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Robert Mondavi's Enduring Legacy
By Ed McCarthy
Feb 2, 2010
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Oh, no, another column about Robert Mondavi!  Hasn’t enough been written on him, you ask?  Actually, up until a few days ago, I had no intention of writing about Robert Mondavi.  But then I attended a Mondavi tasting dinner, and two wines changed my mind.

At that dinner, I enjoyed Robert Mondavi’s famed I Block Fumé Blanc, from To Kalon Vineyard in the Oakville District of Napa Valley.  To me, this is one of the world’s greatest Sauvignon Blancs.  What a privilege to drink it.  More about this wine later.  Subsequently, I tasted Mondavi’s 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon—not the Reserve (which retails in the $90-$100 range), but the easier-drinking, accessible Napa Valley AVA Cab (about $27 to $29).  What a gorgeous wine for the price!  Damnit, Robert Mondavi Winery is not yesterday’s news, I concluded.

When Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company, purchased Robert Mondavi Corporation and all its brands in 2004, many of us in the wine business wondered what would become of Robert Mondavi wines.  I have been following Mondavi’s wines closely since 2004, and have detected no change in the quality of the wines.  In truth, wine drinkers might have derived a bonus from the sale: Both of Robert Mondavi’s sons, Michael and Tim, started their own small wineries, and both wineries are doing very well, as I discuss later.

It is difficult to imagine that one man could have had so great an impact on such a huge wine region as California.  But Robert Mondavi almost single-handedly placed California, particularly Napa Valley, on the world’s fine-wine map.  California’s wine history can be looked upon as BM and AM, Before Mondavi and After Mondavi, with the dividing line occurring in 1966.

A handful of fine wines had been made in California before 1966, but not many.  And Mondavi was not the only fine-wine pioneer: André Tchelistcheff, Georges de Latour, Joe Heitz, Louis M. Martini and Martin Ray all contributed, to name a few of the leaders.  But no one came close to Robert Mondavi in changing the face of California wines and the way in which the rest of the world came to regard California wines.

The amazing fact is that Robert Mondavi began changing things at the age of 53, when many people begin thinking about retirement.  The story is well known: Tired of fighting with his father Cesare Mondavi and younger brother Peter about the type of wines that were being produced at the family-owned Charles Krug Winery, Robert Mondavi opened his own winery in the Oakville District of Napa Valley in 1966, and installed his eldest son, Michael, as the winemaker. The idea was to produce high quality wines from the finest grapes available, and to concentrate on varietal wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.  Merlot and Pinot Noir would follow later. Today, the idea sounds simple and reasonable.  But back then, practically no one was making varietal wines—in California or anywhere else in the world (Germany, northeastern Italy and Alsace excepted).  And practically no winery was idealistic enough, some might say crazy enough, to try to make a living by focusing on making top-quality wines only.
Michael would be succeeded by some of the finest winemaking talents available at the time: Warren Winiarski, Mike Grgich and Zelma Long.  Later, younger brother Tim Mondavi became winemaker while Michael took over the running of the winery.  Since 1997, French-trained Genevieve Janssens  has been winemaker.

Thanks to Mondavi’s success, other California wineries began making varietal wines from the noble varieties.  By the early 1970s, the California wine boom was on!  New wineries began opening almost every week, particularly in Napa and Sonoma.  Shortly after, Monterey and Santa Barbara joined the boom.  Meanwhile, Robert Mondavi became the unofficial ambassador of California wines, touring the world and extolling their quality.  California, and particularly Napa Valley, finally became recognized as a region capable of making fine wines.

In 1960, only 25 wineries were operating in Napa Valley, and about 250 in all of California.  Today, about 400 wineries are managing to make wine in the rather small Napa Valley (30 miles long, 5 miles wide at its widest point), and about 3,000 wineries are operating throughout the state. 

In 1979, a truly amazing event occurred: Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of one of the world’s most prestigious wines, the First Growth Bordeaux Château Mouton-Rothschild, asked Robert Mondavi to collaborate with him to create a joint French-American Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine in Napa Valley.  And Opus One was born.  What greater confirmation for Napa Valley as the home of potentially fine Cabernet Sauvignon could there be than to have Baron Philippe want to make wine there—and to choose Robert Mondavi as his partner!

When I think about the quality of Robert Mondavi wines, I have come to the conclusion that there are two main reasons:
1) The winemaking philosophy of Robert Mondavi himself. He believed in subtle, restrained wines that would go with food.  Mondavi’s model was French wines, particularly the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, of which he was a great admirer.  He always used to say, “I don’t necessarily want to be better than those wines; I want to be in their company.”
2) Mondavi’s wisdom in choosing to buy the best available vineyards.  Robert Mondavi  recognized the quality of To Kalon Vineyard, nestled at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains, west of Route 29, Napa Valley’s main thoroughfare.  He purchased a modest amount of acres, all he could afford at the time, and built his winery there.  Today, Robert Mondavi Winery owns 450 acres of To Kalon Vineyard, 405 planted in vines.  In 1969, Robert Mondavi made another wise purchase: 500 acres of land in Stags Leap District, later expanded to 685 acres.  Stags Leap District has become renowned as a source of elegant Cabernet Sauvignons.  The Winery also has small parcels in Carneros, where it grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Merlot.

