I was tasting wine on Friday with Joe Briggs of Napa’s August Briggs Wines when we heard that Robert Mondavi had died. “It’s the end of an era,” said Briggs. I nodded, and said: “Let me ask you something. Would we even be here now if wasn’t for Mondavi? Not just us tasting, but this place” — and I gestured at the wine bar where I meet visiting winemakers — “and everyone here?”
Briggs didn’t have to wait to answer. “No,” he said. “None of this — us, the other people, this place — would be here if it hadn’t been for Robert Mondavi.”
It’s easy to overestimate the importance of famous people when they die. If nothing else, it’s part of paying respect. But that’s not the case for Mondavi, who truly was the giant that his obituaries say he was. Mondavi had a hand in almost every major development in the wine world in the last 40 years. He believed California wine could be some of the best in the world, and his perseverance helped California become what it is today. Napa and Sonoma are among the greatest wine regions in the world, rivaling anything in France or Italy.
But that was only part of what Mondavi did. HIs Woodbridge line was among the first grocery store brands that offered quality at a fair price, helping wean entry-level consumers off poorly-made jug wine. He took his company public in 1993 and then sold it a decade later, both presaging major trends in the business. He was also ahead of his time when it came to family squabbles, extravagant excess, the spotlight of celebrity, and cult wines — and these things, too, are all part of today’s wine world.
Perhaps most importantly, Mondavi understood marketing at a time when most California winemakers didn’t even know it existed (and many, sadly, caught up in scores and the Wine Magazines, still don’t). In the late 1960s, Mondavi’s sauvignon blanc wasn’t selling, so he changed the name to fume blanc. Fume was easier to pronounce, and sales improved dramatically.
In all of this, Mondavi’s central theme was that Americans should drink wine, that it should replace iced tea and soft drinks at the dinner table. In this, he succeeded. When I grew up in the 1960s in a comfortable middle class suburb, wine was an exception — both at home and in restaurants. Today, U.S. wine consumption is at record highs, and even family-style chain restaurants have wine lists. When I was in college, it was a big deal to take a girl to dinner and order imported beer. Somehow, I don’t think Lowenbrau would do the trick anymore..
This culture, this lifestyle, this emphasis on wine — it’s Robert Mondavi’s doing. Others played a role, of course, but without Mondavi, Joe Briggs is right. We wouldn’t be here.