by Dan Clarke
Nature of the Man – Indomitable
After a falling out nearly fifty years ago, Robert Mondavi was exiled from Charles Krug, the family winery. Though a financial settlement was reached years later, in the mid-1960s he was adrift and without funds—at least funds necessary to start his own winery. In 1991 a luncheon marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Robert Mondavi Winery was attended by several of the people who'd provided financial backing for the venture. One of them recalled asking Bob for some projections of costs to establish a winery and estimated revenues for the first year or so. He said that Bob repaired to another part of the building with a pencil and pad of paper, later returning with numbers that looked good enough to validate investment. The speaker added that those projections later proved uncannily accurate. Bob was a smart man and had been in the wine business for about 30 years at that time, so it's not unreasonable that he be able to make fairly accurate predictions. However, any new business is a risky proposition. I have the feeling that Bob knew what was going to happen, because he would will it to happen.
At the beginning of harvest some wineries invite a man of the cloth to bless the first grapes to be crushed. It's part religious ritual, part agricultural tradition and also a good photo-op for the media. The Robert Mondavi Winery followed this custom in the Napa Valley and also at their Woodbridge facility just north of Lodi. One year Bob showed up walking with two canes. Though obviously in pain, he took the microphone to thank the officiating priest and all those who'd shown up on a hot August day in the San Joaquin Valley. When ceremonies concluded winery employees returned to work and most of the spectators took off. Some grape growers and a few writers were invited to stay for lunch over on the lawn, but I lingered. Soon there were only two of us out near the crush pad. Machinery started and the first Sauvignon Blanc grapes started moving on the conveyor belt toward the crusher. Bob moved slowly toward the spot where fork lifts were delivering their bins of grapes. He leaned over and watched the grapes move by for several minutes. How many times has he seen grapes crushed, I wondered? Isn't it always pretty much the same? What his thoughts were at that time I don't know, but I do know my thoughts were, “He still cares. You have to respect a man who still has such passion for what he does.”
A few months later I ran into Bob's son, Michael, and asked how his father was doing. “He's doing great,” came the reply. “He's had both his knees replaced.” Guests at Bob's birthday party the following June were dancing on the lawn. When the band started playing the twist I figured to sit one out, but as I left to get a glass of wine I glanced over to the right and saw Bob Mondavi doing a very credible exhibition of the dance—one that made my own knees ache just to watch.
Nature of the Man – Gracious
At a later birthday celebration at the winery (I think it was Bob's 90th), Governor Gray Davis was among those mingling on the lawn. He was in the company of several guys in dark suits--unusual dress in the Napa Valley, especially on a sunny afternoon in June. Though in his second term, Davis' popularity had been plummeting. A few months later voters would make him the second governor in the state's history to be recalled. On this occasion he had come to the winery to offer official birthday greetings to Bob. When his presence was announced and he was asked to come up to the stage, the crowd was strangely silent. As the governor ascended the steps to join Bob there was still an uncomfortable quiet. Emcee Tommy Smothers said to the crowd, “C'mon. We know you don't like the guy, but give the Governor a welcome.” It was a funny line, even if borderline cruel. Though 60 years old, Smothers still had that impish little boy quality that let him get away with it.
Bob strode over to greet the approaching Davis. He thanked him for coming and said that he was honored by his presence. Gubernatorial presentation having been completed, Bob said something like, “People are behind you, Governor Davis, just keep doing what you're doing” (stay the course, in effect). I have no idea what Bob's political leanings were, but he treated the Governor of California with respect and cordiality. It was the appropriate thing to do.
On a different occasion at Woodbridge (likely another blessing of the grapes), I slipped inside the door of a huge new barrel room as Bob addressed all the employees of this Mondavi-owned winery. There had been substantial money spent on upgrades recently and much of it had gone toward new French oak barrels for aging of the red wines. The new barrels weren't absolutely required, Bob told them, but they were necessary if the Woodbridge Winery were to continue in a leadership position in its price category. He thanked his employees for their efforts and assured them that they all contributed to the success of the operation. Returning to the subject of the new barrels, Bob said that this move was part of a constant effort to improve, citing past innovations in the quest to be the best. Reminding them that they were participants in the success of the winery, he challenged his employees to stay working hard and to imagine innovations yet to come, asking “What will we need to be doing to still be the best 25 years from now?”
Driving home to Sacramento I thought about how Bob had paid such respect to the Woodbridge staff while still encouraging them to do better. I had no doubt that he was seriously planning a future 25 years out. Bob was over 80 at the time.