Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mondavi's legend began with a fistfight


Mondavi's legend began with a fistfight
By Jerry Shriver, USA TODAY

The legend of Robert Mondavi began after a fistfight with his brother and ended with his family empire disassembled and swallowed by a giant beverage company — a truly American saga with overtones of Shakespearean tragedy.

But in the four decades in between he did more than anyone to turn America into a wine-accepting nation and Napa Valley into a world-class tourism destination. Like his close friend Julia Child, Mondavi was a key pioneer of the so-called foodie revolution that is now entrenched in the American mainstream.

Mondavi, who died Friday at 94 in his Napa Valley home, was a tireless and classy promoter, a combative taskmaster and a passionate lover of the good life — all of which made him ideally suited to try and drag America out of its Prohibitionist mindset and point it toward something more sophisticated. To anyone who would listen, the diminutive dynamo with the rugged Romanesque profile preached that fine wine could be made in California, and that wine-drinking could be part of a healthy, intellectually rewarding lifestyle that included food and the arts. It was a message that baby boomers were primed to receive.

"We as a country are beginning to get much more mature in the way we view wine and the part we play in the world of wine," he said in a 2003 interview with USA TODAY. "We were not considered at all in the ball game 20 years ago."

Though his name seems to have resonated forever, Mondavi didn't begin his true missionary work until the second half of his life. In 1965, at age 52, he split from the Charles Krug winery that he ran with his brother Peter and with whom he often clashed. Though strapped for cash he built Napa's first modern showcase winery, in Oakville, and it became a beacon both for tourism and for wine-making innovation.

The success of that venture brought enormous wealth and fame to his family and to Napa Valley in general, but Mondavi, the son of Italian immigrant parents, still sought to be included among the Old World's elite winemaking community. This he tried to accomplish by forming a partnership with Bordeaux's Baron Philippe Rothschild to make Opus One, essentially America's first "cult" wine, and through later partnerships with the Frescobaldis of Italy and Eduardo Chadwick of Chile. Those ventures, as well as his fateful decision to take his company public in 1993, met with varying success. But they didn't detract from his overall goal of modernizing California winemaking and making the bounty accessible to mainstream consumers.

"Now there are many more top winemakers than ever," he said in 2003. "And when you combine that with the worldwide competition, which we spurred, you end up with more wines being made that are gentle and friendly and with more layers of flavor. The wines we're making today, without a doubt, are greater than they've ever been."

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