Robert Mondavi’s life spanned a century of revolution, tragedy and triumph for the American wine industry. He was born before Prohibition, grew up during it, was present for the slow re-awakening of the industry after Prohibition ended and, thanks to a famous family altercation, started the modern American wine era with the establishment of the Robert Mondavi Winery. He was present—and a prime mover—as wine went from nowhere to becoming the $30 billion industry it is today.
In the mid 1960s, when the first Robert Mondavi wines were produced, who could have imagined that in just four decades the United States would become the biggest consumer of wine in the world, that per capita wine consumption would jump, in that same period, almost three fold? Bob Mondavi imagined it, and he never stopped believing.
His winemaking skill and his professionalism were keys to his success, but it was his indomitable spirit and fervent belief that more and better was sure to come that lifted the entire industry. He powered through apathy, neo-prohibitionism, phylloxera and every other roadblock that stood in his way. His enthusiasm for the future was contagious.
I remember visiting him in the mid-seventies and watching his eyes sparkle as he eagerly poured a glass of his Reserve Cabernet next to a glass of a first-growth Bordeaux. As I tasted, he looked on proudly. “See how good we can be.”
He was never satisfied with the status quo. No matter how successful he became, he was always looking beyond, pushing himself to be better. He began most of his energetic, passionate and rambling speeches with the words: “We’ve only just scratched the surface.”
It’s hard to believe that this is a man who only went out on his own in his early fifties. What he accomplished in the last four decades of his life is remarkable. There is no need to detail his many successes or to dwell on the disappointments and failures of his life. Robert Mondavi will always be with us. His legacy to us is his courage, his belief, his optimism and his unrestrained joy. These we will keep in our hearts forever.