The Upstart

How California wines got on the map, and what Michael Mondavi ’66 had to do with it.

Michael Mondavi on a tractor
While he attended Santa Clara, Michael Mondavi ’66 would hitchhike home to help launch the family winery. Photo courtesy Michael Mondavi.

When Michael Mondavi was a boarding school student in the late 1950s at Bellarmine College Prep, he took in tales about Santa Clara University from his Jesuit priest-teachers “almost by osmosis,” as he put it, and though his father was an alumnus of Stanford University, Michael forsook that legacy for another.

Born in the middle of California wine country in St. Helena in 1943, Robert M. Mondavi was always called Mike or Michael to distinguish him from his father. Ever since he can remember, Michael was intent on becoming a winemaker. “I grew up 200 yards from Charles Krug Winery,” he told me of that iconic Napa Valley institution founded in 1861. “The cellar was my playpen; the cellar master was my babysitter.”

Winemaking was the primary subject of conversation at his father’s and grandfather’s dinner tables, and he held jobs in every aspect of the business. But when he was a junior in high school and contemplating various colleges, a professor of viticulture and enology at University of California, Davis said Michael already was expert in the vintner’s art, had nothing to learn except for the information in a few botanical science courses, and should instead focus on the mercantile aspects of a winery.

So Michael’s major at Santa Clara became management in the degree program of the business of science and commerce, with a minor in architecture. His extracurricular interests were in the ski club and playing on the intramural football and rugby teams. Most importantly, it was at Santa Clara that he met the Spaniard Isabel Alcantara ’67, one year his junior, who would become his wife and, eventually, the author of some of her own chardonnay and rosé wine selections.

Because Wednesdays at Santa Clara were then reserved for faculty meetings, there were no classes for undergraduates. Frequently, during the fall harvest, Michael would hitchhike north to Napa for the Tuesday night shift, work eight hours in the vineyards or cellars on Wednesday, then get back to the Valley for his Thursday classes. Weekends were much the same. “I was paid the same as the other field workers,” Michael said, “so I made a fair amount of money. I could afford to pay my own tuition, and my parents paid room and board.”

Michael’s Italian immigrant grandparents, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, owned a Minnesota saloon when, in 1920, Prohibition outlawed the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol. But the government also made an exception for private, homemade wine in the magnificent amount of 200 gallons per year. So industrious Cesare moved his family to Lodi, and found success shipping Central Valley grapes to nonprofessional vintners.

Cesare’s son Robert took a job in Sunnyhill Winery in St. Helena in the late ’30s, and when he found out that Charles Krug Winery, the oldest in Napa Valley, had fallen on hard times, Robert convinced his father to acquire it in 1943. For the next 23 years, Robert ran it with his younger brother, Peter, until there was a fierce disagreement, a fist fight, and a falling out. Peter’s children now own Charles Krug.

In 1966, the year Michael simultaneously graduated from Santa Clara and married Isabel in Santa Cruz, Robert used capital from grape growers and other investors to purchase the historic To Kalon Vineyard—meaning “the highest beauty” in Greek—in Oakville and founded Robert Mondavi Winery, making Michael and his siblings co-founders.

Michael Mondavi Cellar
Folio Fine Wine Partners, Mondavi’s latest venture brings wines to the world from four continents. The family also owns and operates the Michael Mondavi Family Estate winery.Photo courtesy Michael Mondavi.

Up to then, California wines often tended to be sweet, cheap, jug wines, like Italy’s grappa. But seeking greater elegance in the product, Robert, with his brother Peter, introduced high-quality European winemaking to the region, aging wines in expensive barrels of French oak or in stainless-steel fermentation tanks. At Robert Mondavi Winery, he even invented his own version of sauvignon blanc that he called a fumé blanc, or “smoky white.” Still, Robert maintained some California-casual charm, hiring the architect Cliff May—the mid-century father of the modern ranch house—to design the Mission-style adobe estate to preside over his winery.

