Robert Mondavi was to California wine what Julia Child was to French food in the United States. He turned on generations of thirsty North Americans to the possibilities wine has to offer. And while it took a movie starring Meryl Streep to make Child a truly global name, it was Mondavi's unceasing work over the decades to foster and promote California wine, most notably at the helm of his eponymous winery, that made him known the world over.
"Dad shook things up," says Timothy Mondavi, who now heads a small artisan winery, Continuum Estate, with his sister, Marcia Mondavi Borger. "He was never satisfied with things as they were. It was always about how to make things better. There was a curiosity about food and wine that permeated everything we did."
Food and wine — sounds like a no-brainer — go-together, right? But a half-century ago most Americans didn't drink wine.
"When people thought about wine in the 1930s or '40s or '50s, it was rot-gut wine," says Julia Flynn Siler, author of "The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty."
"Robert Mondavi burst into the industry and recognized the possibility that California wine could be much better than it was," says the journalist, who lives in Ross, Calif. "He put Napa Valley on the map. He changed the face of the American wine industry. He shook it by the lapels and said, 'We can do a lot better.'"
Tim Mondavi says his father had a willingness to discover, experiment and share the results with others in the wine community. So open was he to helping others that the son described his father's winery as the "University of Mondavi for fine wine."
Robert Mondavi began working in the Napa Valley in the mid-1930s. He was manager of Sunny St. Helena Winery; then the Charles Krug Winery, which his father purchased at his urging in 1943; and then, in 1966, his own winery.
He built his career on his own terms, says Elin McCoy, an author and Bloomberg News columnist. She noted that when the winemaker famously joined forces with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of France's Chateau Mouton Rothschild in the late 1970s to create Opus One in Napa, the Californian and the Bordelais met on equal footing. And so it was with other Mondavi partnerships in Europe and South America.
The Robert Mondavi Winery made its reputation with some extraordinary wines, but Siler maintains that the founder's real genius lay in the marketing of wine. "He was very successful in convincing other winemakers and consumers that wine should be a part of the good life," she says.
As with the world's top winemakers, Robert Mondavi forged ties with the world's top chefs and restaurateurs, inviting them to come to his winery to cook and teach. Mondavi was a co-founder of the American Institute of Wine & Food to promote gastronomy; pushed hard for the creation in Napa of COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, which later closed; and gave a $25 million gift in 2001 to the University of California at Davis for creation of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.
All of these efforts were part of Mondavi's energetic campaign to counter neo-prohibitionists, celebrate the unique cultural and culinary role wine has enjoyed for centuries and promote wine drinking in moderation.
By the time Robert Mondavi died in May 2008 at the age of 94, he was arguably America's most famous winemaker.
His long life had the drama of a prime-time television series, punctuated by sweet victories, sharp defeat and strained family relations all around. In 2004, he even had to endure the sale of his winery to Constellation Brands. But, characteristically, he joined his children, Tim and Marcia, in launching Continuum Estate. The first bottles, with a label created by one of his granddaughters, were released shortly before he died.
In his 1999 book "California Wine," James Laube describes Robert Mondavi as "the single greatest influence on modern California wine." Laube sees no need to revise that view today.
"He set forth a vision that has been largely fulfilled," the senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine says today.
"He defined California wine and then he was able through his experiences, his travel particularly, to take California wine where it needed to go. He focused on quality."
Mondavi: A life that wine built
1913: Born in Minnesota to Cesare and Rosa Mondavi.
1919: Cesare Mondavi begins a wholesale business in Lodi, Calif., buying and shipping grapes to home winemakers as Prohibition begins. The family follows him there in 1923.
1933: Cesare Mondavi buys a share in the Sunny St. Helena Winery. Robert begins working in the Napa Valley winery in 1936 after graduating from Stanford University.