Robert Mondavi, 94; vintner was a powerful ambassador for California wine

Special to The Times

Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley vintner whose drive and salesmanship revolutionized the way the world thought about California wine, died peacefully Friday at his Yountville, Calif., home, a spokeswoman for the Robert Mondavi Winery said. He was 94.

The son of an Italian-born grape wholesaler from the Central Valley, Mondavi was, at the end of his life, one of the best-known figures in American viticulture, with a name that was almost synonymous with California wine. His Cabernets and Chardonnays have been served at the White House and sold by the glass at Disney theme parks. His Cain-and-Abel exile from his family business after a fistfight with his brother was the source of legend.

His Mission-style winery in Oakville is a landmark and wine label icon. Though he had little formal training in winemaking, he is credited with concocting Fumé Blanc in the 1960s, and with popularizing Chardonnay, in the words of Wine Spectator, “as the great California white.”


At a time when the phrase “fine domestic wine” was considered an oxymoron in the United States, Mondavi insisted that California wine could be positioned as a status symbol -- a strategy that cleared the way for the modern era of $2,000 cult bottles of Screaming Eagle and trophy wineries.

When Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of Bordeaux approached him about a Franco-American collaboration -- the equivalent, in the words of wine industry consultant Vic Motto, of “Goliath coming to David to learn how to throw stones” -- the resulting Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon not only sold for a then-unprecedented $50 a bottle but validated his vision for the industry.

In a statement, state Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) called Mondavi “the godfather of American wines.”

“His passion for excellence and his ability to inspire people were the keys to his success. . . . He put Napa on the map,” said Wiggins, who heads a Senate committee on California’s wine industry.

Mondavi also put wine on the dinner tables of Americans, said Thomas Keller, owner of Yountville’s French Laundry and Per Se in New York City. “By bringing wine to the forefront, he helped establish the culinary fabric of the country and the pleasure we find sitting around the table with friends and family,” Keller said Friday.

And Doug Shafer, president of Shafer Napa Valley Wines, told The Times: “Napa Valley wines are considered among the best in the world because of Robert Mondavi’s vision. He believed in California wine with every bone in his body.”

Like most salesmen, Mondavi understood the power of a good story. He spoke freely and frequently with reporters and historians and, in 1998, published “Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business,” his autobiography.

Rivals occasionally resented his innate gift for public relations. Some complained that he took too much credit for shaping the industry and Napa Valley. Others contended that he took too little blame for the elitism and commercialism that eventually vexed both, and snidely nicknamed his Opus One winery “O Pious One.”

As Mondavi’s focus shifted to philanthropy in the 1990s, he eventually gave $35 million to UC Davis to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and a center for performing arts. He donated millions more to create an opera house and his most cherished project, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa.

For all this, Mondavi was viewed as a powerful ambassador for wine and California, and he was recognized worldwide, even when the family lost controlling interest in the winery after a 2004 sale to Constellation Brands. The company’s labels ranged from his signature Robert Mondavi Reserve to the mass-market Woodbridge, and included collaborations with wineries in such far-flung places as Chile and Tuscany.

“Robert Mondavi had a vision for California, where it needed to go and what it would take to get there,” James Laube, a senior editor with Wine Spectator magazine, said Friday. “It wasn’t enough for Mondavi to succeed as a winemaker. Napa and California had to succeed as well.”

Robert Gerald Mondavi, born June 18, 1913, in Virginia, Minn., came into the world just 5 1/2 years before the ratification of 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the manufacture, sale, importation, exportation and transport of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

Domestic wine was then associated with immigrants like his father, Cesare Mondavi, who came to this country in 1906 from the isolated farm town of Sassoferrato in central Italy. Cesare Mondavi had followed an older brother to the Minnesota iron mines. In 1908, he returned to Italy to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rosa Grassi, a sharecropper’s daughter, and moved to Virginia, Minn. He opened a grocery and then a saloon while his wife gave birth to four children, Mary, Helen, Robert and Peter.

For the Italian families in town, wine was a staple; for Cesare Mondavi, it was also a livelihood. Under the terms of Prohibition, liquor and beer sales were banned, but families could make up to 200 gallons for home consumption. In 1919, shortly after Prohibition was enacted, the local Italian Club deputized Cesare Mondavi to go to California to buy bulk grapes.

