At the time, California viticulture was not the sure bet his father imagined. Prohibition and the Depression had devastated the wine industry. The few wineries that survived mostly specialized in cheap swill and sacramental spirits. Fermentation technology was primitive, as were sales and distribution networks. And the market was minimal: The biggest group of consumers -- immigrants -- made their own.
"I was sure we could make wines that belonged in that company," Mondavi told wine writer Cyril Ray, author of the 1984 biography "Robert Mondavi of the Napa Valley." "I felt that we had to get into the fine-wine business, or the bulk wineries in the San Joaquin Valley, making cheaper wine than we could out of their cheap grapes, would push us out of business."
In 1943, when the distinguished Charles Krug Winery fell on hard times, Mondavi persuaded his father to buy the rundown landmark. Although it stretched the family's finances, his father agreed on the condition that Robert and his younger brother Peter jointly run it. They hired Tchelistcheff as a consultant, and Robert Mondavi soon launched the first of a lifelong series of innovations.
Krug was among the first wineries in the valley to make extensive use of cold fermentation -- keeping some wines below 60 degrees to retain fruitiness -- and to open a tasting room for visitors.
But the brothers had wildly different dispositions. Robert was volatile and relentless, pushing his staff and leaving home for weeks at a time to peddle Krug products. Peter was methodical and reserved. For a time, the two even pronounced the family name differently -- Robert said Mon-DAH-vi, Peter used the Anglicized Mon-DAY-vi. Their differences exploded into wine country legend after their father, who had always mediated their conflicts, died in 1959.
Robert Mondavi traced their now-famous falling out to two events, the first of which was a 1962 vacation in France. He had never seen the wine regions of Europe and, at the time, the "best" wine meant French wine. Once there, he later wrote, he was struck by the respect accorded to winemaking, which was viewed not as a mere business but art. He studied the small oak casks in which European wines were aged with loving attention, comparing them to the steel vats that left California wines tasting "industrially uniform, like Coca-Cola," as the Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux later remarked. Revelation became obsession.
"A great business and creative venture took shape before my eyes," Mondavi wrote. "I wanted to take American technology, management techniques and marketing savvy and fuse them together with Old World tradition and elegance."
At the time, Americans still regarded creamed chipped beef as a dinner staple and Peter Mondavi saw steadier profits in the status quo. The elder brother persuaded the younger to experiment with French oak casks, but without their father to intervene, their disagreement festered.
The brothers bickered at a family gathering in 1965 and Peter accused Robert of overspending on travel and promotion, then of taking money from the family business.
"I smacked him, hard. Twice," Robert Mondavi wrote in his memoir, and afterward "there were no apologies and no handshake." The fight sundered the family, which voted to put Robert Mondavi on six months' paid leave from his winery duties. He hired his own lawyer, and the ensuing legal tangle lasted for years. It took two decades for the brothers to begin speaking. Their mother, who sided with Peter, did not live to see them reconcile.
In 1965, at 52, Robert Mondavi started over. Holding on to his share of Charles Krug, he got backing from an old friend and two local grape growers, moved from the Krug property, which had become a Mondavi family compound and, with borrowed money, bought a well-situated vineyard in Oakville, at the valley's southern end.
The Robert Mondavi Winery broke ground in 1966 as Napa Valley's first major new winery since Prohibition. To design it, he hired Cliff May, an architect who was one of the fathers of the California ranch house. Mondavi insisted that the building, with its faux campanile and arches, front California 29 so tourists would see it before any other winery as they drove up from San Francisco. Later, he was among the first valley vintners to market wine by hosting extensive concerts, art shows and other gatherings on the site.
To maintain a paycheck, Mondavi consulted at other wineries. Meanwhile, he launched his own business with his wife, children and a few loyal ex-Krug employees. He invested in state-of-the-art equipment, learning the hard way that too-rigorous sanitation technology can strip wine of subtlety and flavor. He was among the first to use computers to control temperature in fermentation tanks, and he used scientific methods to test such things as vine trellising and barrel charring techniques.
When a grower sent him a crop of fine but unpopular Sauvignon Blanc grapes, he used French oak barrels to age his Sauvignon Blanc and gave the wine a glamorous, French-sounding name, "Fumé Blanc." Sometimes called "the poor man's Chardonnay, it sold -- and still sells -- prodigiously.
Glad-handing was also a business necessity because doing business Mondavi-style was costly. He traveled internationally at the winery's expense to exchange ideas with European winemakers, and his weakness for technology cost vast sums.
"For the first few years after the winery was built, we spent half the year on the road, shaking hands with people," his oldest son, Michael Mondavi, told The Times in 1991.
In 1976, a month after Rosa Mondavi died of cancer, the courts ruled that Robert Mondavi could liquidate his share of Krug. The financial settlement cost the rest of the Mondavi family millions and crippled Krug financially for nearly a decade. But it enabled Robert Mondavi to expand his business and buy back control of his company from his partners.
By then a seminal event had occurred in the wine world. On May 24, 1976, British connoisseur Stephen Spurrier had organized a blind tasting in France to pit the now buzzed-about wines of California against the best names in Burgundy and Bordeaux. The French entrants included a 1970 Haut-Brion and a 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. The judges were French, and to everyone's shock, the American wines triumphed.