Robert Mondavi: The Art Of Fine Wine

Robert Mondavi: The Art Of Fine Wine

Reprint from 2001 New York Art Guide,
Hall Groat II, Publisher
Francine Butler, Interviewer

Francine Butler: Do you consider wine-making an art form?
Robert Mondavi: I have always said that making good wine is a skill. With that subtle difference that you find in the flavor and the feel, you have to be passionate to understand that difference. Of course I was rather lucky. I was brought up with a mother that I didn’t realize how good she was as a chef. She understood the difference between having fresh and natural ingredients. I began to appreciate the subtle differences that it takes to make something truly great. Things can be good, but then, unless you really understand and feel you overlook that subtle difference that makes something outstanding. I was brought up with that, and I didn’t realize how valuable that was. I ultimately wanted to excel in everything I did, I did not care what it was, whether it was food, wine, football or swimming. The good Lord has given me enough time for this to come about. I would have missed out on this completely had I passed away five or six years ago. It is amazing how the things I have put into my way of life is coming through now. I am spellbound that we are beginning to get so much acclaim because of sticking to the basic principle of excelling. Staying with it, having faith in it and seeing it come to fruition. I’m amazed at the results of just wanting to excel. That is what I say as I looked around as I was growing up. I saw that there were many intelligent people; but few people had common sense. There were many people that were not willing to gamble. They were not willing to put forth their time and effort to excel. I could see this all along. I said “If I could get something that I knew would carry on, and devote my time and energy into it eventually we would excel. You have to learn how to give before you receive. One of the things that I was fortunate with was to be patient enough.”

Do you think that’s your reason for your success?
R.M: Without a doubt! The fact that I stayed with it and was completely honest…first of all, you have to be passionate about what you do. There are subtle differences that go into making a big difference. If you add one upon another…and little by little people will bank on what you are doing and will have faith in what you are doing. And that is what has happened with us here. We had faith and excelled in what we are doing. Our wines are very dry, yet we want wines that appear to be pleasant. That are not sweet, but easy to drink. Many wines are made with a lot of residual sugars, and yet to most Americans they taste very good, because Americans are brought up with Coca Cola and sweet drinks. What we want is a wine that has a pleasant taste to it and not sweet, and appears to be sweet, but yet dry.

What is your favorite wine from you winery?

R.M: My favorite still is aged Cabernet Sauvignon. However, the Pinot Noirs are coming up very rapidly. We are beginning to do a much better job of making our Pinot Noirs, which have gentleness and have balance and harmony when they are younger. This is much more than the Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet Sauvignon needs more aging to obtain the same gentleness.

How does your wine compare to the European wines?

R.M: I would say that without a doubt we are very lucky because of our climatic conditions. I would say that out of ten years we will have five or six very good years. Where the grapes are completely mature. Maybe three years that are good, not exceptional, but then one year out of ten that the grapes will not mature as fully. Yet when it is made well it will be acceptable. Whereas in Europe they might have in Burgundy or Bordeaux two or three years that are very good. The years that we count are the years where they have the California sunshine that is equal to what we have. The grapes will mature and the wine will be outstanding. Then they have three or four years where the wines are quite good, but then they will have another three where the grapes don’t mature as much. The reason the wines of California and Napa Valley excelled is because they reach full maturity much more than the Burgundy’s and Bordeaux of France. So basically the climate plays a very important part. The cooler the climate the more difficult it is to bring grapes to fuller maturity. California is very fortunate.

Why do you think that the wine consumption per person in the United States is still much lower than that of Europe?
R.M: The United States is a very puritanical country. When we were colonized the Puritans came over and we still have that puritanical upbringing where anything with alcohol in it is dangerous. We have the people who know that wine or alcoholic beverages in moderation are good for you. We are afraid to promote it because we are afraid of product liability lawsuits. Look what they are doing with the tobacco. Many of the vendors, especially the big ones, are afraid of being sued. About eighteen years ago we came out with the Robert Mondavi mission. We said that wine in moderation is healthy. We were advised not to go out with it because we would be sued. All we wanted to do was review history, which we did. We showed that ever since civilized man wine in moderation was healthy and good for you. We showed historically what took place. We haven’t been sued, but we were advised that we would be. If we did, all we were doing was telling the truth. Basically we are afraid to promote wines being good and healthy for you. It has been with us from primitive man up to the present times. The Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans have expressed this all through history. That is why we are building the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. In Napa Valley we wanted to develop a permanent facility that would last up to a thousand years where people could go and find the truth about wine, food and alcoholic beverages in moderation can be good and healthy for you. That is the kind of thing we have started, and it will open up in the year 2001 on Thanksgiving day.

