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Mondavi still the Father of American Wine

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Robert and Margrit Mondavi.

As I write this, standing on the desk near the computer are two bottles of Robert Mondavi Private Selection wines. Like the rest of the Mondavi Private Selection wines (there are 11 in all) the 2011 Meritage and the 2012 Chardonnay are solid, well-made, affordable ($11 SRP) wines from selected vineyards in California’s Central Coast, and they all display the bright fruit, insightful construction and immediate accessibility Mondavi wanted in his line of everyday wines.

It’s been a couple of days since the wrap-up of the 2013 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and there still is so much to write about, but today it’s all about Robert Mondavi.

June 18 was the 100th anniversary of Bob Mondavi’s birthday (that’s how he introduced himself in his outgoing, direct manner that reportedly was the bane of PR people) and it’s only proper to acknowledge his role in the American wine scene.

You can read elsewhere the lengthy bios about Robert Mondavi but here’s a quick review.

He was born in Virginia, Minn., to first-generation Italian immigrants Rosa and Cesare Mondavi, who in 1921 moved to Lodi, Cal., to raise their family.

In 1943 the family, at Robert’s urging, purchased the Charles Krug Winery where Robert and his brother Peter both worked after graduating college (Robert from Sanford, Peter from Univ. of Cal. – Davis).

Contention ran in the family. The two brothers disagreed – Peter opting for value-priced wines and Robert for wines as good as Europe’s best.

These competing visions eventually led to a family break-up and soon after Robert Mondavi founded the winery bearing his name.

Curiously, his two sons, Michael and Tim, eventually would split up for reasons similar to those dividing Robert and his brother Peter.

Robert Mondavi introduced many of what now are standard winemaking practices, including stainless steel tanks, cold fermentation and using French oak barrels to age wine. But Mondavi’s real strength was in his marketing skills, said Mondavi winemaker Rich Arnold, with whom I spoke in Aspen.

“When I got there, the winery was in transition, with Michael doing the winemaking but Robert was involved with all the blending decisions,” said Arnold, who started with the Mondavi family in 1974. “But his greatest skill was marketing.”

Among Mondavi’s notable decisions was renaming sauvignon blanc “Fumé Blanc,” reportedly because he felt “sauvignon” was too hard for Americans to pronounce and so they wouldn’t order the wine.

“He put the Fumé Blanc in clear bottles when the original frosted bottles weren’t available, and soon everyone was copying the idea of white wine in clear bottles,” Arnold said.

In 1979, Mondavi joined with Baron Phillippe de Rothschild to create the Opus One Winery and it was the Opus One wine that showcased the initial Napa Valley Wine Auction, which Mondavi also founded.

Mondavi passed away in 2008 at the age of 94, but his legacy continues, with his wife Margrit still involved with the winery.

“Margrit is the heart and soul of the winery,” said Rich Arnold. “We get her blessing with each vintage and each bottle.”

I think of that as I look at the two Private Selections wines next to me. It’s interesting to picture a link from those bottles to the legacy of Robert Mondavi, the man known as the Father of American Wine and most-responsible for showing California’s wine industry that affordable, world-class wines were within reach and that America would buy them.

I found this quote from Margrit in a story by Katie Key Bell on the Forbes website:
“He gave everybody advice. Bob’s ecumenical spirit: ‘the more good wine that comes out of Napa Valley the better it is for me.’ So he shared, he was generous, he was philanthropic and I believe that was his biggest contribution to Napa Valley. ” –Margrit Mondavi

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