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Happy birthday to a very special winery

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When Robert Mondavi first walked the ground where his winery now stands, in early 1966, he was struck by something profound, a sense that in retrospect sounds mystical.

“I knew this was a very special place,” he wrote in his memoir, “Harvests of Joy.” “It exuded an indefinable quality I could not describe…of calm and harmony.” The To Kalon vineyard that surrounds the winery now must have been brown and barren at that time of the year, as the leafless vines sprawled from Highway 29 to the lower foothills of the Mayacamas. But already, Mr. Mondavi was envisioning great wines from that great vineyard, made in the winery he would commission his architect, Cliff May, to erect.

Later that year, Mondavi began his first harvest, “before the attractive mission-style building was half finished,” the historian Leon D. Adams tells us, in “The Wines of America.” Even then, Mondavi’s fertile mind was imagining, not only making fine wines to match the Europeans’ best, but “visitors, art exhibit[s], tasting rooms…concerts and plays…” and direct sales to account for “a tenth of the winery’s output.”

Mondavi was, in other words, a visionary. While others were quietly making wine in what was then still a rather sleepy little place that saw the occasional tourist drive up from San Francisco, Mondavi was reinventing Napa Valley’s entire weltanschauung. He knew it could be a mecca for wine lovers from all over the world, who would not only visit the Robert Mondavi Winery (and other wineries), but spend the better part of their day—and perhaps their dollars—carousing and having fun as they came to the winery and to the “lawn space for visiting groups” where so much public activity has taken place at RMW over the years.

It was in that lawn space that I last saw Robert Mondavi, on a warm Spring day in 2006.  The winery was celebrating an occasion, I believe their 50th birthday; there were hundreds of visitors, and the old trooper was wheelchair-bound. But still, he knew that many of them had come with a wish to see him, and he would not disappoint. A visit to Robert Mondavi Winery, he always insisted, must be memorable.

Here we now are, fifty years after Robert Mondavi’s first harvest, and what a two-score-and-ten years it has been. There were a handful of “boutique” wineries established prior to 1966, but the proliferation afterwards, lasting roughly until the late 1970s, was truly extraordinary, establishing Napa Valley (and California) as a vital player on the world wine map. And historians generally credit the founding of Robert Mondavi Winery as the era’s ur-event.

We do not even need to dwell on Mr. Mondavi’s accomplishments in viticulture and enology, which are well-chronicled. He urged the industry onward and upward every chance he got, constantly stressing quality. The upheavals of the later years of his life—the sale of the winery to Constellation, the failure of his (and Julia Child’s) COPIA the same year as his death—no doubt were sources of sadness to him, as his life ebbed. But Robert Mondavi was nothing if not the eternal optimist. “Always stay positive,” he wrote in “Harvests.” [H]ave faith and confidence in yourself.” He always had something of the preacher in him, and grew, in maturity, almost ministerial, as if speaking a sermon from the pulpit. “Don’t be judgmental. Instead, cultivate tolerance, empathy, and compassion…listen carefully, and when you talk, make sure people understand you.”

It is never easy to predict how famous people will be remembered long after their deaths. We know that historians change their minds: one day, Harry Truman is considered a failure. The next, he’s a great President. How will Robert Mondavi be remembered? People may be unable, some far-flung day in the future, to rattle off his specific accomplishments—that he was the man, for example, who invented Fumé Blanc. But they will remember that he was a great man. They will feel his spirit radiating across space and time; they will sense, in some inchoate way, that every era raises up some special persons, who summarize in their beings the essence of their time, the zeitgeist. And they will know that Robert Mondavi did that for the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, for wine, when his powers were at their zenith, and every road seemed to lead to the famous arch and campanile, on Highway 29 in Oakville, and to the man who caused it, and the modern California wine industry, to arise.

So happy 50th birthday Robert Mondavi Winery!

  1. Paul Gregutt says:

    Yo Steve. It’s 50th, not 60th.

  2. Yo Paul, right-o! Correction duly noted.

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