RIP: Robert Mondavi

robertmodaviRobert Mondavi died at age 94 today, and although he seemed to have his share of personal difficulties, his vision and his contributions to the Napa Valley are undeniable. Aside from simply being the Napa Valley’s greatest ambassador, Mondavi was instrumental in improving the quality of California wine. He was an early champion of using French oak, and he also popularized the use of tempertaure-controlled, stainless steel fermentation tanks (both are now standard practices).

The Robert Mondavi Winery, which he founded at age 52, was a technological marvel when it was constructed in 1966. In a testament to his drive and to his belief that Napa would someday become a world-class wine-growing region, the Robert Mondavi Winery was built in record time in order to be ready for its first harvest. The ripple effect of this winery was profound within the Napa Valley — two other California legends, Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich, both served as early winemakers at Mondavi before establishing their own wineries.

Mondavi, who seemed equal parts philanthropist and businessman, ultimately lost control of the corporation in 2004, having committed too much money to UC Davis and other organizations at a time when Mondavi stock prices were dropping. Rather than renege on his commitments, Mondavi relinquished his majority ownership of the winery, allowing Constellation Brands to seize the company in a hostile takeover. He did net $1.3 billion for the family business, however.

Still, this loss of ownership must have been bitter for a person like Mondavi, who would suddenly be without a winery at time when there were 400 other wine labels in the Valley. Would there have even been half as many labels if Mondavi hadn’t taken the first, initial step? Maybe. But considering that the wine industry’s “hangover” from Prohibition lasted more than 30 years, someone like Mondavi was long overdue in California.

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