Sixty Minutes once had a report about the French Paradox where they showed a connection between drinking wine in moderation and a longer life span. What are your thoughts on this?
R.M: About three or four years before that we came out with our Robert Mondavi Mission. We had Dr. Ellis work with us on that at that time. So we were ahead of that French Paradox. They have lead the way in letting the world know that wine and alcoholic beverages can be good for you in moderation. My wife will give you her prescription.

Margrit Biever Mondavi: Wine is good for everybody. We think that if wine were a prescription, we would prescribe at least two glasses with every meal because it enhances food, it reduces stress, it encourages friendship, it even kindles romance. In moderation it does help digestion, it protects the heart, it promotes good health and it certainly improves our disposition. However, if abused it is unsafe, potentially dangerous and decidedly uncivilized.

Some people believe there is mystery with wine which makes it very intimidating for the average American and that it should be reserved for special occasions. Do you think that this could be part of the reason?

R.M: That is a mistake that we made in the Wine Institute when we first came out. When wine came out 50-60 years ago we made it elitist, that you had to have this wine with that food. All of a sudden the American public became afraid, and it finally dawned on us after 20 or 30 years that we made a mistake. We are trying to correct that and it is really a difficult situation. The trouble is, we are afraid to promote wine as much as we should. The big wineries who are in the position to promote are afraid of product liability lawsuits. However, because of all the research work that has been undertaken here, we are beginning to find that wine in moderation is good for you.

What inspired the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts?
M.B.M: I think my husband has great vision. A long time ago he wanted to go beyond what we did at the winery because he wanted to show how wine was a beautiful marriage with all forms of the Arts, be it representational, music, dance, culinary, etc.
R.M: I was brought up with wine when I was three or four years old. We had wine at our meals all the time. Then I went to school at Stanford. We had beer busts. We would drink beer, scotch, bourbon, brandy, gin and all kinds of alcohol beverages, but no wine. Over one third of the people got plastered. I said to myself: Are these people civilized? They were not taught how to drink in moderation. About eighteen years ago Julia Childs and I actually formed the American Institute of Wine and Food to enhance the quality of life. I realized as I traveled the world that my wife taught me the importance of art in living. So I said “Why not combine wine, food and the arts at one location?” No one had done that anywhere in the world, and I wanted to give something back to our country. So that is why I started it; and we are the major donors of the American Institute of Wine and Food. We have started a permanent location where people can find out the true facts. We need something like that to educate the American people. Also I realized that we are not looked upon favorably in Europe in my travels. Because we are so young—225 years old, we don’t appear to be as cultured as we really are. I wanted to do something that would raise the cultural image of our country internationally. I felt by doing this that it would also be a reason for my building the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. It is an eighty thousand square foot building, and it will cost 50 million dollars. We have raised a little bit over 46 million dollars and we are going to raise another 20 million dollars as an endowment. So this thing can carry on indefinitely.

Do you have any unfulfilled professional goals?
R.M.: We have gone global. One of the things I want to do is be in various countries of the world where grape growing and wine making can be achieved. I want to excel in each of these countries. Right now we are in Chile, Italy and France. We are now going to Australia. In fact I went to Australia in 1971, and I introduced the Chardonnay, the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir to that country at that time. They had none of these grapes there at that time. We are planning to work in Australia as well. We are having fun going global.

How do you want to be remembered in the world?

R.M.: I want to be remembered for advancing the family life by educating the people that wine, food and the arts does enhance the quality of life.  I realized that if I did the research work and that I could enhance the quality of making wine in America that I could give something back to our country. I would say that excelling in winemaking has been a wonderful thing for me and also that I was able to pass this on to my children and grandchildren who could take advantage of that if they wanted to. I always felt that wine actually stimulates family unity. In fact more so than almost anything else. In fact with the Italian families the father supplies the money, but the mother is the one that really takes over. My wife contributes to all of these things. I would say the people who were brought up to appreciate true family life know what is important. My mother taught me that, my wife is teaching me that it is appreciation for the good things in life. The most important thing in life I think is the family unity. A lot of that we have lost in the last twenty-five to fifty years in America. Although I think some of that is coming back again.

M.B.M: It brings people together at the table. In my lifetime this is where the family always got together in the best light.
R.M.: The reason I went into the wine business is that it had an affinity for family life. When I graduated from Stanford my father came to me and suggested that there could be a future in the wine business. This was only a year and one half after repeal of prohibition. So I said why not get into something where you can really build and grow.

Looking back would you say that there was anything that you would do differently?

R.M: I would say that I now realize you can’t change people.
You can influence them a bit but not change them. Before I always thought that I could change my two sisters and one brother. I always thought that I could change them because we were brought up under the same environment, but on the contrary I realized that that didn’t take place. Now I’ m a much happier man, I accept my family as they are and their differences. I find that love of family, love of friendship is far more important than the differences that each of us has. It is teaching our children and grandchildren to remember that, unity, understanding, friendship and love of family is far more important than our differences.


Robert Mondavi

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