He soon became a grape wholesaler in the Central Valley agricultural town of Lodi and moved his family there in 1923, when Robert was 10. When Prohibition was repealed 10 years later, a winemaker friend invited the elder Mondavi to become a partner in a small bulk winery.

By that time, Robert Mondavi was attending Stanford University and planned to be a businessman or lawyer. When his father said, “Bobby, there’s going to be a future in the wine business,” he thought, “why not go into a young industry and grow with it?” Mondavi told Michael Chiarello, author of the 2001 book “Napa Stories.”

In 1936, with a bachelor’s degree in economics, some chemistry classes and a senior-year tutorial from a UC Berkeley enologist as his formal training, Mondavi joined the staff of Sunnyhill (now Merryvale) winery. The next year, he married Marjorie Declusin, his high school sweetheart from Lodi and settled in the Napa Valley town of St. Helena.

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.

A handful of winemakers saw potential, however, and one inspired the young Robert Mondavi. He was Andre Tchelistcheff, a Russian-born agronomist with Beaulieu Vineyards, which was owned by a French-born aristocrat and was producing fine Cabernet.

“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.

The event went down in wine history as “The Judgment of Paris.” Although no Mondavi wines had been judged, the winners in the red and white wine categories were by Mondavi proteges and ex-employees. Mondavi later said he was “tickled to death” by the outcome: Napa Valley had clearly arrived as a major wine region, and the world approbation was seen as an endorsement of Mondavi’s upscale vision for his industry.

In 1978, he finally partnered with the Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the celebrated French vintner who a decade earlier had compared American wines to soda pop. Mondavi provided land and facilities and the baron sent his wine master to produce a top-of-the-line California Cabernet Sauvignon. Few California wines then retailed for more than $10 a bottle, but the resulting product debuted at $50 a bottle. Mondavi named it Opus One.

The drive that was such a source of strength in Mondavi’s business was a weakness in his personal life. In his memoirs, he wrote that his aim had been to build an empire, and to do that, he felt he had to be demanding and single-minded, even with people he loved. By the mid-1970s, he wrote, his family felt estranged and eclipsed by the career they had helped build.

As his marriage of four decades deteriorated, by his account, he fell in love with Margrit Biever, a polished, Swiss-born employee whom he had known since his Krug years. He divorced Marge and, in 1980, married for a second time.

In 1990, Mondavi stepped down as president of his winery. His two sons shared the title of chief executive officer at first, but a power struggle reminiscent of Mondavi’s own past prompted Mondavi to put the elder brother, Michael, in charge, with the younger Tim as vice chairman and head of winemaking and their sister Marcia on the board of directors.

In 1993, strapped for capital after a phylloxera epidemic forced a costly replanting, Mondavi became the third winery in U.S. history to go public. The company used the infusion of cash to expand operations, update winemaking techniques and replant vineyards.

But starting in 2001, California wineries faced the challenges of a weakening U.S. economy, cheaper imported wine and a grape glut. Mondavi revenues declined and stockholders called for change. Advisors also worried about the vast sums Mondavi had committed to charity.

In 2004 the Robert Mondavi Corp. restructured, which boosted the stock price but undercut family control. The company was bought out by alcoholic beverage marketer and producer Constellation Brands for about $1 billion.

Influential critic Robert M. Parker Jr. had called some Mondavi wines from the late 1990s “uninspiring” but softened his comments about later vintages. And other critics seemed to appreciate the winery’s classic Bordeaux-style Cabernet.

“I like gentle, friendly, food-centered wine,” Mondavi told The Times in 2003, and he pointed out that he continued to enjoy it. He drank two glasses of wine at lunch and split a bottle each night with his wife, Margrit, who survives him.

Mondavi is also survived by his children, Michael, Marcia and Timothy; nine grandchildren; and his brother, Peter.

Services will be private.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations to Copia; UC Davis, Oxbow School; or Stanford University.

Shawn Hubler is a former Times staff writer.

Times staff writers Valerie J. Nelson, Corie Brown and Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.