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Uncorked | By Chris Sherman, Times staff writer

Robert Mondavi's legacy has deep, diverse roots

Robert Mondavi, the wine genius who put California on the international wine map, raises a toast during a 1984 interview. Patriarch of a winemaking family, Mondavi died May 16 at the age of 94.

Robert Mondavi, the wine genius who put California on the international wine map, raises a toast during a 1984 interview. Patriarch of a winemaking family, Mondavi died May 16 at the age of 94.

The Mondavi story, like that of any family, wine or vineyard, is long, twisted and still growing.

When Robert Mondavi, the colossus of California wine, died on May 16 at age 94, he had seen many vintages, grand and difficult.

Yet great winemakers are known by vines that bear fruit decades later and old vintages yet unopened.

Mondavi's legacy was massive in his own time, and will grow in wine custom and tastes and from the people he trained and those who carry his name.

Go west, young man

His life and wine had deep, tough roots, old-vine antecedents, deep in the Minnesota iron country. Father Cesare was a miner and saloon keeper and home winemaker. During Prohibition, fellow immigrants sent him to Lodi, Calif., to buy grapes and ship them back. He stayed, prospered and later bought the Charles Krug winery in Napa. Young Robert sold the wine, brother Peter made it.

After a bitter split, Robert's salesman's drive launched his own winery and an industry. In 1966, he built Napa's first new winery since Prohibition (1920-33); it became the iconic Mission ranch on Mondavi wine labels. At that time, farmers made more money from cattle than grapes (petite sirah and French colombard). There were 25 wineries.

Mondavi wanted more. Today Napa has 325 wineries and world respect. Mondavi seeded a tradition of fine Napa cabernet, introduced sauvignon blanc (by calling it fume) and began the struggle to perfect pinot noir.

He battled naysayers at home by promoting wine's ties to food, faith and family, and won friends abroad. He made partners of the Rothschilds, Frescobaldis and Errazurizes, kicking off now common global cooperation.

It's a family affair

His employees became the grand old personages of the next generation, among them Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap and Zelma Long of Simi and Zelphi.

Robert's children, Michael, Tim and Marcia Mondavi, made their own way in the industry. They too had colossal fights, and in 1993 left the winery to their father and big corporate owners.

They started over.

Michael created Bocce, a retro tribute to granddad's Lodi zinfandel, and has collected a large and diverse folio of wines, foreign and domestic, to sell.

Tim, who took more time off after the break-up, released his first wine this year, made by his father and sister Marcia. The 2005 vintage goes on sale this year under the appropriate name of Continuum.

Meanwhile Charles Krug, the winery Robert left behind, has renewed its reputation for quality with Peter working alongside his two sons, Peter Jr. and Marc.

Robert Mondavi's name and generosity will remain prominent at Copia, a center for food, wine and the arts in Napa, the performing arts center and wine school at the University of California in Davis and the Napa wine auction next week.

And we'll find the name Mondavi on and in many bottles to come.

Chris Sherman can be reached at csherman@sptimes or (727) 893-8585.

Robert Mondavi's legacy has deep, diverse roots 05/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 4:30am]

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