After graduating from Santa Clara, Michael fulfilled his military obligation by joining the National Guard, with service in the Corps of Engineers, and completed his tour as a First Lieutenant. Meanwhile, he was serving as winemaker, then vice president of sales for his father’s company, generally traveling much of the year in publicity tours that promoted not only Mondavi varietals but the entire wine industry in Napa Valley, where he became known as the “quiet icon” among his friends and colleagues.

Also during this time, California wine scored an extraordinary win with the so-called “Judgment of Paris” of 1976. The upper crust of the French wine establishment agreed to a blind tasting of some unknown California bottles vying against the most heralded vintners in their nation. The conclusion of the event seemed so inevitable that only one journalist witnessed the shocking determination that the finest white was a chardonnay from Calistoga’s Château Montelena, and the finest red was a cabernet sauvignon from Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars in Napa.

With California wines now on the map, Baron Philippe de Rothschild of the famous Château Mouton-Rothschild grand cru agreed to a joint venture with Robert Mondavi Winery to create the collectible Opus One, which now sells for $325 a bottle. In 1981, Robert told The Washington Post Magazine, “Fifteen years ago, California didn’t belong [in] the company of the fine wines of the world. Now, we in Napa can produce outstanding wines, which will give better value than the Europeans, who are limited by classification systems and government restrictions.”

In 1990, Michael was named managing director and chief executive officer of Robert Mondavi Winery, and was president and CEO when the company went public in 1994. A year later Michael was awarded the World of Food and Wine Lifetime Achievement Award.

But there was also familial strife, industry acrimony, a pest infestation of the vines by phylloxera, and such decline in the business that Robert retired and a sale was forced. “Because Mother Nature has more influence than any other factor on the volume of our business and therefore our earnings, we realized the wine business and agriculture were not positions for a public company,” Michael said. “We were too successful to buy shares back and go private, so we sold the company and my brother [Tim] and sister [Marcia ’69] and I each reinvented ourselves.”

In 2004, Constellation Brands, an international purveyor of wine, beer, and spirits, with over 100 brands in its portfolio, added Robert Mondavi Winery to its holdings with a purchase worth $1.35 billion. The vintner was then the sixth largest in the United States, selling over 9 million cases of wine per year.

Earlier, in 1999, Michael and his family sought a Napa Valley vineyard of their own to manage and to that end bought 15 acres in the high elevation and volcanic soil of Atlas Peak, a property that his daughter Dina ’98 named Animo, “spirit” in Italian. They also collectively acquired the 95 acres of Oso Vineyard near Howell Mountain. And so a new chapter began.

“We had to help build the Napa region and sell, number one, California wine …”

All the vineyards in the Michael Mondavi Family Estate are farmed sustainably and are certified “green.” Dina handles marketing and foreign export sales. Son Robert Jr. ’94 serves as the overall viniculturist for Animo, Emblem, Isabel Mondavi Wines, and M by Michael Mondavi labels. Additionally, Michael is “founder & coach” of Folio Fine Wine Partners, which produces Oberon and Spellbound wines and also represents the fine wines crafted by 20 independent families in Europe and Argentina.

“My grandfather and father had vision and good business acumen, but my grandmother and mother made sure we did it with the proper values and they always treated employees like extended members of the family,” Michael said. “So fast forward to when I began my second company with Folio Fine Wine Partners, I made sure that the employees themselves owned 10 percent of it.”

The American wine dynasty called the House of Mondavi, has not just been good for the family and employees. In many ways, it singularly transformed Napa from its early existence as a sleepy farming community on Highway 29—the town you passed on your way elsewhere—into a busy, vibrant tourist destination with a host of wine tasting locations, new hotels, posh restaurants, and an actual night life.

“My father,” Michael said, “knew that in order to sell Robert Mondavi wines, we couldn’t just sell our brand. We had to help build the Napa region and sell, number one, California wine, number two, Napa wine, and number three, Robert Mondavi wine. If you don’t build the category, it’s pretty hard to build a business.”

And a wine region of grand renown isn’t a bad thing to have grown.

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