A Tale of Winemaking Success of Robert Mondavi

The Mondavi family has been involved in the winemaking business since the 1920s. A prominent member of this 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 in California, which produced bulk wines. At the same time, his son, Robert, began taking chemistry classes to prepare for his father’s new venture.

Robert Mondavi learned in 1943 that the Charles Krug Winery was for sale. Hence, he started producing higher-quality dry wines under the title of the Krug. The family paid $87,000 for the Krug Winery and its 160 acres of vines. In this manner, Mondavi’s bulk wine sales were invested in the new Krug operation.

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 located 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, Mondavis were showing pretax profits of $200,000, thanks mainly to Robert’s promotional skills as a salesman.

In 1966, Robert Mondavi started his own winery in Oakville, California, after a bitter dispute with Peter. Mondavi raised $200,000 and bought real estate in Oakville. Due to these efforts, the Mondavi Winery was ready for its first crush in September 1966.

Winemaking Success of Robert Mondavi

Figure1 Robert winery building in the 1960s, shortly after opening

In 1966, when Robert Mondavi opened his new Napa Valley winery, only twenty other wineries controlled 70% of California’s wine storage capacity.

In response to his initiation of a 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 the critical component 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.

Winemaking Success of Robert Mondavi

Figure2 Robert in Barrel Room

In 1967, the Robert Mondavi Winery released its first wine for sale, a $3 Chenin Blanc. However, he had run 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.

In 1976, Robert Mondavi and his brother C. Mondavi began a bitter legal battle over control of their family’s business of California winery. The courts ordered in favor of Robert Mondavi to pay him 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, a famous daily, the Los Angeles Times, named Mondavis’ 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 expensive wine to be called Opus One in the United States.

Gradually, Robert Mondavi became one of the most potent brand names in the US wine industry. In the1980s, 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 56 French oak tanks, a departure from the stainless steel casks that had caused such a stir in the industry 40 years before. 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.

Winemaking Success of Robert Mondavi

Figure3 Aging room at Robert Mondavi Winery

The new French oak tanks represented a return to traditional wood-barrel winemaking, coined the “To Kalon” project. The family concluded that the best way to make wine was to use the minimum possible technology. Traditional wine winemaking systems replaced pumps in the winery, fruits and grapes were grown too close together for tractors to harvest (hence the need for human pickers), and basket presses replaced bladder presses.

Figure4 Vineyards of Robert Mondavi can be seen behind this welcoming board of Napa Valley

Furthermore, white wines were fermented in steel tanks with temperature-controlled devices attached. Thanks to the innovative techniques, 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.

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Want to read more? Try these books!

The House of Mondavi- The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty Seasons of the Vineyard- A Year of Celebrations and Recipes from the Robert Mondavi Winery


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