The highlight of just one tasting panel featured wines dating back to 1968, including the very last bottle of 1969 Cabernet Reserve at the winery.
Some 150 special guests assembled for an extravagant celebration over the last three days to mark the 50th anniversary of Robert Mondavi Winery.
Napaman was one of them.
I was thrilled to be included as I have been a long-time friend of the winery, and of the man who kick-started the modern Napa Valley wine industry, Robert Mondavi.
Or “Bob,” as he was known by his friends. Napaman was one of them, too.
In fact, the very reason I live in Napa Valley is due to Bob.
The iconic Robert Mondavi Winery
In May, 1980, as food editor of the third largest newspaper in North America, the Toronto Star, I was asked by Bob to come to Napa Valley to cover an event at his winery – the Great Chefs of France Cooking School.
He was hosting Jean Troisgros, chef-owner of what was then, and still is now, a landmark, three-star, Michelin restaurant, which many food authorities then, and now, consider to be the best restaurant in the world.
Bust of Bob outside the winery, bearing Bob’s vision: “It’s only the beginning,” in his handwriting.
Bob had a notion that his Cabernet Sauvignon was as good as anything coming out of Bordeaux and to prove it, he brought a succession of three-star, French chefs to his winery to cook for paying guests. He wanted to pair his wines with their three-star food to prove that his wines were a) complementary, and b) every bit as good as Bordeaux wines.
And they were.
My friend, Robert Mondavi
Bob was a showman, a marketing genius, a humble guy, a visionary. What the winery has been celebrating these last three days – the 50th anniversary of the winery – is really a celebration of Bob, because he and the winery are synonymous and inseparable. (Bob died in May, 2008 at the age of 94.)
As a side note: My 1980 introduction to Napa Valley by Bob was so profound, that I decided the very weekend I met him that I would, one day, move to Napa Valley; it took 17 years to save up the funds and get our kids through college, but I never lost site of my dream to move to Napa Valley, to write about, and make, wine. Thank you for the introduction, Bob.
Margrit and Bob Mondavi, photographed by napaman at a winery luncheon we enjoyed together in April, 2005.
RMW, as the winery is known, is important to all of us in the wine industry and the wine-drinking world.
Founded in 1966 by Bob, when he was 53, the winery was acquired by Constellation Brands in 2004. Today, it is the jewel in a crown of many wineries and brands owned by Constellation.
Today, RMW has 1,300 planted acres and its wines are sold in 90 countries. Them’s a lot of countries.
Perhaps the most important single vineyard in America is the famed To Kalon vineyard, 450 acres of which are owned and farmed by Mondavi.
Bob knew the importance of vineyard site; in fact, he chose to build his winery in the To Kalon Vineyard, an historic property regarded as one of Napa Valley’s best.
The vineyard had been planted with different grape varieties and named in the late 1880s by a vineyard visionary named Hamilton Walker Crabb. “To Kalon,” if you’ve forgotten your Greek, means “the beautiful,” which this vineyard certainly is. And the wines, which it produces, certainly are.
Over the last three days, to celebrate 50 years of RMW winemaking, the by- invitation-only guests tasted half of the 50 vintages of Mondavi Cabernet Reserve, including the very first vintage, from 1966; we dined in the Vineyard Room, which I have earlier in my critiquing career called “the best private dining room in Napa Valley,” and traipsed through the To Kalon vineyard, oogling at 71-year-old Sauvignon Blanc vines, while drinking chilled examples of what these vines produced from the 2004 and 2013 vintages.
Maybe the best way to recount the three-day wine orgy is in an orderly fashion:
Jason Wise, producer/director of Somm: In the Bottle, speaks to guests before the screening.
On Sunday evening, a small cadre of 50 guests assembled for special wines and a screening of Somm: In The Bottle. Filmmaker, director, producer, and all-around nice guy, Jason Wise, was present to answer questions about his film.
Not only is this a wonderful film – I encourage you to see it in a neighborhood theater or rent it – but as a thoughtful courtesy, the Mondavi hosts served guests legendary wines in the darkened Vineyard Room, many of them mentioned in the film.
I thought the three WOW-ser wines were the 1997 Penfolds Grange, the 1990 Chateau Lafite Rothschild and the 1995 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve . You see the wines with which Mondavi wines can hob-nob? They have the required sophistication, elegance, balance and charm to do so... exactly what Bob was preaching 50 years ago.
Mark de Vere MW and head wine educator at Mondavi, leads guests on a tour of the property, starting with a pit-stop in the barrel fermenting room, outfitted with 5,000-gallon French oak barrels in which the top Mondavi Cabernets are produced.
