Throughout the relatively short history of wine in America, Napa Valley can be credited as introducing thousands of visitors each year to not only the beloved beverage, but also to the relaxed yet sophisticated lifestyle that goes along with it, coining the phrase “wine country lifestyle.”
The pristine California region welcomes novices and aficionados to its beautiful mountains and valleys, filled with luxurious wineries, delicious cuisine, passionate vintners, and inspired winemakers. One of the key individuals that we have to thank for all of this is Robert Gerald Mondavi.
In speaking with winemakers and owners through the years, many note that Napa Valley would likely not exist as it is today without Robert Mondavi, as he created the experience of enjoying wine, along with the actual wine.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited by the historic winery to join them in celebration, as their guest, for the 50th Anniversary of Robert Mondavi Winery.
50 years ago this son of Italian immigrants changed the face of wine in the United States, and the world, developing a world-class destination for wine, encompassing not only the high quality beverage, but also art, music, food, and how they mingle seamlessly together, representing a gracious way of life. This “gracious way of life” philosophy stood as the foundation of Robert Mondavi Winery.
When Mondavi began his namesake winery, after breaking away from his family winery, Charles Krug and CK Mondavi & Sons, stepping away from his father and brother to begin his own winery, he was determined to prove that the wines of Napa Valley could rival even the best Bordeaux in the world. It was a contentious time for Mondavi, as has been well documented over the years.
Mondavi was determined to showcase Napa wines with the name Napa Valley on them, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon but also mastering the blend, incorporating small percentages of Cabernet Franc into his Cabernet Sauvignon from the very first year. Up until that point much of the wine produced in the region was for bulk wine.
Robert Mondavi Winery at sunset
A determined Mondavi, along with his beloved wife Margrit, had a clear vision, to showcase the winery and region as a destination for visitors, giving tours of the facility and art installations from very early on, developing a tasting room, which was new for the region, creating wine and food pairings, and developing a concert series for visitors on their expansive winery lawn.
In the early 1960’s, with the help of architect Cliff May, the Mondavi’s built their mission style winery with the iconic arch and tower, bringing the beauty of the vineyards into the winery. Robert and Margarit wanted to teach guests about wine in a welcoming, harmonious, art filled atmosphere, helping them understand the unique place and the wines they were making.
The first Cabernet Sauvignon wine in 1966 came from To Kalon Vineyard fruit on the Oakville Bench between Rutherford and Yountville. He had purchased the vineyard in the 1950’s when he was a part of his father’s company, knowing the granite, sandy and clay soils, with already well developed vines, could deliver powerful yet soft wines.
Today, the winery has 450 total acres of To Kalon Vineyard, Greek for “the beautiful,” which still has vines planted in 1945, producing highly concentrated fruit, though in quite small quantities.
Over the two day event invited guests had the privilege of tasting through over 50 Robert Mondavi Winery wines, of which many included these old vintages of the celebrated To Kalon Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, with the actual name “To Kalon,” (a trademarked vineyard of Mondavi’s since the early days,) added to the label with the 2011 vintage. They say the best place to try any wine is always at the Chateau, Bodega, Domaine, or in this case, Napa Valley winery, as you can be ensured that older vintages are always kept in the most pristine conditions for aging.
The result, when tasting vintages back to the very first 1966, followed by 1968, 1969, 1971, 1973 and so on, proves that this land was and is ideal for celebrating Napa’s favorite grape. Though fruit had given way to earthier, dusty, dried notes acidity was still present, tannins were beautifully integrated and the wines remained fresh and elegant. Those earliest vintages were also very low alcohol, many around 12%, with a subtlety to them, allowing the true terroir to shine.
Over the years, as the focus became picking at the right time instead of picking at the right BRIX, the alcohol levels climbed, on average a 1% increase in alcohol per 10-15 years, with some in the 2000’s showing alcohol levels in the high 15% – 16%. I tend to enjoy a lower alcohol wine, as they are often more approachable and more enjoyable with food. However, if a wine is made well, with a balance of acid and tannin, the wines can shine.
The higher alcohol in the newer vintages of the Reserve To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon did highlight a stylistic shift in the more current releases, however they were also nicely integrated thanks in part to the artistry of Director of Winemaking, Geneviève Janssens, a part of the Mondavi Winery family for 25 years. Her focus is to highlight the maturity of sustainably farmed fruit, from vines now averaging in age around 45-50 years, and to use the tools provided from their state of the art cellar and winery, the To Kalon Reserve Fermentation Center, helping create well rounded wines.
In speaking with Joe Harden, winemaker who works under Geneviève’s direction on the red wine programs, he noted that the winery actually tends to pick their fruit earlier than others on the Oakville Bench, sometimes upwards of 2 weeks, as their goal is always to ensure the freshness of the fruit remains intact.
Still, those early vintages are special. None more than the original, 1966. Perhaps it was just having the opportunity to taste it made it so special. Perhaps it was the opportunity to taste it over the Gala dinner honoring the anniversary. Perhaps it was the opportunity to taste it in a room filled with some of the finest winemakers in Napa Valley, like founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Warren Winiarski.
Almost 90 years old today, the highly respected winemaker, who joined Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966 before founding his Napa Valley landmark in 1972, stood quite humbly to introduce himself to the group and simply say, “I am Warren Winiarski, and I made this wine.”
