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Thoughts on Robert Mondavi, American wine pioneer

      The first time I met Robert Mondavi, probably 25 years ago, I thought he was a bit long-winded. He was in a wine warehouse in North Miami-Dade, promoting his wares, going on and on about how wine was not just an alcoholic drink, not just something to give you a buzz.
      Wine was food, he said. Wine was part of a moderate, civilized, sophisticated lifestyle that had been appreciated by Europeans for centuries, while Americans let its pleasures pass them by.
      Well, he had the credentials. He was the man who was pulling California out of the doldrums of making mediocre bulk wine and into the modern European methods that seek quality by limiting grape yield, aging the wines in expensive oak barrels and using other methods to make them subtle and complex.
      He also was a consummate salesman – traveling the country to wine fairs, media tastings and fancy restaurants, forging a partnership and friendship with his equivalent in the world of food, Julia Child.
      In a 2007 story about Mondavi, I wrote this: “Robert wasn't above stacking the deck. This writer remembers a 1991 tasting in Coral Gables in which Mondavi put his 1987 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, at $45 a bottle, against such top French wines as the 1987 Chateau Latour at $90. He knew he couldn't lose, since cool-weather French wines,especially in those days, needed many more years of aging to mellow into readiness than did the sunny wines of California.”
      Along the way, Mondavi created a new image of winemakers as media stars. The 1980s TV series Falcon Crest, which portrayed California’s Napa County as a steamy hotbed of black-tie galas, family scandals and limos in the vineyards could have been written about him.
      But he paid a price. His real start in 1965, at 59, came when, after a fistfight with his older brother, Peter, he left the family vineyard, Charles Krug, to start his own winery. It was a brilliant success. But although the two brothers’ wineries were only five miles apart, they wouldn’t speak to each other for more than 20 years.
      In later years, Robert’s family troubles exacted another price. He rode his two sons, Michael and Tim, too hard, he admitted in a biography, creating major frictions in running the Mondavi empire. When I would attend big wine tastings at their ultra-modern winery in Napa Valley, the three would always be there – but always at separate tables.  By 2004 the two sons rebelled and took sabbaticals, and Robert, deaf and discouraged, lost his wine empire to the international drinks conglomerate Constellation.
      Finally, as advancing age mellowed them and Robert and Peter finally reconciled, there was a teary scene at the 2007 South Beach Wine & Food Festival as they were jointly presented lifetime achievement awards. It was agreed by acclamation that the brothers had been the most influential wine pioneers in American history.
      At the Miami Beach ceremony, Peter, 92, hard-of-hearing but still spry, spoke warmly, so long that his son had to come to the dais to lead him away; Robert, 93, sat in the front row, deaf, nearly unable to walk or speak, as his wife, Margrit, leaned to his ear to tell him what was happening.
      It was Margrit who, interpreting Robert’s feelings, told me the two brothers were at last at peace: "In old age we soften," she said. "The hurt is gone.”
      And she spoke what could have been his epitaph: "It hasn't been easy. But his legacy is already there. He had a vision of American wines, and he stuck to it."


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You should have mentioned that Mondavi went to Stanford, like all the great winemakers. Or at least, the one Aitana Sanchez-Gijon played in "A Walk In The Clouds."

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