Richard and Thekla Sanford … Gary Farrell ... Brice Cutrer Jones … the Fetzer siblings ... winemaking icons all, yet they are no longer connected to the wineries they founded, and which still bear their names.
Yet the Sanfords rebounded nicely with their Alma Rosa brand in Santa Barbara County, after they sold their pioneering Sanford Winery to the Terlato family in 2006. Farrell, whose eponymous Sonoma County winery is now in the hands of Ascentia Wine Estates, launched his own Pinot Noir and Chardonnay label this year, Alysian Wines.
Jones’ Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, a Chardonnay specialist best known for its restaurant placements, was sold to Brown-Forman Corp. in 1999; in 2007, Jones resurfaced with two fine Pinot Noirs from his start-over Emeritus brand.
And the Fetzers? John (Saracina), Jim (Ceago Vinegarden), Patti (Patianna) and Dan (Jeriko) began again, after their non-compete clauses expired eight years after they sold Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County to Brown-Forman in 1999.
But the most traumatic departure from one’s own winery was that of Robert Mondavi and his family, after Robert Mondavi Corp. was sold to Constellation Brands in 2004. Robert, his wife Margrit, sons Michael and Tim, and daughter Marcia, did not go happily, though with resignation, after economic forces, family squabbles and Robert’s exceptionally generous philanthropy forced them to sell America’s most famous winery, Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley.
Fast forward to a recent warm day atop Pritchard Hill in eastern Napa Valley, where a contented, seemingly at-peace Tim Mondavi and Marcia Mondavi Borger survey the Napa Valley -- and Robert Mondavi Winery -- from their lofty perch at Continuum Estate, which they purchased in 2008. The former Cloud View Vineyards site is 85 acres, situated 1,500 feet above the valley floor, and with classy neighbors including Bryant Family, Chappellet and Colgin.
After the sale of Robert Mondavi Corp., Michael Mondavi quickly established Folio Fine Wine Partners, a wine production and importing company based in Napa. Tim and Marcia stayed with Robert and Margrit, creating the Continuum brand in 2005. Robert died in May 2008, but not before he tasted the inaugural 2005 Continuum, and viewed the property that would become Continuum Estate.
Continuum’s 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages were made by Tim, predominantly from grapes grown in the historic Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard, now owned by Constellation. In 2008, Constellation decided to keep all the grapes for itself, so Tim and Marcia sought a new source of fruit, one they could call their own. They found it at Cloud View, and renamed it Continuum Estate.
“It’s been an incredible silver lining,” Tim said of the loss of To Kalon grapes for the Continuum wines. “It forced us to look around and see other areas. It shifted our perspective from To Kalon to the red, rocky volcanic soils of Pritchard Hill, the 1,500-foot elevation at the top, as opposed to the To Kalon valley floor, and the opportunity to make a single wine from a single estate.”
The first vintage of Continuum, 2005, is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, from To Kalon and the Mondavi family’s Wappo Hill vineyard. That basic formula will remain, as Merlot will be replaced at Continuum Estate by Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, a mix Tim said best expresses the terroir.
The vineyard is on the east side of Napa Valley, with a western exposure, and situated in a bowl that protects the vines from wind. The estate will yield a much different, bolder wine than the restrained, nuanced Cabernet Sauvignons Tim made at Robert Mondavi Winery.
“We got elegance, silkiness and femininity in the Oakville wines,” he explained. “The Continuum Estate gives us density and ripeness, along with nuance and elegance.”
The 2006 Continuum is certainly a different wine from Tim’s Mondavi Reserve Cabs. It’s ripe and bold, with concentrated black fruit and a strong creosote/graphite character, yet with polished tannins and good length. Petit Verdot determines its personality; at 16 percent of the blend, it gives Continuum its black, tarry edge.
The 2006 is immediately enjoyable, and suited to the typical American palate. It may not appeal to lovers of high-end, leaner Bordeaux, yet cellaring will determine whether Continuum has the staying power that Tim Mondavi thinks it has. “Petit Verdot can be clumsy when young,” he said, “yet becomes a swan with time.”
One day a Continuum winery will be built on the property. For now, Tim makes the wine at a custom-crush winery in St. Helena, where he has all his own equipment, including oak fermenters similar to those he installed at Mondavi’s To Kalon cellar in 2001.
Tim could never duplicate the wines he made at Robert Mondavi Winery, and to his credit, that is not his intent. He’s created an entirely new style of wine, heavily dependent on Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, from grapes he’ll grow himself on Pritchard Hill. It’s to be seen how Continuum holds up over time, yet for now, it’s a ripe, rewarding drink.