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Mondavi Sets Up Center, Complete With New Vineyard, to Enhance Wine’s Image

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Mondavi thinks wine is getting a bad rap.

Mondavi, president of a multimillion-dollar Napa Valley wine company that carries the family name, is convinced that it all began in the health-conscious ‘80s, when wine and many other alcoholic beverages were sidelined by the “me” generation in favor of Spandex workout suits and oat-bran protein drinks. He is on an all-out campaign to bring back the days when a glass of wine with a meal was socially acceptable.

“Everything in life has to be done in moderation and that includes drinking wine,” said Mondavi from his Napa Valley office. “If you overindulge with anything--such as food or what have you--you’re going to have a problem, but if you drink wine with sensibility, it’s not going to be a hazard to your health or your lifestyle.”

To spread that message around, the Mondavi family opened a 10,000-square-foot wine and food center last year in the heart of an increasingly booming industrial area in Costa Mesa. The center--the family’s first venture outside of Northern California--is aimed at educating retailers and the public about wine appreciation.

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Nicholas Furlotte, publisher of the Wine and Beverage guide in New York, said: “Mondavi has certainly been in the forefront of fostering a better understanding of the role that wine has played in civilization through the years and in educating people about the positive aspects of wine.

“While there may be other wineries attempting to do something similar, Mondavi is certainly on the cutting edge of educating consumers and continues to be the voice of reason in an environment in near hysterics whenever the term ‘alcohol’ comes up.”

This is not your average tasting room, where the wine curious walk in and are served a dribble of the vintner’s offerings. You’ll need reservations to attend one of the events here.

Among the dozens of seminars offered by the winery’s education department are tastings to introduce wines and discuss food pairings, and the more technical seminars that identify the major components in wine. There are blind tastings to compare Mondavi quality with wines from the world’s top growing regions, monthly cooking classes and a large kitchen that showcases the work of visiting chefs invited to the center to prepare meals for guests attending private receptions, luncheons and meetings.

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And there is a newly planted vineyard.

Eric Hansen, Mondavi’s director of corporate accounts, said the vines planted on an acre of land next to the center’s complex are part of the company’s educational interest. “We planted the initial root-stock vines in September and with them we are hoping to show the complete process of winemaking, with such beginning procedures as the cultivation of the roots.”

It will take about three years before any wine can be produced from the vines. But, Hansen added, “even at that point the wine will be used for purely experimental and educational purposes. We are not turning this operation into an actual winery.

“This is the first time in a very long while that vineyards have been planted in Orange County, so we are very anxious to see what happens,” Hansen explained.

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A wine colony was started in Anaheim by German immigrants in the mid-1850s. Ideal weather made grapes one of the leading crops in the county, and wine was bottled under the Mother Colony label, according to county historian and author Jim Sleeper. But in 1888, phylloxera, a plant louse that destroys vines, caused the fruit and vines to shrivel all over the county. Called the “Anaheim disease,” it caused the local industry to fade into oblivion.

Almost 100 years later, a wine bearing the San Juan Creek label appeared. Released in 1985, the wine was made from Johannisberg Riesling grapes planted a dozen years before in the 71-acre Gobernadora Canyon vineyard a few miles from the San Juan Capistrano Mission. It was bottled at a winery near Temecula. Owner Richard J. O’Neill and his vice president for agriculture for Rancho Mission Viejo cited high daytime temperatures and increasing humidity in the afternoon as assets for growing grapes.

Weather had nothing to do with the Mondavi family decision to build here.

“We moved an operation to the Orange County area because that area is central to everything,” Mondavi said. “People in San Diego as well as folks in Los Angeles who want to come and get some information on wine can now do so without going to Napa Valley.”

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The Mondavi name has been a mainstay in the wine industry ever since Michael’s father, Robert, left his family’s Charles Krug Winery in 1966 to build the first new winery in California since Prohibition. Robert Mondavi, 77, who recently retired from daily management operations, is credited with changing the sleepy California wine industry of the early 1960s into an arena of world-class winemaking. There were only about two dozen wineries in Napa County then, compared to more than 200 now, with more on the way.

Company President Michael Mondavi, who is an equal managing partner of the company along with his brother, Timothy, says the company’s major objective continues to be educating the American public about wine and its proper role as a mealtime beverage.

“I believe making good wine is a skill,” Michael said. “Wine is art--and as art, wine is at its best when enjoyed with fine food, while surrounded by art and music.”

The center’s Art Deco-styled building, which is surrounded by a rose garden and sculptures, has marble floors, a grand piano, classic furnishings and artwork on loan from some of the finest collections in the country.

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While company officials won’t disclose what it costs to run the elaborate education center, Hansen said the company is pleased with the success enjoyed by the complex.

Mondavi and other premium vintners in the state have good reason be grateful: About 85% of the wine made in the United States comes from California. Last year, home-grown wines rang up $6 billion in retail sales in this state alone. And while wine sales are flat nationwide, sales of California’s premium wines have increased an average of 19.6% a year over the past five years, according to a survey by Habrecht & Quist, a San Francisco investment firm.

“Because of health worries and the increased emphasis people have been putting on the negatives of drinking in recent years, people are not as likely to consume alcohol, particularly hard liquor,” said Furlotte of the Wine and Beverage guide. “The wine industry has suffered to some extinct because of that, but higher-priced, better-quality premium wines have enjoyed quite an increase in sales, much to the benefit of companies like Mondavi.”

In 1989, the last time that sales figures for Mondavi were available, the winery grossed $2.6 million with its premium wine sales, compared to $2.4 million in 1988.

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Furlotte added that the country’s new attitude toward wine is: drink less but drink better. “There is, of course, a big image thing in America where people want the best of everything out of life. That means cars, homes, clothes, and right down to the foods and wines they eat and drink. It’s total mind set that focuses on the finer things in life, no matter the cost.

“Mondavi is certainly reaping the benefits of the current trend,” Furlotte said. “Most wineries that have concentrated on the finer wines are all enjoying a bit more success than the rest of the industry.”

Vintners also have some facts to regret: Starting Jan. 1, a federal excise tax on table wine will add about 50 cents to the retail price of a standard bottle of wine. Some industry experts predict that the increase might reduce wine consumption by 12%.

Though Mondavi is positioned well in terms of sales, the company faces a potential danger that industry watchers say could hurt Northern California wineries for the next 10 years: phylloxera has affected about 250 acres, primarily in Napa and Sonoma counties. Replanting with new phylloxera-resistant vines may cost $250 million in Napa County alone.

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“Fortunately, we’d decided to used another type of root stock, one that is resistant to the disease, prior to it reoccuring,” Mondavi’s Hansen said. “Up until about three years ago, most wineries had root-resistant stock planted, but now that doesn’t seem to be working, which means a total change in the roots being planted.”

Hansen said the Mondavi operation will gradually uproot and replant its Napa Valley vineyard over the next seven years.

“Years ago, the vines had enough space between them so that a horse could get through to plow, and later on tractors, but we’ve found that the more we do with our hands, the better quality fruit we produce,” Hansen explained. “So now we are replanting the vines closer together, which will give us more vines per acre and less grapes on each vine, which will also enhance the grapes’ flavor.”


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