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Michael Mondavi on his new wine, high alcohol, high prices and lessons learned


Michael Mondavi, Robert’s eldest, is releasing his first super-ultrapremium wine. M by Michael Mondavi, a 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, will be out this Fall. With a case production of about 700 and a retail price tag of $200, it’s his priciest launch yet, through his family-owned Folio Fine Wine Partners company. [I have not yet reviewed the wine.]

SH: What is the vine sourcing for M?

MM: A small vineyard on Atlas Peak, Animo. I was fortunate in that, in 1997 at Robert Mondavi [Winery], we were looking for a hillside vineyard as a component of the reserves and Opus [One]. But hillsides are not your best investment, so I said, “Why don’t I buy a small hillside [vineyard] for our highest-end wines, and we can do an arms-length contract year to year so there’s no conflict.”

Michael, in front, with Robert

SH: How did you arrive at the price?

MM: We went out and bought a number of the top wines, the usual suspects — the cult wines, as well as Dominus and Opus, et cetera. We lined them up, blind, and instead of saying which is first, second, third, we said, “What would I pay for this?” So it was a “priced tasting.” And it came out that, relatively speaking, our [wine] was way above many of those, so we priced it below a number of them and slightly above the others it showed better than. The other factor is, What are your costs? On a 15-acre vineyard, we had 12 separate days of harvesting.

SH: You told last Spring, in a question about the economy, “When times are tighter, instead of buying a $200 bottle…people will go to their retail store [and] buy that for about $70.”

MM: And comparably, instead of paying $400 on a wine list, they’ll go to the retail store and buy it. The vast majority of First Growth Bordeaux and Burgundy are no longer bought at restaurants because the prices are so astronomical. They’ll buy those wines costing hundreds of dollars at retail. And I really wish restaurants with these high-end wines would have a sliding scale.

SH: What is the alcohol level on M?

MM: 14.1 percent. And our goal is [to get it] under 14 percent, because many of the wines I made [at Robert Mondavi Winery] in 1966-1974 were in the 12-1/2 to 13-1/2 percent range, and I’ve gone back and tasted those wines and they age spectacularly. The higher alcohol wines don’t age as well.

SH: What lessons did you learn from your experience at Robert Mondavi Winery?

MM: Not to get too big! I did that once, and I’m not going to repeat the mistake. We have two simple rules [at Folio]: We’ll only work with families we like and respect and want to spend time with, and we’ll only import and market wines we would proudly serve to our family and friends at home.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    Another lesson learned might be how to price wine in the 21st Century. The old way was to determine how much the wine cost to make, add on your desired margin, and put it in the marketplace. If it sold out, maybe you raise the price or the volume. That had to be abandoned when such pricing pigeonholed you in a particular tier. Imagine if this wine were released at the $54 2005 Paloma price. No one would pay any attention. You have to put a $200 price tag on a wine for the collector to take it seriously. At it’s introductory price, the 2005 M will be the same price as 2005 Cos d’Estournel or Langoa Barton and only 1/10th the price of the 2005 Latour.

  2. Right, does this guy (mm) think we’re not with it? yeah, “M” @ 14.1% really means it dialed in around 14.8… Seriously, I wish the public knew about the over/under 14% rule. I wonder what would happen if we ran a sample up to vinquiry for an alc test… Does anyone wanna bet the REAL alc??? Appropriate Q’s Steve

  3. Bill, you’re right that wineries have a fairly large allowance legally, courtesy of the Federal government. I wish I had the $$ and time to run every wine through a laboratory.

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    Bill, I didn’t think anyone knew.

    Every publication (or critic) should have a Eubilliometer. $1000 purchase and do them yourself. I have a hundred year old French made one, all brass with a bent horizontal hand calibrated and hand labeled thermometer. Problem is it reads in alc. directly and no one back then had a clue wine styles would change such that we made wine from raisins. So, it maxes out at 13.5 and I have to dilute just about everything 50/50 with distilled water, then extrapolate… which is a pain.

    Checking alcohols is an eyeopener. Just the other day I found a Napa Cab from a big producer (corporately the biggest) that was labeled 13.5, but was actually 14.5 Probably saved the company at least 50 grand in taxes.

    I would love to know if the govt. actually has anyone checking alcohols. My guess is that since no one sends them free samples like we do the wine trade and the media, they are not checking anything but the cheaper, mass marketed, high volume wines. And then probably very sporadically. Can you imagine how your boss at Treasury would react to you buying a case that included an “M”, a Colgin, a Harlan and a Screaming Eagle. I think that would generate some screaming you could hear across the mall.

  5. Perhaps $200 is the new $75 ?

  6. Morton,

    I don’t get why we cannot get closer to 0.5% margin of error on alcohol (like the europeans) instead of 1.5%. The above 14% tax bracket is also antiquated and encourages fraud and wine manipulation (dealcoholization for example). Could we just let the consumer decide what wines they like (praying they will prefer low alcohol wines here)?
    Of course, I also don’t get why we need a huge government body looking at each one of our labels. Could not we give the rules to the wineries and do random checking?

    Oh, and as for the $200 price tag? why not, if Mr Mondavi can get that for his wine

  7. Nicolas, I don’t understand the alcohol ranges either. They’re too wide and as you say, they do permit, even encourage, fraud.

  8. Tax and fraud aside…
    An ABV that is 1.5% higher than labeled (up to 14%) or 1% above for 14%+ ABV wines is a big deal for restaurant servers and restaurant liability. And few servers know this.
    As distributors are the conduit (among other things if you ask Tom Wark) don’t they have the responsibility to sell the product with accurate consumer information, even if the product itself is following its industry (TTB) rules?
    Is the seller skirting other laws it must follow by allowing it to happen?
    Has any winery been sued in a DUI-death case, charged with misrepresenting the alcohol content?

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