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The Story Of Robert Mondavi

Napa Valley sign

The Story Of Robert Mondavi

The Mondavi family has been involved in the winemaking industry since the 1920s. A prominent member of the family, Cesare Mondavi, immigrated to America in 1906, and his son Robert Mondavi was born in 1913. In 1936, Cesare Mondavi purchased the Sunny St. Helena winery in Napa Valley, California, which was already producing bulk wines. At the same time, his son, Robert, began taking chemistry classes to prepare for his father’s new venture.

In 1943 Robert Mondavi learned that the Charles Krug Winery was for sale. The family paid $87,000 for the Krug Winery and its 160 acres of vines. The Mondavi’s used their bulk wine sales to invest in the new Krug operation. With the new winery, they began producing higher-quality, dry wines.

Krug’s phenomenal success can be attributed to Robert Mondavi’s tireless promotional efforts. Robert Mondavi was convinced that the Napa Valley region could produce grapes and wines on par with those of the world’s most renowned wine-growing regions in France and Italy. To accomplish his goal of mass production of world-class wines, he spent many years experimenting with winemaking methods.

During the early 1960s, a bumper harvest cut the prices of grapes in half, resulting in a loss of nearly half a million dollars for the family business. Consequently, Robert petitioned Cesare Mondavi and was granted complete control of the winery’s production. By 1965, Mondavi was showing pre-tax profits of $200,000, thanks mainly to Robert’s promotional skills as a salesman.

Robert Mondavi Wine Tasting Room
Figure 1 Robert winery building in the 1960s, shortly after opening

In 1966, Robert Mondavi started his own winery in Oakville, Napa Valley, after a bitter dispute with his brother, Peter. Mondavi raised $200,000 for his new venture. Due to these efforts, the Mondavi Winery was ready for its first crush in September 1966.

In response to the creation of Robert’s new winery in Napa Valley, the Krug side of the Mondavi family fired Robert Mondavi entirely. This set the stage for a legal squabble that was not resolved until 1969. Consequently, Robert Mondavi retained a 24% stake in C. Mondavi & Sons and served on its board of directors until 1973.

Robert Mondavi pioneered cold fermentation in California winemaking. He discovered that one of the critical components of the quality of French wines was that they were aged in small barrels. Over the next few years, Mondavi experimented with various wood types, and all wines at the new Mondavi winery were to be aged in small-sized French oak barrels.

Robert Mondavi
Figure 2  Robert in Barrel Room

In 1967, the Robert Mondavi Winery released its first wine for sale, a $3 Chenin Blanc. However, Robert ran out of capital by 1969 and was compelled to seek new financial support to continue his business. Therefore, he placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal seeking investors and received over 250 responses. Subsequently, the Rainier Companies purchased Mondavi’s two partners’ share of the winery and vineyards. However, Robert remained the president of the company and was still in charge of its winemaking operations.

Figure 3 Robert in Barrel Room

In 1976, Robert Mondavi and his brother, Peter Mondavi began a bitter legal battle over control of their family’s business of California winery. The courts ordered in favor of Robert and ordered the company to pay him a fair market value for his 24% stake. The brothers ended up settling their dispute and regained complete control of the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Mondavi’s wine was a big hit in the 1970s. For instance, the Los Angeles Times named Mondavi’s 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon the best wine in 1972. Moreover, many Napa Valley wines achieved international acclaim in 1976. In 1979, the reputation of Napa Valley was enhanced further when Baron Philippe de Rothschild collaborated with Robert Mondavi on a new winery called, Opus One in Napa.

Did You Know: The Los Angeles Times names Mondavi’s 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon as the best wine of the year in 1972.

Gradually, Robert Mondavi became one of the most potent brand names in the US wine industry. In the 1980s, Robert Mondavi expanded the production of his winemaking business.

By 2001, the winery was receiving more than 350,000 visitors annually, and with a newly renovated visitor center, it could now comfortably accommodate them all. The $28 million projects took two years, including a new red-wine fermentation cellar with plenty of new French oak barrels. Two new public tasting rooms provided visitors the option of eight different tours and tastings, and a reservations system ensured that the visitors’ experience ran smoothly.

Tasting Room in Napa Valley
Figure 4 Aging room at Robert Mondavi Winery

Thanks to the new innovative techniques installed in the winery, visitors would also have more access to the winemaking process, with tours taking them through the oak-barrel-filled cellars. In addition, the company continued to experiment with various grape-growing techniques while adhering to its natural-farming practices. The following picture shows a glimpse of Robert Mondovi’s winery in its current form.

Want to read more? Try out this book!

The House of Mondavi- The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty Harvests of Joy- How the Good Life Became Great Business (Harvest Book)

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