To succeed and have a happy life, you need common sense, a commitment to hard
work and the courage to go your own way. Interest is not enough — you must be
passionate about what you do. Find a job you love and you'll never have to work
a day in your life.
— Robert Mondavi
The story of the man who single-handedly changed the world's mind about
California wines (and American wines by association) is a bona fide tale of
"rags to riches." Shunned by his family after financial squabbles, he
went from being "nearly broke" in 1965 to selling the business (and the
architectural gem that is the winery's headquarters in Napa, California) in
2004 for $1.3 billion.
Robert Mondavi's life was, sadly, marked by family disputes in not one but
two business ventures. Always his own man, he indeed went "his own way" despite
the cautions of his peers and advisors. He swam against the current of
mediocrity and old-fashioned tradition, wishing instead to live life well and
At a time when the phrase "fine domestic wine" was considered an
oxymoron in the United States, Mondavi insisted that California wine could
be positioned as a status symbol — a strategy that cleared the way for the
modern era of $2,000 cult bottles...
— Shawn Hubler, The Los Angeles Times
The Stuff Legend is Made Of
Bob Mondavi was such a forward-thinker and innovator, there's little wonder
the Mondavi story is filled with exciting anecdotes. One of the most famous was
the story of his fight — literally — with his younger brother,
During the 1950s and '60s, Robert was working for the family winery in
marketing and was pushing for a change from "tank" wines to better-quality
product. This caused tension between Robert and the rest of the family, all of
whom were more interested in the status quo; which at that time was the
manufacture and marketing of unremarkable table wine. Robert's innovation in
wine and knack for public relations got him an invitation to the White House
during the Kennedy administration. For the White House visit Mondavi bought his
wife a fur coat.
At a family meeting in 1965, the tension between Mondavi and his brother
Peter exploded when Peter, preaching Old-World-style frugality, accused Robert
of using winery money frivilously (it was all about the fur coat). Robert
responded by slapping his brother. In his memoir, Bob wrote, "I smacked him,
hard. Twice." The result was that the family ostracized him and threw him out of
the business. Bob hired a lawyer. It took a battle royal that lasted until 1978
for Robert to receive payment for his share of the family business.
The high point of Mondavi's career is arguably his coming together with
Baron Philippe de Rothschild, France's premier wine maker, in a joint venture
which produced the exclusive Opus One winery, manufacturer of the costliest and
finest California wines (a bottle of Opus One will set one back from $350 to
$700, dependent upon vintage). Cases of Opus One have sold for over $20,000 and
up at auction. Wines from Opus One have earned many awards for their product,
which enjoys international recognition. Mondavi engaged in similar cooperative
ventures with wine makers from Argentina and Italy, as well.
Out of all the rigidities and mistakes of my past, I’ve
learned a lesson that I’d like to see engraved on the desk of every business
leader, teacher, and parent in America: The greatest leaders don’t rule.
— Robert Mondavi
Beginnings Steeped in Old World Traditions
Robert Gerald "Bob" Mondavi was born in Virginia, Minnesota. The Mondavi
family moved to Lodi, California in the 1920s; the young Mondavi attended Lodi
public schools. Mondavi's parents, Cesare and Rosa, emigrated to the United
States in 1908. Robert, one of four children, was born on June 18, 1913, just
over five years prior to the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the United
States Constitution, which created Prohibition of alcohol beverages.
Mr. Mondavi earned his business degree in 1936 from Stanford University.
He'd taken a few wine making courses but never earned a degree in winemaking.
After college, he went to work for the family business, Sunnyhill Winery. The
winery had no grapevines and no bottling facility; all they did was make wine
out of purchased grape juice and sell it to bottlers. Bob Mondavi was manager of
the concern by 1940.
Mondavi married his first wife, Margaret, in 1937. The couple had three children,
two boys and a girl. Mondavi and his wife settled in St. Helena, California.
The opportunity presented itself to purchase the oldest operating winery in
the Napa Valley, the Krug winery. Cesare Mondavi was wary; Krug had fallen on
hard times, making the place a bargain, but the Mondavi patriarch was wary of
buying other people's troubles until Bob and his brother Peter made it clear
that there was a lot of profit to be made by selling bulk wine from their first
winery, bottling it under the renowned Krug label and turning a nice profit by
doing so. The Mondavi family bought Krug in 1943.
For 23 years, Bob was on the road selling and promoting his family's wines.
Peter remained in California, managing production. While Peter was consistent
and methodical, Robert was flamboyant and driven. The vast chasm between their
personalities widened over the years but was tempered by Cesare Mondavi, who
mediated arguments between his offspring. When Cesare died in 1959, the
brothers' differences exploded.
The above-mentioned fur coat anecdote was just part of the brothers'
disagreement. Peter resented Robert's lavish, globe-trotting lifestyle. A trip
to France by Robert filled him with ideas about what's good and bad in the
making of fine wine. The good part is that fine wine is an art; Robert was
thrilled by talking with winemakers whose product sat in oak casks for years
before being bottled. Meanwhile, Peter sat in California, quite happy with
making wine in stainless-steel tanks that was as unremarkable but
consistent-tasting as cola soda. Robert saw that the future of wine was in
treating winemaking as art rather than all business.
