The (perceived) transformation of the Robert Mondavi Winery

When I was a boy growing up in Portola Valley, California, I was first exposed to wine through my parents. In the late 1960’s and early 70’s (I was born in 1958) I have vivid memories of Mom and Dad sipping their cocktails before dinner, and then enjoying a bottle of Cabernet (always Cabernet) every night for dinner. Many times my brothers and I were asked if we would “like to try a taste?” but the smell alone was enough to send us running upstairs. We had to do the dishes each night, and the sight and smell of sediment-filled red wine glasses with their noxious aroma is still seared into my olfactory memory banks.

The offending wines? Almost always Charles Krug Cabernet, Beaulieu Vineyard (BV) Georges Latour Private Reserve Cabernet, and eventually Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet. All three were classic, tannic, big bold Cabernets… wines that you could almost chew. Given the amount of red meat that our family ate as a rule, it was no surprise that these wines were favored by my father. Fast forward to the early 1980’s, when I was out of college and drinking something other than beer, and wouldn’t you know that my taste in wine would immediately migrate to the types of wines I hated as a child. Fast forward even further, to January of 2012, and there I was pulling into the Mondavi Winery driveway telling my wife “this will only take a minute.” Yeah, right.

Before I continue, a little bit of a history lesson. In 1943, a few years after graduating from Stanford,  Robert Mondavi joined his father and brother (Peter) in running the Charles Krug winery in St. Helena.  In 1965, following a feud with Peter, Robert was fired from the winery, and set about opening the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, where he started making wines similar to Krug, but apparently with less internal strife. Thus began a long and storied career in winemaking, and Robert Mondavi became an icon for the Napa Valley. His success made him wealthy, and he spent the latter part of his life using a lot of that money for a wide range of charitable pursuits.

As the winery grew, so did his family, and he made them part of the business.  Over time, the winery expanded to include many types of wine at different price-points, and moved away from only producing high-end wines.  For example, they started the “Woodbridge” label of wines from Lodi, where the Mondavi family had lived in the 1930’s and where Robert went to high school. (One often finds Mondavi Coastal Cabernet served at banquets in big hotels, because it marries brand cache with affordable juice.) They also started the “Coastal” family of wines. Other labels exist today; too many to count. Mondavi’s sons wanted to make more wine accessible to more people. Robert, on the other hand, thought the premium wines were being under-promoted at the expense of the mass-market wines. Another feud ensued, and in December of 2004 the family did the unthinkable and sold the winery for $1.3 Billion to Constellation Brands, a large beverage company that owns many wineries.

(As a side note, just six weeks before the sale I was extremely fortunate to be seated at the table of Robert and Margrit Mondavi at a luncheon at the winery. It was an Oracle Leadership Circle event for Oracle World, and I was working for NetApp, who was one of the Premier Sponsors of the wine country tour for Oracle’s top customers. As the highest-ranking NetApp exec there that day, I was seated next to Robert Mondavi and was nervous as all get-out. “Bob” was already 91 years old at the time, and a bit frail, so we did not exactly chat up a storm, but we did exchange some very pleasant conversation, including my story of having been exposed to his wines very early in my life. He enjoyed that.)

So back to the point of this entry. Upon moving here, I really wanted to re-establish a connection with the Mondavi Winery, partly out of respect for my Dad, who had passed away in 2006. So Laurie and I pulled into the winery one sunny day in January and headed for the tasting room. Once there, we bellied up to the bar and started sampling wines. As I perused the list, I failed to see any of the wines I remembered. The labels looked all wrong, the prices were all cheaper than they should have been, the wines were very young and there wasn’t a tannin in sight. I finally asked what had become of the “chewy Cabernets” I had grown up with, and the hostess said “Ohhh….you want the Reserve Tasting Room. It’s down the other corridor, at the end.”

Two minutes later I was back home. The air was pungent with the smell of thick, rich Cabernet juice. The labels looked like I remembered (with some minor design adjustments for the passing of time.) A flaxen-haired server caught my attention and I explained my quest. “You have come to the right place!” she laughed and within seconds my hand was swirling a glass of aged burgundy bliss. Over the next half hour we sampled many vintages of Reserve Cabernets, and before I knew it I had joined the Library Wine Club, whose mission seems to be to extract huge sums from my checking account every quarter. Trisha, the server who I now count as a friend, has a personality as big and bold as the wines she pours, and always makes sure my glass is full. I feel very welcomed at the winery, and Laurie and I have attended some wonderful events. And we always drink a toast to my Dad when we are there.

What has been interesting to me has been to witness the shift in the brand over the years I have known it.  I can see why Robert had disagreements with his sons, but I don’t necessarily disagree with the direction the winery has taken. When you have a brand as iconic as Mondavi, it makes sense to maximize the market potential, and to do it through stratification of the labels/wines. So long as the quality and integrity of the flagship wines are maintained, then it should all work, right? I don’t know enough about the volumes of their sales, the profitability of the winery, or any of that, but the winery seems to be doing well, based on the crowds I see when I visit. And the quality of the Reserve Cabernets seems to still be quite high. However, in my opinion there are too many Mondavi labels to keep track of, and too many varietals out there for my taste (and honestly, how can you be really good at making over 30 different wines?), so I am keeping my eye out on Mondavi to see how the Constellation takeover affects the wines I like. (They took over in 2005, basically, so I am not yet even drinking any of the wines they have made since then.)

Every summer for the past 43 years the winery has hosted a series of summer concerts on the lawn, where patrons can bring picnics and lawn chairs (or opt to pay for a winery-produced dinner.) The line-up the past few years has skewed to a much-younger audience than in the past, which (according to an article I read in the Napa Valley Register) dismays Margrit Mondavi (she is still the winery Ambassador, even after the sale to Constellation), who thinks they are ignoring the older, more well-heeled consumers of their traditional labels. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band used to make regular appearances at the concerts; this year it’s OAR, Plain White T’s, and Josh Groban, among others. Definitely not in my entertainment sweet-spot. I guess it’s all about appealing to new, younger markets. Personally, I am sorry to see such a severe swing of the pendulum, but as long as Mondavi keeps making wines I can chew on, I’ll keep coming back.

(Please note that everything presented here is my opinion, or my observation, and not necessarily fact. I am sure the Mondavi brothers could argue many points herein, but I just wanted to give my perception of what I have seen and heard over the years. )

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