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A Mondavi state of mind

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By coincidence, I had lunch the other day with Rob Mondavi (from Folio Fine Wine Partners) and dinner that same night with Genevieve Janssens, Robert Mondavi Winery’s longtime winemaker. Rob is the son of Michael and grandson of Robert. So I’m in a Mondavi state of mind.

I’d never met Rob, but connected with him recently for my story on the Atlas Peak AVA, for January’s Wine Enthusiast. Rob wanted to show me his top wine, M by Michael Mondavi, made from their 16-acre vineyard on the mountain. Since I’d obviously known Robert Mondavi and Michael Mondavi, I looked for signs of them in Rob. Couldn’t find any, until he laughed. Pure Mondavi! That big, wide smile, the crinkly blue eyes, the energy.

Folio is an interesting company. It’s a hybrid: part “agency” (Rob’s word), which is their distributor side in which they represent other brands, and part production of their own brands, including M by Michael Mondavi. They just released the ‘06, which I’ll review in the Enthusiast. The 2005, now sold out, is a sensation. The ‘07 — which won’t be out for another year — is possibly even better.

Rob’s energy and potency are qualities he must have inherited. He is quite visionary but also realistic. When Folio was first conceived, nobody could have imagined this recession, or how deep and long it would be. Rob was a straight shooter in that respect. Sure, times are tough, and M by Michael Mondavi, at $195 a bottle, is not the easiest sell these days. But Rob has pertinacity built into his dna. This is a family with an eye to the long haul. They’re not trading in on the last name. No tricks, no stunts. While the distributed wines pay the bills, Rob and Michael fine tune their own wines — and in the end, fine wine will out.

When I saw Genevieve Janssens that night, it was to participate in “an interactive soil tasting.”

I must admit I had never taken a wine glass half filled with dirt, added a little water to make mud, then swirled and sniffed, the way you do with fine wine. But what an extraordinary experience it was.

They had three soil samples: one from Bodega Bay, out by the coast, one from Fremont, in my county of Alameda, and one from Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard. The object was to pair each sample of mud with a different foodstuff grown in that dirt. The Bodega Bay mud went with a cheese made from goats that grazed on the land below. The Fremont mud went with green peas grown there, while the To Kalon mud paired with Robert Mondavi’s 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. To say that there were similarities and echoes of aroma (and not, obviously, of taste!) is an understatement. If the object was to persuade us that it is not only the structure of soil, but also its smells, that contribute to wine (and cheese, and green peas), the experiment definitely succeeded.

Genevieve presided over dinner with her usual aplomb. She is a living extension of her mentor, whom she always refers to as Mister Mondavi. Robert was a born marketer. It was in his soul. He understood the importance of having a simple message and then driving it home repeatedly. (Politicians, too, do the same thing.) In his case, the message was that wine, food, art and life are all part of a whole. What connected them, he asserted, was passion. “Passion” also is a word Genevieve uses often. She confided that it is part of her mission to elevate To Kalon to the status of an undisputed First Growth. No argument from me.

It’s easy today for Millennials to not realize that, once upon a time and not that long ago, wine and food, in America, barely mattered to most people. American food sucked. Frozen food had taken over, followed by McDonald’s. There were some old-fashioned French restaurants, but nobody went to them. When average Americans ate out, it was Chinese or Italian (which meant spaghetti and meatballs and veal Parmagiana). Nobody drank fine wine. The culture was heathen and, yes, vulgar.

Robert Mondavi helped to change that. So did Julia Child, and it’s little wonder that the two of them teamed up, late in their lives, to create COPIA. Now here we are, with a vibrant, energetic Genevieve passionately carrying forth Mister Mondavi’s message, while a young, invigorated Rob Mondavi, with his Dad, is pushing the legacy in new directions. La Vida Mondavi continues.

R.I.P. Tony Curtis

  1. Steve,
    The mention of Julia Child was a nice touch to this article. I am not sure if generational winemakers are as great as their name suggests, but after swilling dirt I will give you the benefit of the doubt.

    What was it about the mud that you were trying to taste specifically? I honestly can’t remember reading about anyone ‘drinking’ mud, so I guess you must have taken what? A spoonful? A teaspoon full? a 1/4 teaspoon full?

    How would someone not famaliar with (for lack of a better term) Dirt Tasting learn more about it? Is there a standard industry term for this?

    Thanks for the article and new idea for learning about the relationship between he earth and the wine.

    Ian B.

  2. Isaaks, I didn’t taste the mud!! I just smelled it. The 3 colors and aromas were VERY different, and I sensed (or thought I did) the same aromas in the cheese, peas and wine. You might want to contact the PR company that sponsored the event for Robert Mondavi Winery: Folsom & Associates, at 415-978-9909. Refer to the “A Taste of Place” event.

  3. What a great adventure…

  4. Isaaks, you can find out more about “taste of Place” at http://www.tasteofplace.info

    This project is an interactive art installation focusing on our food and where it is grown. Steve, as the soil maven I enjoyed meeting you and talking about the vocabulary around soil and dirt.

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