There are few – if any – names in American winemaking that hold the same gravitas as Robert Mondavi, namesake of Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi Winery.
Speaking of names: you know how wines across the United States, the biggest player in “New World Wines,” are called by their varietal, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir or zinfandel? That is because of Robert Mondavi!
Back in the 1960s as he was launching his empire, he made the conscious decision to label wines by their type of grape versus by their region, as was done across France, Spain and other areas considered the “Old World.” For example, in France, if selecting a French wine, you might see Bordeaux or Burgundy label. However, either could be one of a dozen types of actual wine, as in the Old World, regulations dictate which grapes a region can grow, and the importance of region is usually emphasized over grape variety. He is the reason, then, that if you know you like pinot noir, you can seek out pinot noir at the local grocery store, winery of liquor store with ease.
But that is but one of his innovations and just one story from a life well worth a toast (or two).
Let’s dive in.
Mondavi, who was born in Minnesota to Italian immigrant parents and moved to California in his teens, was a smart cookie. After high school, he attended and graduated from Stanford before joining in on the purchase of a Napa County vineyard with his father and brother in 1943, growing a name for themselves slowly and methodically over about 20 years. As with so many family businesses, it was too close for comfort in the Mondavi family, so Mondavi set off on his own in 1965 to launch Robert Mondavi Winery down the street a few miles. His aim was to directly compete with French wines, seen by many as the top winegrowing region in the world at the time.
He would go on to invent the world’s first-ever Fumé Blanc, which is actually a dry oak–aged sauvignon blanc, as well as to co-found Opus One. His own wines, of course, became that of legend, and he even authored a best-selling book, Harvests of Joy: My Passions for Excellence, sharing his journey from childhood to wine god, with colorful vignettes all along the way.
And his family feud? Before his passing in 2008 at the age of 94, Mondavi partnered with his brother in the mid-2000s to blend a reunion wine together, using grapes from both their vineyards, donating the $400,000 the barrel made at auction directly to charity.
Robert Mondavi Today
Though the world lost Mondavi the man more than 10 years ago, his larger-than-life spirit and passion lives on. In fact, it burns bright day and night at the iconic winery, which spans 435 acres in Napa’s Oakville region. It is a Napa Greenland Certified winery, and in partnership with the Napa County Resource Conservation District, co-created the Napa Sustainable Winegrowing Group (NSWG). The vines in property belong to Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard (pronounced To-kah-lon). To Kalon is Ancient Greek means “the highest beauty,” and the grapes grown there live up to the name, especially those that grow the brand’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and the Fumé Blanc Reserve.
(It should be noted there are two other primary vineyards – both in other regions of Napa County – that grow as well: Wappo Hill in Stag’s Leap and Carneros in the Carneros AVA.)
A tasting at Mondavi is never just a tasting. It is at least a half day’s experience as the property is so vast, the tours so extensive and the tasting programs too lavish.
The best way to experience a little of everything is via a reserved program, of which there are many. In my near-decade of visiting the winery, I do have some favorites to recommend:
Vineyard To Table Lunch: This 90-minute lunch service held on one of Mondavi’s exclusive patios and overlooking a tranquil garden with the vineyards and mountains in the background, features locally sourced seasonal fare across several courses with each course paired with wines from the brand’s Estate Tier. It starts at $150 per person.
To Kalon Reserve Tasting: This 75-minute experience, customized to guest preferences, is a showcase of the luxury To Kalon portfolio. A mind-blowingly delicious way to spend an afternoon, all of the wines are made from the vineyard right outside the door. It starts at $125 per person.
The To Kalon Vineyard: The difference between this and the above? Enjoy the opulent portfolio of wines while overlooking the legendary vineyard from a semi-private cabana. And…with family-style food pairings. This is a bucket list program. It starts at $325 per person.
The Legacy Dinner: Buckle your seatbelts and prepare your palate, because this – the ultimate Mondavi experience – is a game-changer in how you drink wine, pair it with food and enjoy wine in Napa from now on. Over the course of three hours, the staff will unlock its exclusive library of wines – including older vintages and ultra-rare selections – and pair each glass with a fine dining experience for the ages. While $425 per person, it is well worth it.
Build Your Own Wine Tasting
Can’t get to the vineyard direct? Thankfully, Mondavi is available nationwide. Why not make a night of it by selection five to 10 bottles and doing a wine tasting event at your home with friends? Some of my favorites to build the menu include:
2017 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: Each bottle of this cabernet sauvignon is a celebration of dark plum and cedar on the nose followed by sweet oak, vanilla bean and toasted almond on the palate.
2018 Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc: This signature winery offering is equal parts bright and beautiful. And with the flavors of fresh melon dancing with green apple and juicy peach on the palate, it tastes even better than it looks.
2016 To Kalon Vineyard Harvest Of Joy Red Wine: Why yes, that is toasty graham cracker and a hint of chocolate in every sip, followed by big red fruit and baking spices as if it was made for fall and winter celebrations.