From the barrel fermenting cellar, we descended to the barrel aging room where guests tasted through 16 vintages of Mondavi Cabernet Reserve.
We tasted 16 vintages of Mondavi Cabernet Reserve going back to 1968.
Highlights of the tasting for me were the 1968, 1971, 1991 and 1994 Cabernets. I even loved the often-maligned, Napa Valley vintage 1998. I thought the Mondavi effort was gracile, balanced, delicate, and focused. Hardly an ugly sibling, as the press would have had us think about a wine from this wet vintage.
Tough vintages, when the weather sucks, are the test of a great winemaker’s skills; they nailed it in spades in 1998 at Mondavi.
There was a tremendous consistency in flavor profile across all of these wines; tasting hallmarks included tea, soy, black olives, and wild Provencal herbs, often called “garrigue” in French.
The emotional highlight of the tasting was that the winery opened for us its very last bottle of 1969 Mondavi Cabernet Reserve (called “unfined” on the label). THAT is a true demonstration of Hospitality with a capital H.
Say buh-bye to the ’69 at the winery... our group polished off the last bottle.
Thank you, Mondavi Team!
All 16 wines in the morning panel were aromatically similar, fresh on the palate; one of my tasting comrades noted that the wines were very much like older Italian Barbarescos, in that they were filled with dark cherry, and black olive flavors and coffee end-notes, all shaped by a spine of youthful, refreshing acidity.
Mark de Vere, who led the morning retrospective, described Bob’s style of wine making:
“Bob always said that a properly made Cabernet should have the power of Pavarotti singing an aria... and the softness of a baby’s bottom.”
Most of the wines we tasted throughout the three-day Mondavithon met this criterion.
Megan Schofield, left, winemaker of Mondavi’s Burgundy varietals, Mark de Vere, MW, center, wine educator, and Joe Harden, right, winemaker of Mondavi Bordeaux varietals, led the morning tasting of 16 Mondavi Reserve Cabernets, dating back to 1968.
The aftermath of the morning tasting.
A delicious lunch was served in my favorite dining salon, the Vineyard Room.
Afternoon Day Two
Following lunch, the educator team at Mondavi led guests to the revered To Kalon block to examine, first hand, 71-year-old Sauvignon Blanc vines and treasured Cabernet vines.
Sauvignon Blanc, used to make what Bob Mondavi called “Fume Blanc,” in the famous I Block of To Kalon vineyard. These vines were planted in 1945.
Evening Day Two
The gala dinner, commemorating 50 years of winemaking achievements, was a chance to invite illustrious alumni back to the place where their careers had blossomed.
Monumental winemakers like Warren Winiarski, and Zelma Long, and a dozen vineyard managers/growers were present, too; the dinner, cooked by executive chef Jeff Mosher, was a canvas for exceptional wine pairings.
The most important wine of the evening – in fact of the three-day event -- was served right off the bat; it was the first wine ever produced at Mondavi, the 1966 unfined Cabernet Sauvignon, 90% estate Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% estate Cabernet Franc.
The dinner menu, painted by Margrit Mondavi.
How special, how good, was this very first-ever, 50-year-old Mondavi Cabernet? PLENTY SPECIAL if you rate a wine on importance, merit and, oh yeah, taste.
The line of the night was delivered by Warren Winiarski, who stood up when the 1966 Mondavi Cabernet Reserve (in those days labeled “unfined”) was served and said:
“Good evening. I’m Warren Winiarski ... AND I MADE THIS WINE!”
The room erupted in spontaneous joy, applauding his craftsmanship, for, indeed, Warren had made this wine 50 years ago and it is still delicious, lively, balanced!
After leaving Mondavi in 1968 as winemaker, Warren went on to found his own winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, winning all sorts of recognition and accolades.
The 1966 unfined Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon exhibited notes of tea, ripe berries, soy, and ended with prune and cold coffee notes.
Mark de Vere, who acted as host of the dinner, shared that, after tonight’s tasting, there are only three bottles of this first vintage 1966 Cabernet left at the winery.
Uniformity of profile, consistency of taste and a “Mondavi-style” were evident in all 30 wines we tasted on Day Two.
Winemaking director Genevieve Janssens and all her predecessors, many who were present at the Gala Dinner, must recognize their achievement and be proud of their collective accomplishment.
Margrit, the Grande Dame of Mondavi, on the left, Mark de Vere, in the center, and Warren Winiarski, on the left, at the Gala dinner.
