The Making of a Legacy: Tracing Robert Mondavi's Rise

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rmondavi2.jpgby Courtney Cochran

The recent passing of the man who was widely known as the patriarch of California wine caused us to reflect on just what it means to have been Robert Mondavi.  Frequently described as larger than life, the Minnesota-born son of Italian immigrants was a marketing mastermind who can be credited not only with putting California on the global wine map, he also with leaving an indelible mark on the American wine scene. Read on for highlights of Mondavi's most significant contributions to wine as we know it.    
Napa Valley Renaissance
In 1966, Mondavi opened Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville after being ousted from the family business at nearby Krug Winery.  The sprawling, California mission style structure was the first winery built in Napa after Prohibition and is said to have reinvigorated the languishing wine business in the valley.  Other new wineries were soon constructed, and the valley began its transform into the thriving wine hub it is today.

Varietal Labeling
Mondavi's instinctive understanding of what American wine drinkers wanted led him to label his wines by grape variety (also known as "varietal labeling").  This flew in the face of what domestic vintners had learned from so-called traditional wine labeling in Europe, where a wine's geographic place of origin was its dominant identifying feature.  Today, varietal labeling is standard for the vast majority of wines made in the New World.

Fumé Blanc
In 1968, Mondavi introduced his first Fumé Blanc to the market, a dry oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc named after the celebrated region of Pouilly-Fumé in France - a hot spot for Sauvignon Blanc.  Though the varietal was out of fashion at the time, Mondavi's oaked style and new name were immediately popular, and the term "Fumé Blanc" is today a widely used and legally recognized synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.

Use of Technology
Always a pioneer, Mondavi championed the use of then-novel winemaking tools at his new winery such as temperature-controlled steel fermentation tanks and small French oak barriques for aging.  His habit of sharing new information and best practices he learned from his experiments with his neighbors was a major driver in establishing the spirit of camaraderie that persists among Napa Valley vintners to this day.  

Though he divorced his first wife and suffered major riffs with his mother and brother, Mondavi was nonetheless a family man who spent much of his life working alongside fellow members of the Mondavi clan.  He famously made amends with his brother Peter Mondavi in his twilight years and is survived by children Michael, Tim and Marcia, second wife Margrit Mondavi, brother Peter and nine grandchildren.    

Opus One
In partnership with Bordeaux's Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Mondavi opened the highly anticipated Opus One winery in 1991 across the street from his eponymous estate in Napa.  Described by architect Scott Johnson as "introverted, like a jewel box," the boldly designed structure - semi-submerged in the surrounding landscape - represented the first significant joint venture between an American winery and an overseas winery.

Napa Valley Vintners
Urged by his second wife, the charismatic Margrit Mondavi, Robert was instrumental in founding Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1981, an annual event known today as Auction Napa Valley - the "granddaddy of all wine auctions."  The event - which raises millions for charitable causes each year - is now run by the non-profit trade organization Napa Valley Vintners, of which Mondavi was one of the original members in the 1940s.

First Winery IPO
Ever the innovator, in the early '90s Mondavi took his winery public in one of the first-ever winery IPOs.  The family remained majority shareholders after the offering, a position they maintained until the company was sold - under duress - to Constellation Brands for $1.36 billion in 2004.  Not one to be kept down for long, Mondavi then created Continuum Partners with family members to craft top-tier Cabs from Oakville.    

Education/UC Davis
A tireless supporter of education and the arts, Standford graduate Mondavi donated $10 million to the University of California, Davis - which is famous for its viticulture and enology program - to establish the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.  An additional gift of $25 million enabled the creation of the UC Davis' Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, scheduled to open in October.

Also known as The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, COPIA is a multi-disciplinary center for education and entertainment (dare we say edutainment?) established in 2001 thanks in large part to the generosity of Robert and Margrit Mondavi.  Located near the river in revitalized downtown Napa, COPIA brings together all aspects of the good life - wine, food, arts, music and dance - in a single spot. Bob would approve.

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