Constellation Celebrates Robert Mondavi's 100th Birthday
Pioneer's vision raised California wine industry to new heights
Buying Robert Mondavi Winery was pivotal for Constellation, which had long been best known for low-end wines. Rob Sands, CEO of Constellation said during the evening, “The acquisition of Robert Mondavi Winery was a defining moment for Constellation, the pinnacle for us in the wine business. It gave us credibility in the wine business.”
Enough credibility, in fact, to allow it to move upscale overall and shed some of its high-volume, low end-wines, selling the Almaden and Inglenook wine brands, and the Paul Masson winery in Madera, Calif., to The Wine Group. Francis Ford Coppola was able to buy back the once-proud Inglenook name subsequently.
Though Mondavi died in 2008, Sands said his stake in the winery continues. “It’s important to maintain Robert Mondavi’s legacy for the people, the winery and the brand.” The Mondavi family sold their company to the public in 1991 and received $350 million as their share when Constellation bought it.
History of a pioneer
But what of Robert Mondavi himself? His parents Cesare and Rosa emigrated from the poor Adriatic region of Le Marche, Italy, starting in 1906, first settling in Minnesota, where Rosa ran a boarding house for Italian immigrants and Cesare worked in the mines.
In 1921, they moved to Lodi, in California’s Central Valley, where they became involved in the wine grape business, shipping grapes east during Prohibition for home winemakers, who could make wine legally.
They operated a winery, and their sons went to college: Robert to Stanford, Peter to the University of California, Davis, to study viticulture.
Cesare later invested in the old Sunny St. Helena Winery in Napa Valley (now Merryvale Vineyards), where his sons worked, then in 1943 acquired Charles Krug Winery, Napa Valley’s oldest operating winery, where the brothers joined their parents.
The brothers’ goals soon diverged. Peter preferred to continue as they were, making popular-priced wines, though he introduced many innovations in winemaking over time.
Robert had a grander vision. He wanted to compete with the finest wines of France. Heading marketing, he started promoting the company’s wines—and spending money at a level his family found uncomfortable.
This led to tension, and a fight (the last straw reportedly being a fur coat to help Robert’s wife fit in with the crowd he pursued), which led to a physical confrontation. Rosa was in charge after her husband’s death in 1959, and she evicted Robert from the business in 1965.
On his own
Free to follow his own vision—though without funds to do so—Robert found an investment from Rainier Brewing Co. to found his own winery with his sons Michael and Tim in 1966. Mondavi later paid back that investment after receiving a settlement—and prime vineyards—from his share of Charles Krug.
The founding of Robert Mondavi Winery was a turning point for the California wine business and for Napa Valley, soon unleashing a flood of new wineries that elevated the business’ image and success.
Mondavi commissioned architect Cliff May, whose design based on the old Spanish missions—though there were never any in Napa Valley—became a symbol not only for Napa Valley but for the California wine business overall.
Like his less-visible brother, Robert introduced many innovations and improved winemaking. But he also innovated in marketing. He vigorously promoted labeling wines with their varieties to differentiate them from generic wines, yet renamed and reformulated prosaic Sauvignon Blanc as fanciful Fumé Blanc and adopted the once-popular T-top bottles without capsules.
In 1979, he built the Mondavi Woodbridge Winery in Lodi, developing it into a leader of popular premium wines, the first so-called Bob White and Bob Red in magnums. They also made affordable “coastal” wines, and all proved very popular, providing a steady cash flow—though perhaps compromising the reputation of the top wines.
It’s ironic that Mondavi wines weren’t included in the famous tasting in Paris in 1976, for they missed the chance to reach an even-higher plateau (if they had won). As it was, Chateau Montelena (and winemaker Miljenko Grgich) and Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars got that credit. Mondavi once lamented that loss to me.
‘The good life’
Mondavi also famously associated the winery and its wines with the arts, fine food and entertainment—the good life, he called it—largely inspired by his second wife, cultured Swiss native, Margrit Biever Mondavi.
Margrit was working as a guide at the winery when she—and her vision—entranced Robert, leading to his divorce and remarriage, a source of added family strife.
But with Margrit, the winery reached the highest levels of influence. She initiated the Great Chefs program that became an inspiration for other wineries, started a concert series that featured top pop and jazz artists to raise money for local classical music and brought art into the winery, fitting as she is an artist herself.
Mondavi’s high profile led to joint ventures with famed wine families, notably Opus One with the Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux. It raised the winery’s credibility significantly, though the other joint ventures were less successful.
Meanwhile, upstart wineries stole some of the winery’s thunder, and other wines gained more attention from critics—and sold for more. Mondavi once told me, “With all we’ve done, our wine should be the most expensive!”
“All we’ve done” was an understatement.
Elevating the region and the state
He was famous for first promoting wine as part of the good life, then California and Napa Valley before elevating his own interests. Often quoting, “A high tide raises all boats,” he famously helped his competitors, sharing information and even equipment.
When newcomer Bernard Portet’s pump broke at Clos du Val, Mondavi sent him one to use. “In France, where I come from, my competitors would have laughed at my bad luck,” exclaimed Portet.
Mondavi was known to compliment other wines, and a Texas winemaker recalled Mondavi lavishing praise and buying his wine at a gathering in Texas.
Robert Mondavi and his winery did well, becoming the best-known premium winery in the United States. Still, there were issues. His sons Michael and Tim seemed to follow the family tradition and disagreed. They now have their own wineries and prefer meeting at family gatherings to working together. Their sister Marcia Mondavi Borger moved to New York.
Mondavi’s ambitious plans also led to a public offering to raise money, and the results demonstrated the disconnect between companies that live on agricultural cycles and the market’s demand for consistent growth and profits.
Running a public company was unfamiliar to someone as outspoken as Robert, who was used to making decisions. That trait led the company to try to shield Robert from the media and make his son Michael the spokesman.
Robert and Margrit were famously generous: Among their important donations were those to restore the exquisite Napa Valley Opera House after 70 years of neglect and help restore Lincoln Theater in Yountville, to found a boarding school for the arts on the Oxbow of the Napa River, giving $10 million to fund the Mondavi Center for the Arts and $25 million for the visionary Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, both at U.C. Davis.
They also donated $20 million to the seemingly visionary Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, which helped spur further investment that has made the once sleepy small city into a rising destination for visitors.
Unfortunately, things went wrong at Copia, and it closed in 2008, five months after Mondavi’s death May 16 at age 94. Efforts are in the works to find a new life for the huge white elephant, but it remains a sore reminder of what never will be on the edge of downtown Napa.
A high-stakes gamble
All that generosity had a price, however, and eventually the public Robert Mondavi Winery was acquired by Constellation Brands for an astounding $1.36 billion in cash and assumption of debt.
After the sale of the winery, Robert remained an ambassador until his health failed, though Margrit remains act ive and vital in that role today.
She joined Robert’s son Tim and daughter Marcia to create respected Continuum Estate winery, while Michael owns Michael Mondavi Family Winery and Folio Wine Co., which imports Frescobaldi and other wines.
Though some disappointments loomed later in his life, Robert Mondavi had remarkable influence and was among the most important figures in the transformation of the California wine business from producing cheap table wine and sweet fortified wines into perhaps America’s most glamorous business.