Most wine drinkers are familiar with the name Mondavi, but few know the story behind the name. And what a story it is. The Mondavi history in California can be traced back to 1923 when Cesare and Rosa, the first Mondavis to come to America, moved their four kids, Mary, Helen, Robert and Peter, to Lodi. They did their best to live out the “American Dream,” working hard to save up money and, eventually, purchasing the then defunct Charles Krug winery in the early 1940s. At the beginning, the family seemed to work well together. The two daughters, Mary and Helen, worked in the office. Peter took charge of making the wine, and Robert was in charge of selling it.
However, it soon became clear that the two brothers had very different ideas about how to run the business. Peter, in charge of winemaking, and noticing the increasing demand for their product, wanted to increase production. Robert, on the other hand, more influenced by European culture than his hard working brother, wanted to focus on quality. Sadly, this disagreement escalated into irresolvable differences, and as is the case with too many arguments, came down largely to money. Siler recounts the story of a somewhat famous disagreement that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Money was already a sore subject between the brothers in 1963, when Robert and his wife Marjorie received an invitation to a state dinner at the White House in honor of the Italian president. Marjorie was very concerned about what she would wear in front of such a stylish first lady as Jackie Kennedy. When shopping for just the right thing, she came across a mink coat that seemed perfect for the occasion, except that it cost $2,500. Since the family couldn’t afford it, Robert decided to go ahead and purchase it and expense it to the family winery, Charles Krug. Despite his intentions to pay back the winery, this infuriated Robert’s brother Peter and soon thereafter, the two got into such an argument that punches were thrown.
The story spirals from there. There are accounts of chilly family board meetings over pots of tomato sauce, legal battles that divided communities, mental and emotional struggles that embittered the siblings even further and infidelity. Soon Robert and Peter’s kids became involved in the family business involving yet another generation in the scandals and fighting. And much like their father, Robert’s sons Michael and Tim had trouble getting along as well. The arguments were portrayed as very similar to the arguments between Robert and Peter, focusing on the direction of the company--this time Robert Mondavi Winery--and the quality of the product they were crafting.
While the company politics were quite understandably tied to the story of the family, I often felt lost in some of the business speak and I’m still not entirely clear on what occurred during the decades the book covers. There were a lot of characters in the story, and it was very confusing how everyone fit in. But, my suspicion is that there’s not much that could have been done to simplify it. Some stories are just convoluted and complicated and that’s the way it goes. And this one didn’t even need Hollywood to script the complications.
In the end I was left feeling sorry for the Mondavi family. Having met all of Robert’s kids, Michael, Tim and Marcia, I feel for them and how difficult it must have been to grow up in the environment they did. Michael, who at one point was CEO of the Robert Mondavi Winery, was somewhat unceremoniously pushed out and started his own winery and import company, Folio Fine Wine Partners. Tim and Marcia, after the company was bought out by Constellation Brands in 2004, starting their own premium winery, Continuum (which, coincidentally is one of my all-time favorite wines) with the help of their father shortly before he died in 2008. While I was able to learn more about the family that many say shaped the American wine industry, I’m saddened by the lives that were broken and the people that were hurt in the process. It’s fair to say that Napa Valley would be an entirely different place if not for Robert Mondavi and the legacy he created. I just wish creating that legacy hadn’t been so painful.
Purchase the book to read for yourself on Amazon: The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.