Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Robert Mondavi Passes

On May 16th, a month shy of his 95th birthday, the legendary wine industry icon Robert Mondavi passed away. As many have commented, this marks the end of an era. Mondavi was instrumental in re-introducing California wines to the world stage. (They had been internationally well-regarded prior to Prohibition.) This man LIVED wine. I never met a more passionate proponent of wine as "part of a gracious way of living."

In 1966, after departing his family's Charles Krug Winery, he founded the Robert Mondavi Winery. I first became aware of Mondavi wines in the mid-70s; these were some of the first wines I ever appreciated. (The first was Charles Krug Chenin Blanc!) Within a few years, I was a steady customer (his wines still affordable on my pauper's budget.) My wedding dinner in 1981 featured an all Mondavi line-up: 1973 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 1976 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1978 Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling.

In the mid-80s, while living in Southern California, I called the winery to ask if Mr. Mondavi recalled a winemaker who had been a consultant for him in the 70s. An assistant said she would inquire.

Soon after, I was awakened by the phone early one morning. "Mr. Mondavi would like to speak with you." I was groggy and dumbfounded, but managed to recall the "burning questions", which he happily answered. I was amazed that someone who was so busy would take the time to personally answer a casual inquiry.

In 1986, I learned Tom Conry, Mondavi's purchasing manager, was retiring. I applied for the position, one of 125 candidates, and was interviewed by the winery's human resources director, who had traveled to Southern California to meet candidates. I didn't get the job.

It took another ten years to finally land a position at Mondavi, and a few more to become the Purchasing Manager. By then, Mondavi was one of the World's largest wineries and the wine industry landscape transformed. Since 1993, Mondavi had been publicly owned, and Wall Street was exerting an ever stronger influence over decision-making.

Mr. Mondavi's generosity and lavish celebrations and parties met with disapproval from outsiders who failed to appreciate the culture of the industry and the loyalty the Mondavi name elicited. Eventually, the Mondavi family was pressured to step down and the "merger and acquisition mechanics" moved in to position the corporation, in part or in whole, for sale. When drinks behemoth Constellation Brands took an interest in 2004, the Mondavi Family had little option but to accept the offer on the table. With the sale, I moved on down the road, literally.

Beyond all the drama I experienced during the final nine years of the Robert Mondavi Corporation, was an underlying appreciation of the experience. I still look back in wonder at how approachable Mr. Mondavi was. You could be a tasting room visitor who bumps into him as he hurried off to an appointment, but he would still engage you and talk about the wines you had just sampled. Each person was important.

And in a world where corporate secrecy is seen as a key to a competitive edge, Mondavi was remarkably open and altruistic when it came to sharing information with the industry at large. Until the Wall Street focus on "earnings per share" undermined funding, research and education was a Robert Mondavi Winery hallmark.

I was honored to know the legend.

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