by Dan Clarke
I first met Robert Mondavi in 1987. We were entering an elevator at the conclusion of a dinner in San Francisco at which he had been honored. The evening was billed as something like Legends of the Napa Valley and he was one of the 12 legends acknowledged that night.
“Hi, I'm Bob Mondavi and this is my wife Margrit,” he said, offering a handshake. Of course, I knew who he was. After all, he was a legend in the world of wine. Though I was covering the event for the California Wine Press, I was not a legend in the world of wine journalism. We exchanged pleasantries on the ride down to the ground floor, saying goodbye as we headed for our cars outside. I remember thinking, this man is a real heavyweight, but a regular guy. Since then he's always been Bob to me.
Though that night was the first time we'd actually met, I was aware of him from the time he opened his own winery in 1966. Just a few years after that I had begun attending jazz concerts on the lawn at the new winery. At that time there were fewer than 30 wineries in Napa and booking music was quite innovative. It made people more aware of wine and of the Napa Valley. It was obvious that this Mondavi was a creative man, the kind who made things happen.
The Robert Mondavi Winery did no paid advertising in those days, but they had the best PR department in the business. They made a writer's job easier. There were real stories to be told and access to the family and staff was easy. Though still not a legend in the world of wine publishing, I found myself invited to many of their events. I had opportunity to observe this man in action and, on occasion, to interact with him. I was saddened the last time I saw him, as Bob's health had begun to wane. He was sitting next to his brother, Peter, and had a glass of wine in his hand. The glass had a straw in it.
Bob died at age 94, but a month ago the Robert Mondavi Winery, now owned by Constellation, acknowledged what would have been his 100th birthday. At that time I noticed newspaper articles in which colleagues included a personal reminiscence or two and I would like to share some of my own memories of Bob Mondavi when he was the most vibrant, dynamic personality I'd ever encountered.
Several times I participated in tastings at the winery with larger groups, often from hotel chains like Hilton and Hyatt. Food and beverage directors, chefs and key management people would come from all around the country to visit Northern California wineries. It was part educational for them and part buying trip. They were looking for wines that could be put on their core lists, meaning they'd be available at all their properties. These hotel reps also had some latitude to select wines they liked that would be available at just their own locations. Getting placement on a core wine list meant significant sales for a winery. By the time I would sit down to taste with the hotel people they had visited other wineries that had volunteered to share hosting duties for 40 or 50 tourists, including some in neighboring Sonoma County. As I recall, wines at these tastings at the Mondavi Winery were presented in flights stratified by price within each varietal category and would represent products from all the wineries that had been visited. Discussion would follow these segments. It was fun to get the perspective of non-Californians and learn about the needs of their clientele, especially so when a large group of Japanese sommeliers visited. Bob was a tireless promoter of his own winery and of the Napa Valley, but that never seemed to be at the expense of anybody else. If cultivating these groups was good business for the Mondavi organization, it was also good business for numerous other wineries that participated.
Another sort of tasting became an annual ritual. The winery would invite some members of the media to a good restaurant in San Francisco. There they would participate in a blind tasting of Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and first growths from Bordeaux. These French wines were Cabernet based and considered the standard of the world for wines of this type. They were also far more expensive than anything from California. While we writers knew the identities of the wines to be poured prior to the tasting, we sat down to glasses of unidentified red wine. Two Mondavi Cabs would be among several French entrants. Each writer was asked to list which wines he liked in order of preference. Someone would tally the results while we tucked into a very nice lunch. Similar tastings were held on the same day in other major markets like New York and Los Angeles. When results were announced we discovered that most of us had selected the two Mondavi wines anywhere from the middle to the top of our lists. Invariably, Bob's comment was that he wasn't trying to say his wines were the best, just to show that “we belong in the company of the best wines of the world.” By that standard, anything but repeated, dead-last finishes would validate the theory. But his wines did so much better than that. Each time his point was proven, but Bob graciously underplayed his hand, letting others say, “Hell yes, these wines belong in the company of the best in the world.”