first 15 years of my life in Italy. I was born in Montona, Italy (now Croatia), about 35 miles from the northeastern city of Trieste. World War II broke out around the time I was born, at the beginning of 1940. When the war ended in 1945, the peninsula of Istria, which is where the town, Montona, was located, became part of Yugoslavia. So my family was trapped inside a Communist country. We stuck it out for three years, hoping that the only world we had ever known would right itself. But when things hadn't changed by 1948, we decided to leave Montona, which was allowed as long as you didn't take anything with you. Our first stop was a central dispersement camp in Udine. About a week later, we were transferred to a refugee camp in Lucca where we stayed for seven years, from 1948 to 1955. We came to the United States in June of 1955. I was 15 years old. We settled in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
What was your experience of wine growing up in Italy?
Mario: Growing up in Italy, wine was a part of everyday life. I certainly didn't prefer it; I preferred soda pop. But wine was at our table every day. I had no appreciation for it.
When did you start to really appreciate wine?
Mario: In my thirties, not before that. And it was my career in racing that actually led to my love of wine. I was fortunate while racing to travel the world - Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America. I raced on every continent. And my travels to exotic places - - combining great dining with fine wine - led to my ultimate appreciation of wine as one of life's pleasures. I remember being in South Africa in the early 70s. I was somewhat surprised at the extent of the wine list at the restaurant we were at in Johannesburg. It certainly wasn't what I would expect in South Africa. All of a sudden, I'm realizing you don't have to have French wines in South Africa. You can have South African wines. And I found the same thing in Argentina. When I raced in Madrid and Barcelona, I found how good Spanish wines are.
After a few more experiences like that - finding great wines in what I thought were the most unlikely countries - I made it a point to inquire about local specialties. I would ask and I would try. And I found that wherever I was in the world, if I went with the local specialties - I was going to like it. And that is what made me more and more curious as I traveled and raced around the world. My interest in wine increased over the years. When I retired at the end of 1994, I turned my attention to wine.
When did you begin to appreciate California Wines?
Mario Andretti: I was in Long Beach for the Formula One race in 1977 and was having lunch with an internationally diverse group of people. I selected a French wine. An Englishman at the table, who was a connoisseur of California wines, said "Mario, why a French wine when we are in California?" Not long after that, I made my first trip to Napa. The more visits I made to the Napa Region, the more fascinated I became with its wines. I cultivated knowledge as well as friendships.
How did you find 53 acres of not-used wine land in Napa Valley?
Mario Andretti: What we found was a no-name winery that was already planted and the grapes were being sold to several wineries. We purchased the property and the permits, which were already in place. Our winemaker, Bob Pepi, had come on board with us in the first days and was involved in the decision to purchase the property and vineyard for Andretti Winery. What he liked most about our site was the vineyard and the possibility of growing merlot and chardonnay as well as limited quantities of sangiovese, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.
What do you enjoy most about wine?
Mario Andretti: What I like about wine is what it enables - the sensual pleasure that it provides as well as the good conversation that it encourages. I truly enjoy the background to wine in addition to the tasting. The wine world has very few bores. Most wine people are relatively strong characters, well-traveled, intelligent, distinct personalities. They make for very good company.