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Mondavi's good life hits 80

Robert Mondavi at 80 is a walking advertisement for the "good life" he ceaselessly promotes.

Tanned, fit and worth millions, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker looks like a man who has everything _ the kind of guy who gets a pair of llamas for his birthday.

"Do I ride them now or later?" Mondavi asked 1,500 guests who turned out Sunday for fireworks and, of course, fine food and wine to celebrate his birthday at the family's winery.

Twenty-seven years after he built Napa Valley's first winery since Prohibition, Mondavi still peddles his vision of wine as an integral part of American life. More than anyone else, Mondavi is credited with leading the winemaking revolution that put California wines on a par with the great wines of Europe.

"I'm very, very happy," Mondavi said. "We are making progress. Definitely. People are beginning to understand that wine is part of the good life _ wine, food, music and the arts."

Even at the party, Mondavi, with his wife, Margrit Biever, looking on, could not resist the chance to preach to guests.

"We are getting the attention of the world," he gushed to filmmaker and winery owner Francis Ford Coppola, describing a vision in which the United States would be known primarily for "wine, democracy and the good life."

Public attention and progress were also the theme three days earlier, when Mondavi's company went public, trading stock in a closely watched bid to raise cash in the face of an industry-wide credit crunch by cautious banks.

Mondavi, a Stanford University graduate with a degree in economics, became convinced as a young man that California's wines could compete with the world's finest.

He experimented with techniques in his basement and later, with his brother Peter, at the Charles Krug Winery his Italian-born parents had bought 20 years after moving to Napa Valley from Minnesota.

Today, Robert Mondavi Winery Inc. has moved far beyond Napa, producing wines under the Robert Mondavi, Vichon, Byron and Woodbridge labels.