By Joseph Baca
Robert Mondavi (1913-2008)
With Robert Mondavi's passing on May 16, the world lost a visionary and the single most influential force in American winemaking. "Wine to me is passion," he wrote of his life's work in his autobiography, Harvests of Joy. "It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living.” Through this trailblazing philosophy, Mondavi demonstrated to America—and the world—that Napa, California and the United States were capable of making some of the best wines on the planet. Mondavi was able to inspire Americans to contend in the competitive global wine market. And through wine, he showed that ancient European standards for life enriched with art, food and wine were attainable even for us in our young nation. In essence, he made us believe in ourselves and in our capacity to improve our own lives.
Mondavi was the son of Italian immigrants who ran a fruit-packing company in Northern California. After graduating from Stanford University, he convinced his father to purchase Charles Krug Winery and eventually left to form his own dynasty. (Just before Mondavi's death, Constellation Brands bought Robert Mondavi Winery for $1.03 billion.) He hired the best winemakers he could find and pioneered the use of small oak barrels and stainless steel fermentation tanks. As his renown grew, he formed alliances with wine barons, including Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild, with whom he founded Opus One Winery. His work, and especially the fruit of his labors, championed Napa as a world-class wine-growing region.
Mondavi became fabulously wealthy but avoided succumbing to elitism. A generous philanthropist, he put up $20 million to form the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, and gave another $35 million to UC Davis for both a wine and food science institute and a performing arts center.
Farid Himeur, co-owner of Gruet Winery, met Mondavi in London. He remembers the wine giant immediately recognizing the Gruet label, and that he even came up to thank Himeur for making an excellent bubbly. Mondavi also made an indelible impression on Mark Matheson, owner of New Mexico's Matheson Wine Company and a graduate of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. “In my list of people that I idolize in winemaking, just behind Louis Pasteur is Robert Mondavi," he says. Just as Mondavi made Napa a success in the face of the French wine institution, Matheson says, "He gives me inspiration that someday New Mexico wines will be up there with the world's best.” Hope of a better world through wine was Mondavi's magic, and now it's become his legacy.
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