Standing On The Shoulders of a Giant: Robert Mondavi

RMW Winemaker - alums group 2
Five decades of Robert Mondavi Winery winegrowers and partners, April 25, 2016.

All photos courtesy Robert Mondavi Winery unless noted

Much has been written about Robert Mondavi’s direct role in elevating Napa Valley as the premium wine region and modern tourism destination it is today. Since the establishment of the winery in 1966, Robert Mondavi led sea changes in modern winemaking and winegrowing, brought modern design and hospitality experiences to Wine Country, introduced music in the vineyards in 1969 and pioneered food and wine programs with the Great Chefs program in 1976. Today, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley wines rank among the great wines of the world with the region attracting over 3 million visitors per year and garnering the most Michelin stars on the West Coast.

robert mondavi via robertmondavi.comAsk most any winemaker, grower, restauranteur or hotelier in Napa Valley and they will be tell you how Robert Mondavi helped them succeed. But at a memorable commemorative dinner this past spring, it was clear by the tributes from illustrious alumni that one of his greatest legacies may be the core values he drove into his team of successors, each of whom have also changed the world of wine in their own way: pursue excellence, dream big, and take action. As Robert Mondavi Winery alumnus Lily Thomas said, attributing her long career in the industry to Robert and Margrit Mondavi, “I stand on the shoulders of giants”

The Sky’s the Limit

Robert Mondavi never set small goals. He was determined to make wines that would stand in the company of the best wines of the world – and he led his team not only strive for it, but to do it. Warren Winiarski, who made the very first 1966 vintage Cabernet here at Robert Mondavi Winery, remembers one day after production, Mondavi hosing down the concrete pad when a plane flew overhead. He pointed the hose up to the sky and yelled “I can’t reach you but I’ll get close!”

Warren Winiarski, photo by Jim White,
Warren Winiarski, photo by Jim White,

Winiarski would later purchase a prune orchard next to Nathan Fay’s vineyard in Stags Leap District – whose Cabernet wines he loved – and established a vineyard in its place, producing its first vintage wine in 1972. The S.L.V. Cabernet would later take top honors in The Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 that catapulted the reputation of Napa Valley and forever changed the world of wine.

The Pursuit of Excellence

Phil Freese and Zelma Long
Phil Freese and Zelma Long

There are few winemakers in the world who are known by a single name, and Zelma (1973-1979) is one of them. She said “Bob was always looking forward … and so optimistic.” She recounted group trips to the great chateaux and domaines in France and Germany “as a way to push everyone forward” in terms of quality. All the winemakers this evening repeated the same “visionary” term to describe Robert Mondavi or as Phil Freese, Dir. of Winegrowing (1982-1996) called him, “a man who drove without a rear-view mirror.” According to Freese, Mondavi empowered everyone to experiment and to make mistakes – as long as they didn’t repeat the mistakes.

Zelma would go on and mentor other budding and now influential winemakers locally and abroad, including Peter Sisseck of Pingus in Ribera del Duero, new OIV President and Dir. of Oenology at Geisenheim Monika Christmann, and, together with Freese, a new generation of winegrowers in South Africa at Vilafonte. She would blaze a trail not only for women winemakers, but also for women in management as CEO of SImi Winery and head of marketing at Chandon in the 80s and 90s when both were owned by lux firm LVMH.

This early team at RMW helped popularize the concept of “winegrowing” which would replace the historic division of labor between growers and winemakers. As long-time winemaker Rich Arnold (1974-2015) described it, up until the 1970s, growers would do what they wanted and deliver the fruit, and the winemakers would “fix it in the winery.” Beginning in the 1980s, winemakers became winegrowers, recognizing that great wine is made in the vineyard and playing a more integral, if not leading role in viticultural decisions.

Backed by Mondavi’s continuous investment in excellence, Arnold also led a dedicated Research & Development team which at one point had four full-time staff. The findings were always shared with the community.

Genevieve and Luc Janssens
Genevieve and Luc Janssens

Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens, who’s been a steadying force and torchbearer for quality for over 25 years, said that Mondavi always gave them the tools they needed to succeed. These days, she said, “are the happiest in my life” and it shows.

A Way to Live Your Life

Photo by A. Hanami

Paul Hobbs, who has himself been called by Forbes the “The Steve Jobs of Wine” spent 7 great years here saying “there was always a garage spirit alive at this place” under Mondavi’s call to action “let’s do it!” According to Mondavi, Hobbs said, living boldly and taking chances “was a way to live your life, it’s much more important than the brand – it’s beyond all that”

In the 1990s, Hobbs would look south, to Argentina, where he helped build the the quality and global market for these Malbec wines as a consultant and importer and in 1999, as a partner in luxury producer Vina Cobos.  In 1991, Hobbs also established his own winery which now makes sublime single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines from Russian River and the ‘true’ Sonoma Coast, and distinctive Napa Valley Cabernet.

Rules to Live By

When Robert Mondavi said, “let’s do it!”, he did it right.

Graeme MacDonald
Graeme MacDonald

Graeme MacDonald, 4th generation To Kalon grower, remembers Mondavi by his honor and integrity, recalling how his great-grandparents started the relationship with a young Robert Mondavi, then at Charles Krug, in 1954 when they negotiated a long-term contract at a fixed $165/ton per year. After the first year though, grape prices quickly rose above $200 and $250 the year after. After each harvest, the family would be surprised to find a check reflecting the prevailing higher market price. Mondavi finally came in one day and said “we don’t need a contract, just a handshake” and tore up the contract in front of them.

The Next Gen

Joe Harden photo jim white
To Kalon winemaker Joe Harden with Mark De Vere MW and winemaker Megan Schofield. Photo Jim White,

Joe Harden, the young winemaker for To Kalon Vineyard wines who was at our table that evening, was a little subdued hearing the tributes of such illustrious alumni and their ensuing accomplishments. He said the next day that he had “big shoes to fill … but will carry the torch for the next generation” with the guidance of Genevieve Janssens and Rich Arnold. Harden shouldn’t worry too much. As we learned that evening, he has a soft place to land.

Over the past five decades, thousands of us have been touched by Robert Mondavi in some small way or another. Today on the 50th anniversary of his eponymous winery, we all stand proudly on his shoulders.

Robert Mondavi Winery  7801 St. Helena Highway