Winiarski noted that one of the best assets of the late Robert Mondavi was his willingness to work together, practicing the “if one succeeds, we all succeed,” attitude for much of his life. The first line of the sales manual for Robert Mondavi Winery reads “your competitor is your ally,” knowing the only way for Napa as a whole to succeed was in mutual support, respect and celebration.
Young winemaker, Graeme McDonald, told the story of his grandfather’s first encounters with Mondavi. His family’s property lies at the far western edge of the To Kalon vineyard on the Oakville Bench with some of the most rocky and stone filled soils. In the early days, when Mondavi was first getting started he had agreed to purchase fruit from the family for a set price and for a set time. When the fruit was delivered Mondavi recognized the quality of the fruit and threw out the contract, instead paying a higher, premium price and made a handshake deal to continue to do so. Some of their fruit was in that first bottle of 1966 Cabernet, and has remained a vineyard partner for the past 50 years, though in smaller quantities as McDonald now makes wine from his stellar vines under his label, McDonald Wines.
Winemaker Paul Hobbs, one of the foremost leaders on Napa Valley winemaking as well transforming the way many Argentinians produce quality Malbec, worked for Mondavi for several years in the late 1970’s before moving to Opus One. He graciously noted that Mondavi always allowed for innovation and experimentation. He expected a lot, and wasn’t a fan of beating around the bush or of not performing to the highest potential, but her was open to ideas. He wanted young winemakers to try something on their own as this was the best way to learn, and sometimes, this led to finding a better way of doing it. This attitude shaped the then young Hobbs to always expect more, do more and be more. Today he is one of the leaders in the region, and coincidentally, still makes wine from fruit grown at To Kalon. His 2005 Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon scored 100 points by Robert Parker.
Though not at the Gala dinner, one of my most beloved wine families in Napa is Robin Daniel Lail, Founder of Lail Vineyards. Though she celebrates the influence of her father, John Daniel, Jr., grand-nephew of Gustave Niebaum, and the impact her family’s Inglenook Estate had not only on her growing up, but on all of Napa Valley, she also credits Robert Mondavi as a mentor and friend. His passion and dedication to to promoting the wines of Napa Valley was contagious. He had an unending pursuit of excellence in the wines they produced and the place that they came from. Robert Mondavi passed away in 2008.
Today any Napa winemaker will agree that working with quality fruit is the basis of superior wine, as winemaking will always start in the vineyard. Mondavi believed this from the start with the purchase of the To Kalon Vineyard.
One surprising thing though, in this land of Cabernet Sauvignon, he also believed in the power and potential of great Sauvignon Blanc, specifically from these alluvial Oakville soils. To Kalon has some of the oldest vineyards of Sauvignon Blanc in Napa Valley, including one block of fruit planted in 1945.
Mondavi was a fan of the variety, specifically the Pouilly Fume wine from the Loire, and wanted to distinguish his Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc from the somewhat sweeter styles in the market place at the time. With this he created Fume Blanc, a high quality very dry, small production wine filled with apricot, white flowers, mandarin, crushed stone and flinty smoke. The old, dry farmed vines still produce high quality fruit, as displayed in the “Block 1” To Kalon Vineyard Fume Blanc and To Kalon Vineyard Fume Blanc, both textured, rich and highly concentrated wines that display the structure, character and finesse of vines with history.
Beyond the vines, Mondavi also wanted to celebrate art, showcasing the art of winemaking, along with the more traditional forms. The visionary, along with wife Margrit, wanted to create a winery where guests could come and have a fully sensory experience, from tasting wine, but also observing artistry in every kind from paintings and sculptures scattered throughout the expansive winery, to music with the winery debuting their annual summer music series in 1969 on the winery lawn, to food with programs like the “Great Chefs of France” and “Great Chefs of America” culinary series and development of COPIA and Julia’s Kitchen for education and culinary advancement. The celebration of life was always a focus.
As was his community, as noted, the “one succeeds, we all succeed” attitude is a common theme for winemakers who have been here for generations, but Mondavi thrived on this. He also recognized the need to help others and care for those that give so much, as is the basis of Auction Napa Valley. Begun in 1981 by the Napa Valley Vintners, with incredible support at the time from the Mondavi family. Today, Auction Napa Valley continues as one of the largest fundraising events in the country, donating over $150 million in the past 35 years to organizations that support community health and children’s education.
Strings trio for the Maestro luncheon at the winery.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, Robert Mondavi Winery debuted a new limited edition red wine, Maestro, in celebration of the art, music, wine and living life to its fullest that Mondavi loved, and the continued guidance and influence their founder still has on the winery, even today almost 8 years to the day of his passing, and almost 12 years after Constellation Brands purchased the property. The Merlot dominant Bordeaux blend is filled with ripe plum, cherry, dark chocolate, espresso and blackberry.
If you are traveling to Napa Valley this summer, put Robert Mondavi Winery on your to do list as the winery will feature several events throughout the summer, including hosting the Marketplace & Barrel Auction at this year’s Auction Napa Valley on June 3, their annual summer concert series and a special 50th Anniversary celebration on July 16 with cooking demos, wine tastings and hay rides through the To Kalon vineyard. Robert Mondavi Winery wines are available at the winery, via their website and locally at retailers like Pogo’s.