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.

The To Kalon vineyard was named by its original owner, H. W. Crabb, another of Napa’s true pioneers. In 1868, just 7 years after the Charles Krug Winery was founded, H. W. Crabb began producing wines from 360 acres in Oakville that he eventually named To Kalon, or “Highest Beauty” in Greek.

 Crabb is credited with planting the first Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc vines in Napa valley, and by the late 1880s had experimented with some 400 different grape varieties. The To Kalon label, under which Crabb bottled his wines, won awards around the world and developed into one of the first California wineries with a following outside the state.

 H.W. Crabb past away in 1899, and the To Kalon Vineyard went through the hands of two families before Robert Mondavi purchased almost 12 acres in 1966 to start his own winery. Mondavi was familiar with the great wines that had been made from To Kalon fruit at Charles Krug, which had purchased the lion’s share of the original vineyard in 1962, after making great wines with purchased fruit for about a decade.

In 1976, to finally close the book on the story that had led to Robert’s original departure from Charles Krug, he took control of some 240 acres of the original To Kalon vineyard from Charles Krug. In the intervening years the vineyard has grown to some 550 acres, all called To Kalon.

Exactly what makes the To Kalon vineyard special is a question I do not have the answer to. It’s a broad stretch of land that reaches to the Mayacamas foothills along the Napa valley floor. In doing so it traverses several distinct meso-climates and terroirs. From the rich alluvial soils closest to the river planted to Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, to the well-drained gravels that creep to the hillside, planted to Cabernet, the wines produced from these vines simply tend to have something more, a little finesse and better balance, than many of their neighbors.

The complete story of Robert Mondavi could not be told in the space of this article, and certainly not in the time I have to tell it. If you'd like to learn more about the history of Robert Mondavi I can suggest: The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty For a more complete understanding of Robert Mondavi, hearing him recount his own story is indispensible, so take a look at Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business as well.

For the purposes of this article it’s worth mentioning that Robert turned over day-to-day management of the winery to his sons, Tim and Michael, in 1990. Their commitment to quality has been as deep as their father’s. In an effort to lift Robert Mondavi wines to the next level they undertook a project that embraced the best of time-tested techniques and integrated the best of the new, and they called it: To Kalon.

The project revolves around a distinct winemaking facility that uses upright wood fermenters for the vinification of their red wines, and incorporates as little technology as possible, putting the winemaking back in the hands of the winemakers. The flow of juice, from press, in basket presses, to bottling is all helped along by gravity. The wines made by the To Kalon project stand as testament to the passion of a long line of men with the vision that has turned Napa Valley from fruit orchards and dairy pens into the one of the world's finest source of wine: H.W. Crabb, Charles Krug, Cesare Mondavi,and, last but not least, Robert Mondavi.

The Robert Mondavi Winery is now owned the Constellation brands. They have made a commitment to continue down the path first blazed by Robert Mondavi. Since their acquisition of the winery, completed in 2004, not much seems to have changed. Time will tell whether the wines made today are the equal of those made by the Mondavi’s own hands.

And that, of course, leads us on to the wines! This tasting focused on the wine from Ta Kalon, and in particular the Reserve Cabernet and the truly exceptional Sauvignon Blancs. Who knew they were so special? Read the tasting notes on the next page.

An Exploration of To Kalon Vineyard with Margrit Mondavi 1/27/2010

The two Fume Blancs, as they are known of course, come from the To Kalon vineyard with one carrying the further designation: I Block. The I Block is reputed to be the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in the US, with vines planted around 1945. About half of the vines in the I Block are original, the other half having been replaced as needed.

The To Kalon reserve bottling comes from vines that are undergoing a progressive replanting to introduce the best clonal variations and rootstocks into the vineyard, as well as to adjust vine spacing to what are considered to be ideal densities.

Both the I Block and the To Kalon Reserve are 100% barrel fermented in barrique, about 1/3 new, and are aged in barrel for nine to ten months. The To Kalon benefits from an addition of 10% Semillon, while the I Block is 100% Sauvignon Blanc.

For notes on a previous dinner where I tasted Mondavi’s Reserve Cabernet from 1975-1979 please see the notes here.