Former VP of winegrowing at Mondavi, Phil Freese, was invited to the Gala dinner with other field and cellar alumni. I loved what he had to say about Bob Mondavi’s work ethic:
“Bob was a man without a rear-view mirror. Even after the worst catastrophe in the cellar, or a failed vineyard experiment, he just kept crashing forward -- it was the only direction he knew!”
Bob was a relentless idea machine, a never-give-up-experimenting kind of a guy. He pushed his vineyard managers to plant different rootstocks, he got them to change row orientation, to change plant spacing; I remember when Tim Mondavi and his dad pushed the limits to see if overplanting vines could positively stress vines to compete for nutrients – so they planted 4,000 vines per acre (usually under 2,000 vines per are).
Bob also contracted with NASA to conduct satellite reconnaissance of his vines to determine which ones were healthy using infrared spectroscopy; in the process, they created a whole new field of agriculture now called Precision Farming, or Site Specific Crop Management (SSCM).
Joe Harden, winemaker of Bordeaux varietal,s and Megan Schofield, winemaker of Burgundy varietals, led a morning panel of 15 contemporary wines from vintages 2009 through 2013.
The day started off with an appreciation of recent vintage wines. We tasted through Reserve Chardonnays, Fume Blancs, Reserve Pinot Noirs and gorgeous Cabernet Sauvignons.
My take away was that I’ve mistakenly lumped Mondavi Chardonnay in with all those goofy Napa Valley Chardonnays that have so much oak they taste like they’ve passed through the kidneys of a beaver.
I’d forgotten how delicate, ethereal, refreshing, and Burgundian-like, the Mondavi Reserve Chardonnays are, or can be.
I fell head over heels in love with the 2012 Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve and as soon as this is story is posted, I intend to buy a case, as proof of my pleasure. I scored this wine 96 points, and loved the candied lemon top notes and creamy middle palate. Great length. Great wine. Nice work, Megan Schofield!
If you’ve been staying away from Napa Valley Chardonnay because of Chardonnay palate fatigue and a dislike of over-oaked, over-alcoholized wine, it may be time to review Mondavi’s offering; I was gob-smacked by the beauty, fruit, balance and charm of these Chardonnays.
A small, but significant, group of wine writers attended the three-day Mondavi celebration.
Director of Winemaking at Mondavi, Genevieve Janssens.
Long before Genevieve Janssens, Mondavi’s director of winemaking, said this to the assembled group, I was thinking it to myself:
There is a Holy Grail of Winemaking at Mondavi, which spans decades; it is a desire to produce consistent, refreshing, food-friendly wines, which are pleasing to the palate.
Wines here are never made to attain foolishly high, alcohol levels, or over-the-top levels of extraction in order to grab the attention – and earn high scores -- from fatigued wine writers with numbed palates.
I noted a stylistic consistency through ALL 50 YEARS of wines made at Mondavi. These harmonious wines are ready to drink upon release and continue to be drinkable for long windows of 10-, 20-, and as we’ve tasted, even 50-years.
My favorite Cabernet of the morning panel was the 2012 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, which i scored 98 points. I thought this was a sensational wine, worthy of owning, worthy of cellaring. Nice work, Joe Harden!
After the morning tasting, guests were served a sensational, casual wine-country lunch on the terrace of the Vineyard Room.
For the occasion, Margrit Mondavi had created the menu artwork, as she had done for all dining menus presented to guests for all our meals. Nice work, Margrit!
As a final gesture, Genevieve debuted a new wine, which the winery will launch to celebrate Bob Mondavi’s life and the winery’s 50-year run; named after Bob’s passion for music, the wine is a symphony of reds from two significant parcels – To Kalon and Wappo Hill. Guests were served the first-ever vintage, the 2013 Robert Mondavi Maestro. Talk about delicious! Nice work, Genevieve!
Before guests departed for their respective homes across the country, I felt a need to put the three-day session into context for assembled guests.
I noted that only twice before in my life have I attended an event of such august, significance – the 100th anniversary of BV, which I attended with Bob Mondavi himself, and the 20th anniversary of Opus One, again in the presence of Bob Mondavi.
This three-day, 50-vintage span of Mondavi wines, many of them tasted in the presence of the former winemakers and vineyard managers who brought these wines into existence, made this once-in-a-lifetime, industry experience even more exotic.
The event itself, like the wines tasted, will never happen again. This was a three-day taste of history, and a detailed study of how one person’s passion to do the Right Thing can change the world. Nice work, Bob – you really started something special.