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07.2008

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: David Singer

When a Titan Becomes a Legend.   Mondavi.  The name is to the Napa Valley as Tiffany is to diamonds, Ferrari to cars.  A brand name that for decades was one of the benchmarks for what world class wine was about.   My experience with his wines really began with my first job in New York where they had a vertical of Opus One.  The Wine Director gave me a sample of Opus blind and asked me what it was.    Left Bank Bordeaux from a warm year was my answer.  Such a novice palate’s reply would have made Robert Mondavi smile from ear to ear.   ■    I never had the honor of meeting Robert Mondavi.  Yet with the way his name is so familiar in my chosen profession, it is almost if I had lost a distant cousin when I heard of his passing.  When he opened his own winery in 1966, it was the first winery to open since Prohibition.  Looking at his expansive land in what is today the Napa Valley, it is a little hard to believe.  ■   His ascent to becoming the Titan began not just as a new winemaker, but one in a then little-known area focusing on quality.  Nearby boutique wine makers in the valley and other areas of California had a similar credo.  Moving from large former brandy casks to new French barriques, green harvesting and high density planting are just a few of the changes Mondavi and his quality-centered neighbors embraced.  Take a look at the results of the infamous 1976 tasting of California vs. France.  It shows us he was in good company.  ■  Mondavi might have had similar ambitions with regard to quality, but his business philosophy was markedly different.  The story makes me think of Prometheus because he seduced Americans into a fiery love affair with the vine, bringing quality wine from beyond the pleasure of a select few to the many.  That is what separated Robert Mondavi in his early years from everyone else.  ■  Furthermore, he carved out a niche for a specific style of wine.  The launch of Fume Blanc in 1968 was a two-part strategy.  The first was to imitate Sauvignon Blanc in the French style.  At the time the California version was very grassy and aggressive.  By oak aging again he softened the wine.  This led to the second part of his strategy: to take a then-unpopular varietal and build it into an accepted and eventually admired one in California.  ■   He stayed true to his vision through decades.  When many California producers in the nineties began to move to the highly extracted style, his upper end wine, the Cabernet Reserve, remained in the homage style to Bordeaux.  He always preferred elegance and finesse to extraction and power.  Look to the partnership of Mouton-Rothschild and the Mondavis with Opus One.  ■  Even Titans pass on, and over time they become Legends.  The Napa Valley and even California wine would not be where it is today if it was not for the inventive efforts of a man that liked to be known simply as Bob.  - David A. Singer



PHOTO by SCOTT MANCHESTER • THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

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