The Tasting Flight

2001 Mondavi To Kalon Fume Blanc Reserve

This is amazingly expressive on the nose with fresh field greens edged in mineral tones with a hint of smoke. The fruit is rich and green with melon and fresh fig tones balanced by touches of green hazelnut and olive. There’s a nice waxy element tying everything together. In the mouth this starts out feeling rich and round but the excellent acids give this uncommon definition on the midpalate and contribute to an almost blood orange tone. The backend has a lovely mineral edge to it that draws out the restrained, transparent fruit that is built on acids. On the finale, bright, almost sweet fruit wins out. This is the best domestic Sauvignon Blanc I’ve ever had.  95pts

2007 Mondavi To Kalon Fume Blanc Reserve

In contrast to the 2001 this edition of the To Kalon Sauv Blanc has more ripe fruit, but it’s also bundled up a bit tighter. There’s a light, smoky wood tone on the nose with hints of peach, lime and lime zest. With air, subtle floral, geranium petal, and almost saffron-like notes emerge from the glass. On the palate this is rich and ripe with softer acids than the 2001 but still very vibrant. It’s got a youthful, taut, linear feel to it with excellent intensity of flavor. On the backend a salty, mineral note emerges and gives this an almost margarita-like quality with the blend of citrus fruit and that geranium, vegetal tone. This really needs time to show at its best. 92pts

2007 Mondavi I Block Fume Blanc

This is subtly smoky with some geranium stem notes and slightly woodsy tones under a layer of ripe, limey fruit. In the mouth this is rich and perfumed with a very smooth texture that makes it immediately attractive The fruits tend to the tropical with notes of pineapple, citrus and melon, though there are intriguing notes of white peach and green tomato adding depth and complexity. This finishes with a minor mineral flourish and lovely inner mouth perfumes of fresh herbs. 90pts

1995 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

From 3 liter bottle

Youthful and tight on the nose with a lovely core of ripe fruit that lays red currant notes over a bed of loamy soil tones and adds classic wood spice notes around the edges. This is classic California Cabernet, quite ripe but retaining the herbal element that gives it such a complex bouquet. On entry this is rich but a bit angular still. The wine has excellent depth and concentration, needing only some time to allow the rich currant fruit to fully emerge. Already there is a lot of fine detail on the palate with a subtle, savory complexity of herbs, roast meat, and boysenberries that emerges on the long finish.  This is delicious. 94pts

2000 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

From 6 liter

This starts out a bit shallow on the nose with significant notes of herbs and tea dominating the aromatics. The fruit is there, rather compact, dark and not particularly distinctive. On the palate this offers an attractive blend of toast, gravel dust, light smoke and tomato leaf tones that add complexity to the fruit. It’s a touch lean, but is almost silky with an elegant, refined feel and a nice, crisp finish. 88pts

See additional tasting notes on the next page

Wines with dinner.

2008 Mondavi Fume Blanc

This offers up plenty of green fruits and grapefruit on the nose with a hint of mineral smoke but is a bit simple. On the palate it’s snappy and fresh with nice acid, but--like the nose--is a bit on the simple side. It’s got nice balance and a decent finish; while serviceable, isn’t very exciting. 86pts

2007 Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve

This really offers up some nice, complex aromatics that start off rather pine foresty with really sweet wood tones that recall coffee cream and marshmallows but gains some depth with a meaty note and accents of sweet pipe tobacco and some dried tomato. On entry, this is sweet, but it quickly turns hard and angular with tough little tannins fighting the small red fruits for your attention. The tannins win on the moderately short finish, which is also a tad hot.This just may need time but is a little disappointing.  86pts

1981 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

From 6 liter

This is quite obviously old with notes of carrots and parsnips on the nose that slowly fade into the background, adding a dusty vegetal character to the emergent black currant fruit. On the palate this is fully resolved with a silky feel and complex, layered flavors of sweet fruit, cedar, cigarbox tones and hints of freshly cut grass and roasted coffee beans on the long finish. There is no doubt that this is past prime, even in this large format, but the wine still is captivating, with excellent balance. 90pts

2006 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Young notes on the nose recall coffee cream with a buttery edge over jammy red fruits with hints of herb, leather and a touch of medicinal, cola syrup. On the palate this is balanced with prominent acidity and emerging floral inner mouth perfume. It’s a bit tight on the mid-palate with good extract and a chewy feel, yet this is not particularly rich feeling. There’s a bit of vanilla that peaks out on the moderate finish which is balanced by notes of chocolate, tobacco and cassis fruit. This may very well improve with age as almost every Mondavi Reserve has, but I have some doubts about where this is headed. 88pts

2000 Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis

This smells decadent with rich notes of candied almonds, dried apricots, dried citrus fruits, candied grapefruit peel and an herbal top note all jumping from the glass. In the mouth it’s medium rich with a nice sugar/acid balance that keeps it lively. The fruit is supported by the generous acidity and complemented by an almond brittle edge. Real length with apricot fruit and nuanced caramel emerging on the finale. 92pts

Two of Mondavi's Best Wines

2000 Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis
This smells decadent, with rich notes of candied almonds, dried apricots, dried citrus fruits, candied grapefruit peel and an herbal top note all jumping from the glass. In the mouth the sumptuous fruit is supported by generous acidity and complemented by an almond brittle edge.

1995 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
This is classic California Cabernet; quite ripe but retaining the herbal element that gives it such a complex bouquet. Already there is a lot of fine detail on the palate with a subtle, savory complexity of herbs, roast meat, and boysenberries that emerges on the long finish. This is delicious.