Image: Robert Mondavi
Eric Risberg  /  AP
After being ousted from a family-run venture, Mondavi started his own winery in 1966 at the age of 52 and built it into a thriving business.
updated 5/16/2008 8:41:46 PM ET 2008-05-17T00:41:46

Robert Mondavi, the vintner who built his career and helped an iconic Northern California industry blossom by insisting that Napa Valley wines can compete with the best in the world, died in the valley Friday. He was 94.

Mondavi died peacefully at his home in Yountville, Robert Mondavi Winery spokeswoman Mia Malm said.

“It is hard to imagine anyone having more of a lasting impact on California’s $20 billion-a-year wine industry than Robert Mondavi,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. Mondavi, said the governor, was “a tireless entrepreneur who transformed how the world felt about California wine, and an unforgettable personality to everyone who knew him.”

Mondavi was 52 and a winemaking veteran in 1966, when he opened the winery that would help turn the Napa Valley into a world center of the industry. Clashes with a brother that included a fistfight led him to break from the family business to carry out his ambitious plans with borrowed money.

When Mondavi opened his winery, California was still primarily known for cheap jug wines. But he set out to change that, championing use of cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, all commonplace in the industry today. He introduced blind tastings in Napa Valley, putting his wines up against French vintages, a bold move.

His confidence was rewarded in 1976 when California wines beat some well-known French vintages in the famous tasting known as the Judgment of Paris.

“He had the single greatest influence in this country with respect to high quality wine and its place at the table,” wine critic Robert Parker wrote in a chat room posting on his Web site Friday. He called Mondavi “an exceptional man....a true pioneer...a legendary pathfinder.....and I feel so priviledged to have known him...a sad day...but also one to pay homage to his enormous contributions.”

Always convinced that California wines could compete with the European greats, Mondavi engaged in the first French-American wine venture when he formed a limited partnership with the legendary French vintner Baron Philippe de Rothschild to grow and make the ultra-premium Opus One at Oakville. The venture’s first vintage was in 1979.

The success of the Mondavi winery allowed him to donate tens of millions of dollars to charity, but a wine glut and intense competition gradually cost his family control of the business. In 2004, the company accepted a buyout worth $1.3 billion from Fairport, N.Y.-based Constellation Brands.

Always the ambassador
Mondavi was an enthusiastic ambassador for wine — especially California wine — and traveled the world into his 90s promoting the health, cultural and social benefits of its moderate consumption.

“He had an amazing life,” said Robert C. Koch, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. “He was a major driving force and an incredible promoter for California wine and the Napa Valley.”

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Born in Virginia, Minn., Mondavi got an economics degree from Stanford University in the 1930s and went to work at the Charles Krug Winery, which his Italian-born parents had bought after moving to California from Minnesota.

He married his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Declusin, in 1937, and they had three children, Michael, Marcia and Tim.

For 20 years, the winery was a family business. But Robert clashed frequently with his younger brother, Peter, who had a more conservative approach the business. According to Robert Mondavi’s autobiography “Harvests of Joy,” matters came to a head with a November 1965 fistfight.

“When it was all over, there were no apologies and no handshake,” wrote Robert Mondavi.

In the late 1970s, Mondavi’s first marriage ended; in his autobiography he wrote that his single-minded pursuit of the wine business was partly to blame. In 1980, he married a second time, to Margrit Biever, a native of Switzerland who had worked at the Mondavi winery since the late ’60s.

Clash of styles
By the mid-1990s, Mondavi had turned over operation of the company to his sons. But like their father and uncle before them, Tim and Michael clashed over management styles.

More troubles emerged as a grape glut soured the wine market in 2002 and lower-priced wines in the Mondavi portfolio faced tough competition from cheaper Australian imports and domestic brands like California’s Two Buck Chuck.

Also a problem were the millions in charitable donations Mondavi and Margrit had pledged, including helping found Copia, The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, in Napa and giving $35 million to the University of California, Davis.

In her 2007 book, “The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty,” author Julia Flynn Siler wrote that declining stock prices later left Mondavi in danger of not being able to cover the millions in gifts he and Margrit had promised.

A corporate restructuring in August 2004 boosted the stock price, but undercut the family’s control of the company. By time it was bought out, Michael Mondavi, who disagreed with the board strategy, had already left the company, and Tim Mondavi had loosened ties.

Later there was a bittersweet family moment when Robert and Peter Mondavi, aided by members of the younger generation, made wine together for the first time in 40 years. Using a 50-50 split of grapes from Robert Mondavi and Peter Mondavi family vineyards, the brothers made one barrel of a cabernet blend that sold for $401,000 at the 2005 Napa Valley wine auction.

The auction lot was called “Ancora Una Volta,” or “Once Again.”

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