Thursday, November 10, 2011

Robert Mondavi's Impact in Perspective

The Oct. 5 death of Apple founder Steve Jobs had many people grappling with perspective on his death. Many called him this generation’s Thomas Edison or Henry Ford.

At about the same time two shipments of Robert Mondavi wines arrived to my office. Mondavi has been a household name to many for decades. But the odd timing brought into focus that beginning wine drinkers or value wine drinkers should know about America’s most iconic wine name.

Anyone interested can certainly find ample material online about Robert Mondavi. The details shared in Grape Sense come from internet research and the marketing firm that handles Mondavi wines.

The wines are distributed in all 50 states and are always good representatives of the grapes and a safe choice when nothing else on the shelf looks appealing.

Robert Mondavi became one of the world’s biggest wine brands not just through winemaking but the man’s marketing savvy and business sense. He was the son of Italian immigrants and a graduate of Stanford with a degree in economics and business administration.

He worked at Sunnyhill Winery with his father before the family purchased Charles Krug Winery. At the age of 53 he opened Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa. He pioneered winemaking techniques, led blind tastings, and preached the pleasures of wine, food and the arts to anyone who would listen.

He co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food with Julia Child and Richard Graff in 1981. He has been “man of the year” for more publications and organizations than there is space to list. Perhaps one of his most notable honors came in 2005 when he won the Legion d’Honneur award, France’s highest Presidential honor.

His story got complicated in the early 1990s when his sons took over the business. They were producing a half-million cases of wine a year but were buried in debt. The family business went public and production soared to nearly 5 million cases annually. The Mondavi empire ended in 2004 when Constellation brands bought Mondavi for more than a billion dollars.

But throughout the ups and downs of the business Robert Mondavi was the spokesman for American wine. He deserves considerable credit for showing the world great wines could be produced in regions outside of Old World Europe.

One of the great partnerships of the last decade was Baron Philippe Rothschild and Robert Mondavi combining efforts in 1979 to create Opus One. The wine became one of the first super premium wines with the two rock star winemakers at the helm. The Bordeaux style blend is currently in its 2008 release and retails for $210.

Robert Mondavi died in 2008 at age 94. His name should be alongside Edison and the light bulb, Henry Ford and the Model T, Michael Jordan and basketball.

I’m frequently asked what wineries one should visit when making a first-time trip to Napa. I always suggest hitting Mondavi’s Spanish style landmark. It is the “granddaddy of them all,” to steal a line from sportscaster Keith Jackson.

The wines are good value at the lower price point and great wines in the upper echelon.

Howard’s Picks:
Robert Mondavi Private Selections include nine different wines at value prices you’ll find in groceries, wine shops, and liquor stores. The wines are very consistent for the under $15 price point. Another good choice in the value category is Mondavi-owned Woodbridge wines.

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley wines are the real flagship wines. These wines retail around $20-$30 and represent great wines, good critic scores, and consistent value for the price point.

Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa Cabernet is the top bottling, consistently garnering 90-plus points and measuring up to any Napa Cab. But it is a $100 a bottle of wine.

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