February 21, 2012
Some people joked after the death of American folk artist Grandma Moses at age 101 that “the good die young”. This same loving obituary could be applied to the recent [5/16/2008] death of Robert Mondavi, who passed peacefully in his sleep just shy of his 95th birthday. I never met Mondavi, but he almost seemed like a member of the family. He and I have two obvious things in common: we are first generation Italian-Americans, and we share a profound love of wine. Whereas my father was born in Florence, Mondavi’s dad came from the tiny village of Sassoferrato in the region known as Le Marche, east of Tuscany. Mondavi resembled my Great Uncle Cesare, which somehow made me feel closer to him.
Would someone else have stepped forward if Mondavi had not been around to spell out why California wine can equal the world’s finest? Probably. Would someone else have possessed the indefatigable energy, communicative skills, and irrepressible joy that he exuded? Probably not. One hundred years from now, two names, both Italian, will head any listed recollection of California’s wine odyssey: Gallo and Mondavi.
Gallo (especially from 1950-1980) represented quality “every day” table wine. My Uncle Marcello, a lifelong resident of Florence, visited America in the ’60s and ’70s. He remarked upon, and much preferred, Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy to the vino da tavola of his native land.
Mondavi represented a break from “every day”, always aspiring for perfection. Studying the European model of fine winecraft hands-on, and then constantly applying it toward a unique Napa Valley identity, he established his enduring legacy. This singular mission became a journey that eventually split him off from his mother and brother in an infamous 1960s feud. Long before his lionized days–those “When Robert Mondavi Speaks, People Listen” days–he preached the California gospel to any who would listen. When the results of his philosophy came streaming out in the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris”, he had been stating theobvious formore than a decade.
Great wine and California wine have become synonymous. This is Mondavi’s legacy. While many have built California dreams in the ensuing 40 years, Mondavi was the original architect.