I left off last week after going through the first chapter of the Mondavi Story, which ended with the ongoing adventures of the Peter Mondavi Branch of the family at Charles Krug. Peter and Robert are the children of Cesare, the Mondavi who started it all. In a way, Robert was following in his father’s footsteps when he set off to found his eponymous winery in 1964.
As with most success stories, the factual has gained a drape of the romantic with the passage of time. I certainly do not know all the intimate details of this split, though many have reported that fisticuffs preceded Robert’s fateful decision to head out on his own. A decision that must have been particularly difficult knowing that, not only was the Charles Krug Winery profitable, but much of this success was directly attributable to Robert’s tireless efforts on its behalf.
The story of the Mondavi Family is intertwined with that of the famed To Kalon vineyard. For years the source of some of the world's greatest examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, To Kalon has also quietly been responsible for exceptional Suavignon Blanc. This slice of Oakville deserves all its accolades, and is as close to a Grand Cru as Napa Valley can claim.
Whatever the history may be, one thing is for sure: Robert Mondavi set out on his own. With the help of some $200,000 that he was able to raise, he purchased 12 acres in Oakville, the heart of the Napa Valley. By 1966 the Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley’s first new winery since the repeal of Prohibition, was ready for its first crush.
The first wine released from the new winery, in 1967, was a Chenin Blanc, typical of the wines offered for sale in those early years. Before Cabernet was king the vineyards were planted primarily with Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and a small plot of Sauvignon Blanc. That Sauvignon Blanc would lead to one of the first indelible marks impressed on the Napa wine industry by Robert.
After a trip, in 1962, to visit some of the great wine estates of France, Robert returned to Napa Valley convinced that one of the elements that set the greatest European wines apart from, and above, their American cousins was the use of French oak barrels for aging. From virtually the moment of his return, Robert began experimenting with various wood types and barrel sizes before settling on the French barrique as the ideal aging vessel for his fine wines.
The first chance Robert had to market test his theory came along in 1968, when he introduced a revolutionary wine: his Fumé Blanc. The world had never before seen a Fumé Banc, and in fact it was a proprietary name, used as much to add a little panache to the Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc, as to signify that this was not the Sauvignon Blanc of years gone by. It was fermented until dry, blended with a touch of Semillon, and aged in French oak barrels. Fumé Blanc was a hit and helped to establish the Robert Mondavi winery as a leader in its field, and a force to be reckoned with.
While much of the success of the Fumé Blanc, and subsequent wines like the Reserve Cabernet, can be attributed to the innovation and attention to detail always practiced at the Robert Mondavi winery, the fact that the fruit came from one of the valley’s greatest vineyards, To Kalon, cannot be discounted.
Recently, I was fortunate to join a group of wine lovers here in New York in order to taste through some of the Robert Mondavi wines with Margrit Mondavi, Robert’s widow. It was a pleasure to hear Magrit recount the story of Robert and the winery while trying a nice flight of wine, many from the famed To Kalon vineyard.