Robert Mondavi Winery is best-known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, and rightfully so.  From the beginning, Mondavi’s Cabs were always considered among the best in California: the 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, even the 1972 (a generally poor vintage), and the 1974 were all stunning.  I recently tried the 1981, 1995, and 2006 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves, and all were impressive; the 1981 (from an average vintage at best) is young and vibrant.  Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignons don’t receive high scores from some critics because they’re not “big and opulent.”  But their elegance and restraint is the reason that I like them—especially with food.

I mentioned how much I enjoyed drinking Mondavi’s 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley AVA.  Equally delightful is Robert Mondavi’s 2007 Pinot Noir from Carneros.  What a delicious, easy-drinking Pinot, and it retails in the $22 to $24 range!   A great buy.  Another surprise: although I’m not a fan of most California Chardonnays, I did find Mondavi’s 2007 Chardonnay, Napa Valley AVA, very palatable.  Light, with citrus and floral notes; a perfect apéritif white.  Again, the price is right, $17 to $18.

Perhaps Robert Mondavi Winery’s greatest pride and joy is the quality of its Sauvignon Blancs, especially the two sourced from its famed To Kalon Vineyard.  In 1968, Robert Mondavi chose to call his Sauvignon Blanc “Fumé Blanc,” to distinguish it from the sweet, vapid Sauvignon Blancs around in California then.  And it worked.  Mondavi’s Fumé Blancs have consistently received critical acclaim over the years.  Normally, I prefer dry, unoaked Sauvignon Blancs, but I firmly believe that Mondavi is making the best dry, oaked-aged Sauvignon Blancs in California.  At the top level, the I Block compares favorably to a great Bordeaux Blanc from Pessac-Léognan.

I tasted three Mondavi Fumé Blancs from To Kalon Vineyard.  The first two were the 2007 and 2001 Fumé Blanc Reserves  (retail price, $38-$39).  About 5 percent Sémillon is added to 95 percent Sauvignon Blanc; it’s barrel fermented and aged in oak (20 percent new) for 11 months.  Average vineyard age, 21 years.  The 2001 Fumé Blanc Reserve is stunning, with superb texture and mouth feel, and a lengthy finish; the 2007 is just too young now, but should attain the quality of the 2001 with time.  Mondavi Fumé Blanc Reserve is available, but you have to seek it out; only about 2,000 cases are made.

The 2007 I Block Fumé Blanc is another story.  Sourced from what is believed to be the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines in California, this part of To Kalon was planted in 1945.  Imagine drinking a New World Sauvignon Blanc from 60+-year-old vines!  The grapes are pressed in whole clusters to retain delicacy, and only free-run juice is used.  No malolactic fermentation is allowed, to retain acidity.  I was most impressed with the ’07 I Block’s incredible concentration; I’ve never tasted a Sauvignon Blanc with this kind of depth, other than the very top Bordeaux Blancs such as Haut-Brion Blanc and Laville Haut-Brion. 

And now the bad news.  Only 208 cases of ’07 I Block were made, and it’s available for purchase ($75) only at Robert Mondavi Winery or to Mondavi Wine Club members.  Next time you’re in Napa Valley, stop at the winery and buy some. A very worthwhile stop, I’m thinking!

The Robert Mondavi legacy would not be complete without saying a few words about the new wineries of Robert Mondavi’s sons, Michael and Tim.  In 2005, Tim Mondavi, along with sister Marcia and step-mom Margrit Biever Mondavi, began a winery he named Continuum, located on a hillside just above the town of St. Helena in Napa Valley.  Continuum, the wine, is a Bordeaux-style blend, composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  The grapes come from Mondavi vineyards in Oakville and Stags Leap District.  I tried the first vintage, and was very impressed; it’s a cross between a fine Bordeaux and an elegantly-styled Napa Cabernet.  About 1500 cases were made, and it retails for about $150; the current vintage, 2006, is selling for $130 to $140.

Shortly after Continuum’s release, Michael Mondavi premiered his first wine, 2005 M by Michael Mondavi.  M is 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, from an Atlas Peak vineyard (in eastern Napa Valley) owned by Michael and his wife, Isabel.  2005 M is a more typical Napa Valley Cab, rich and fleshy, but with the restraint and balance that typifies the Mondavi family style.  Only 600 cases of the 2005 M were produced, and it sells for about $200.  Michael says that he’ll never produce more than 1200 cases of M.  The 2006 M is the current release.   Michael Mondavi also owns Folio Fine Wine Partners, a portfolio of wines he imports from all around the world, which includes the wines of  Marchesi de Frescobaldi, Luce, Ornellaia, and Masseto.

Robert Mondavi passed away peacefully at home in California on May 16th, 2008, at the age of 94, leaving behind an awesome legacy the wine world will always remember.