At the ripe age of 52, Robert Mondavi parted ways with the family wine business, Charles Krug Winery. He was born into a grape-growing and winemaking family, and leaving at this stage of his life to build his own winery was lunacy. Comfortable retirement was in sight, a mere 3,500 days away.
Clearly, 52 years of age was not a death sentence in the eyes of Mondavi.
In 1965, Mondavi, at 52, broke ground on the first new winery Napa Valley had seen since the late 1930s.
In 1967, Mondavi, now 54, released something called fumé blanc. Until that time, California sauvignon blancs were uninteresting, blandly sweet wines. Mondavi essentially rebranded this grape, using the French wine region Poully-Fumé as his inspiration. He aged it in oak and made it dryer and more full-bodied. He never trademarked fumé blanc and it is the universally recognized term for California-style sauvignon blanc.
In 1968, Mondavi, now 55, released the 1966 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. Warren Winiarski made this wine. Winiarski would go on to make wine under his own label, including the 1973 Stag’s Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris. (This monumental tasting shattered the idea that France was the world’s only source for quality wines. Many other California winemakers would walk through the winery’s arch, winemakers who would foundationally change winemaking, grape-growing and the wine business in California and the world.)
“(Mondavi) redefined what a winery should be like,” Winiarski said in April during the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1966 vintage. “A winery should be beautiful. It should be something that spoke to (consumers’) hearts as well as prepared something for their mouths. He wanted to join those two things. He created a new paradigm for what a winery should be like.”
In 1978, Mondavi, now 65, partnered with Bordeaux legend Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, owner of Château Mouton-Rothschild, to create what would become Opus One. The goal was to make a Napa Valley wine in the Bordeaux style to rival the greatest wines of that region.
In 1981, Mondavi, now 68, along with his wife, Margrit, spearheaded the creation of Auction Napa Valley. The auction, which has spurred dozens of similar wine auctions across the country, has given more than $145 million to health care and children’s causes in Napa County. The 2016 auction raised $15.8 million.
In 1984, Mondavi, now 71, released the first vintages (1979 and 1980) of Opus One. At the time, they were California’s most expensive wines at $50 a bottle (about $115 in today’s economy).
In 1989, Mondavi, now 76, opened the Opus One Winery, just across the road from Robert Mondavi Winery, because christening only one winery after turning 52 was not enough.
In 1996, Mondavi, now 83, carried the Centennial Olympics torch through the streets of Napa.
In 1959, six years before Mondavi started out on his own, Winecraft, the British encyclopedia of wines and spirits, had a one-sentence description of Napa Valley. Forty-five years later, in 2004, Mondavi, now 91, saw the sale of the winery he founded for $1.36 billion.
In 2016, Mondavi would have been 103. In this same year, I — a 52-year-old wine writer with a lead foot — sat in the cellars he built a half century prior. I tasted 16 vintages of Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon going back to the 1968 vintage (later that day, I tasted one of the few remaining bottles of the 1966).
Besides noting the remarkable quality and staying power of these wines (especially the 1966 and the 1969), I couldn’t help but look around and say to myself: “Damn, not bad for a 52-year-old.”
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 2013 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Calif.
- Two Thumbs Way Up
- Pleasant aromas of cassis, black licorice, tobacco box, dry orange peel and violets. Abundant flavors of dark berry fruit, cinnamon, clove, dark chocolate and a pleasant mocha-like finish.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.