In the 1950s, when no wineries in France, much less America, were giving
tours, Mondavi opened a tasting room at Krug and invited the public to tour the
winery. He started a tradition that all but a handful of great wineries has
Bob Mondavi was 52 when, after being exiled from the family business, he
started over with help from friends. He built the showcase Mission-style
building which houses a visitors' center and tasting rooms in 1966. The
architectural gem was designed by Cliff May.
More importantly, now that he had his own winery, he'd not have to answer to
family members every time he saw an opportunity. He continued using cold
fermentation, a method which retains layers of fruit flavor in wines, to make
better and better product. He continued to travel extensively and make note of
others' styles of winemaking. He was a man who loved to learn.
Robert Mondavi didn't wince at spending a fortune on the best equipment and
experimented with state-of-the-art techniques like the trellising of
vines and various techniques for charring the inside of wine barrels. He was the
first to utilize computer-control of temperature in fermentation tanks.
Mondavi bought French oak bottles to age his Sauvignon Blanc, made from very
fine fruit. He dubbed this creation "Fumé Blanc." It still sells well and
is consistently highly-rated in the wine and food media.
Although none of Mondavi's wines were tasted, in May of 1976 a British
connoisseur put together a blind tasting of wines from California and the
Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France. The tasting took place in Paris and
featured a 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion and a 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. The
American wines prevailed. The shock shook the wine world to its core. Mondavi
was delighted despite the lack of participation. Some of the winemakers
celebrated were former employees or colleagues; he was rooting for every
California winery to enjoy the same success he had.
All was not peachy at Robert Mondavi Wines, however. Robert's two sons
engaged in squabbling similar to the kind that went on between Robert and his
brother Peter. The brothers co-chaired Mondavi wines.
Robert Mondavi Wines was the third winery in the United States to go public.
This was after a 1993 blight on the vines which necessitated an expensive
re-planting of vines. The company endured many financial ups and downs, and
shareholders became concerned with Robert Mondavi's lavish spending on charity.
So in 2004 a restructuring raised the stock price but put the company at risk
for a takeover. The company was purchased by Constellation Brands for over a
billion dollars. Mondavi was kept on as Chairman emeritus.
Mondavi has his critics, those who accuse him of being responsible for the
elitism and snobbery in the California wine industry,
particularly in the Napa Valley. Mondavi himself was a perfectionist, but
certainly not an elitist. He wanted a bottle of good wine on every
American table. For this reason, he bought the Woodbridge winery, which to this
day turns out high-quality, value-priced wine offerings.
The Los Angeles Times summed up the envy and rivalry of his peers in Napa
delightfully: "Rivals occasionally resented his innate gift for public
relations. Some complained that he took too much credit for shaping the industry
and Napa Valley. Others contended that he took too little blame for the elitism
and commercialism that eventually vexed both, and snidely nicknamed his Opus One
winery 'O Pious One.'"
People don't believe you anyway — why bother lying?
— Robert Mondavi
His single-mindedness and drive, he admits in his memoirs, led to alienation
of friends and family. He divorced his wife of over forty years. He'd fallen in
love with Margrit Biever, a Swiss-born former employee of Krug. He married
Margit in 1980.
The Mission Program was another Robert Mondavi innovation, intended to do
battle with the anti-alcohol groups such as MADD in the U.S. and
worldwide. Now supported by hundreds of labels, the Mission Program is dedicated
to educating the public about the health and cultural benefits of wine. A CBS
"60 Minutes" show featured the health benefits of wine drinking in moderation
and served to increase wine consumption, particularly at the American dinner
Bon Vivant and Philanthropist
Generosity pays. So learn to initiate giving. What you give
will enrich your life and come back to you many times over.
— Robert Mondavi
Mondavi counted among his friends pillars of the wine and food scene,
including Rothschild, Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Alice Waters and other celebrities. His joie de vivre
extended from his personal life to his philanthropy. He endowed "Copia: The
American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts," a cultural center, in 2001. He and
his wife endowed the University of California at Davis' Robert Mondavi Institute
for Wine and Food Science. The Mondavi name is also on the school's new Center
for Performing Arts. At $35 million, Mondavi's contribution to the University of
California was the largest amount given to the school by a single donor ever.
Mondavi's autobiography, "Harvests of Joy: How The Good Life Became
Great Business," was published in 1998. He has
received honors from the government of Italy, the U.S. and foreign wine
industry, and the Culinary Institute of America. He was inducted into France's
exclusive Legion d'Honneur in 2005. He was inducted into the California Hall
of Fame by Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger in August of 2007.
Robert Mondavi died peacefully at age 94 on March 17, 2008.
- Obituary at Wine Spectator magazine's website:
- "The Rise and Fall of Mondavi," by Kai Ryssdal, American Public Media
Website, August 22, 2007:
- Robert Mondavi Winery Corporate Website:
(Various pages, Accessed 5/17/08)
- "Robert Mondavi, 94; vintner was a powerful ambassador for California wine"
by Shawn Hubler, The Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2008
- "Robert Mondavi, Napa Wine Champion, Dies at 94" by Frank J. Prial,
New York Times, May 17, 2008