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Happy 50th, Robert Mondavi Winery

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Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when Napa Valley possessed no Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW).

Prior to 1966 Napa was a sleepy little wine valley, dominated by legendary wineries already perceived as old-time, like Beaulieu, Inglenook, Charles Krug and Louis M. Martini. A few newer wineries had sprung up over the decades, including Mayacamas (1941), Stony Hill (1953) and Heitz (1961), so we have to take the claim, oft-repeated, that RMWwas the first new large-scale winery to be established in the valley since before prohibition” with a certain grain of salt. Still, the building of the physical winery itself, designed by the celebrated California architect Cliff May, was an extraordinary event. It brought to the valley a look that combined traditional Mission motifs with a modernity that seemed to express the essence of Napa Valley, and its wines; and, in becoming an almost instant tourist mecca, it opened the gates to Napa Valley as one of the most visited wine regions in the world.

There was, too, at the time a great deal of critical interest in the wines the brash, not-quite-so-young (53) Robert Mondavi was creating; but here, too, we have to hedge this statement with an explanation that there wasn’t much going on at that time in America in the way of critical coverage of the wine industry. That was to come, much later, in large part due to Robert Mondavi, the winery, as well as the man, who was such a relentless engine of exhortation for the wines of Napa Valley.

Early reporters, unsure of how to parse Mondavi’s wines, and understanding that such a new enterprise would take some time to find its sea legs, instead focused on the winery and Robert’s audacity. One of the first important wine books to be published after RMW’s founding was The Fine Wines of California (Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, 1970). Mondavi’s wines, they wrote, “show[ed] breed and flavor”; they reserved their highest accolades to the ’68 Fumé Blanc, but were less enthusiastic when it came to the reds: the ’66 Cabernet was “pleasant, rather fruity,” but “not the most complex,” while the ’66 Pinot—a variety Robert’s winemaker son, Tim, would be famously associated with—was “sharp…light…[and] unpleasant.”

Three years later, Leon D. Adams, the former head of the Wine Institute, in his The Wines of America (1973) was astounded that, by that time, RMW was attracting visitors “at the rate of 1500 per week and are selling them a tenth of the winery’s output,” an impressive anticipation of direct-to-consumer sales. But Adams, an amateur historian and a fine one, did not pretend to be a wine critic, and did not venture into that area. That year, 1973, the same caveats issued by Hannum and Blumberg came from the pen of the man who arguably at that time was the dean of American wine writers, Nathan Chroman. In his The Treasury of American Wines, Chroman found Mondavi’s red wines “satisfactory, but [they] do not measure up to the whites…”, although he held out hope for the Cabernet Sauvignon. But he, too, love the Fumé Blanc.

Europeans were perhaps more welcoming to the wines. Three years before Adams wrote, the great British enophile (and Francophile) Harry Waugh was taken by his hosts to RMW, where, as he wrote in Pick of the Bunch (1970), he found “extraordinarily exciting…ideas and projects” bubbling forth: That 1968 Fumé Blanc—the one Hannum, Blumberg and Chroman loved (and Robert is credited with inventing the term)–had “the true smell” of “a blanc fumé from the Loire,” and received the ultimate Waugh plaudit of being a wine “which would go into my collection…”. He thought less well of a ’67 Chardonnay, but a ’66 Zinfandel was his favorite in a flight of five, and so was a ’66 Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, it was through the admiration of Harry Waugh and his London-based Zinfandel Club that the wines of the new “boutiques” such as RMW were introduced to and appreciated by the intelligentsia of Europe (except for the French), which gave them great cachet.

We can say, and be on sound historical footing, that the launch of RMW heralded in that boutique winery era—which saw, over the next 15 years, as stellar a flight of winery startups as ever has been recorded in history, on any continent. There was nothing like it: with the advent of that generation of young, determined, bold and visionary vintners, California experienced a land rush of new wineries that set the stage for its future success and made it the international capitol for wine excitement. Things are quite different today, when none but the über-rich have the means to establish a new winery, and the sparkle, steam and creativity that marked the 1960s and 1970s have faded away. But Cliff May’s arch and campanile still mark that glorious stretch of Highway 29 through Oakville, and the footprint of Robert Mondavi remains as large and indelible as ever.

 

  1. Beautiful and worthy tribute, Steve.

    As we’ve talked about here recently: With all the importance rightly due the Judgment of Paris, it began because of the attention already building on some young upstarts in Napa Valley that thought they could make wine. A decade of Robert Mondavi’s passion was near the core of that emergence. He knew how to make wine and, perhaps even more, he knew how to build the buzz.

    On a personal note, when I first started getting seriously into wine and still thought Napa was the hub of the universe, the stretch of road from Oakville up through St. Helena was pure heaven. The first $150 bottle of wine I ever bought was at Mondavi (followed by two more just down the road at BV). Mondavi was my first wine club. For learning and enjoyment, they were a big part of my foundation. in the years following, my range grew and changed much, but one almost remembers one’s first with a certain affection.

  2. Randy Dufour says:

    Nice article, and it certainly brings back some of my own personal memories. I was a young bartender/wine guy (we didn’t use the term sommelier back then) in Vancouver, scraping a living together and decided that I would make my first ‘substancial’ wine purchase…6 btls of Robert Mondavi’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1985 at $50/btl. It was the most logical choice in 1989 and the only ‘famous’ wine that I could afford 6 btls of. I ‘aged’ and showed off those wines like one would a Picasso and I was so proud. Each bottle was opened quite carefully over the following decade and are now long gone, but I will always remember that purchase and how it started my hobby of collecting and drinking great wine. Thank you Mr. Mondavi for your vision and passion and inspiring a young man and lighting a life-long fire in me.

  3. I visited the place in 1975. Fume Blanc was $5 a bottle, and pretty good. The tour guide was a bearded fellow who said he was studying winemaking at UC Davis. He instructed us on how to hold the glass, swirl, and sniff. The vineyards right around the winery were planted to Cabernet, and they went into the reserve bottling. I think RMW was the first to label their some of their wines Unfined or Unfiltered; they put these words at a 45 degree angle in the corner of the labels. Mondavi’s devotion to quality was admirable and paid off handsomely.

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