An American family of winemakers has deep roots in Napa Valley

  • Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon

    Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon


Rob Mondavi has alcohol in his blood, mostly wine, specifically Napa Valley wine.

Mondavi is the great-grandson of Cesare (Napa winemaker since 1943), grandson of Robert ("the Father of Napa Valley"), son of Michael (first Robert Mondavi winemaker, founder of Michael Mondavi Family Estates -- MMFE -- and Folio Wine Partners).

Now, he's MMFE's President of Winemaking, and few folks feel the pulse as robustly in their veins of Napa Valley, one of our country's most valuable agricultural assets.

So, this observer of wine jumped at the chance to meet Mondavi at Chicago's Wildfire -- emporium of steaks, chops, and seafood -- to taste and confer on the latest news from Napa.

On smoke taint: In 2017, five of the most destructive wildfires in California's history blazed from October through December, with an estimated loss of $180-billion. Wine valleys Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma were hard-hit, not in the destruction of vineyards -- spared by the grape vine's uniquely durable wood -- but in structural damage, tourism decline and by smoke that blanketed the 10 percent of grapes still unharvested.

What can wine buyers expect from wines of northern California's 2017 vintage? According to Mondavi, nobody knows.

"Certain taint can be measured in labs, but another taint is released in wine over time. We can say 'this is the flavor of the vintage' or 'this is taint' or maybe 'this is a unique style.'"

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MMFE lost 30 percent of their Atlas Peak vines, due to the increased heat of burning cover crops used to eliminate synthetic herbicides. Like many premium winegrowers, they sold remaining grapes off to the bulk market. "We saved one barrel," laughs Rob, "in case we were wrong."

His final analysis: "With one loss like this in four generations, we're lucky."

On Proposition 64: In 2016, California became the fifth state to legalize recreational marijuana. With cannabis rivaling grapes as a cash crop, wine's seasonal labor force -- already reduced by immigration concern -- has been lured by higher wages away from vineyards into marijuana fields.

Will Napa winegrowers be forced to resort to machine picking or reduced quality standards?

Mondavi finds marijuana's medicinal benefits "profoundly interesting." At the same time, "Napa Valley is too important to change our focus; we're an emblem of American agriculture around the world."

So, he joined the Napa Valley Cannabis Association board. "If your oar isn't in the water, you can't steer the boat."

Learning from his participation, Mondavi currently advocates cannabis greenhouses or "indoor grow."


"With indoor grow, we'll retain a year-round labor force; stability and increased wages will have social and economic benefits."

"It's a long road," he admits, but feels, "There's room for both industries."

On birthright: "The best thing a family business can do is write down a job description with incoming family members. There are intangibles that need to understood and agreed to, like putting in extra hours without complaining." He accepts family legacy as a challenge and an impetus. "I can't create Napa Valley; it's been done. I can't do what my Dad did. But I can make achievements relevant to my goals and values. I could choose to stand in the shadows of the giants before me. I choose to stand on their shoulders."

For a taste of our national wine heritage, ask your retailer for Ross's Choice and these recommended MMFE wines:

Emblem, Chardonnay, 2017 (Sonoma Coast, California): Ripe with flavors of yellow apple, refreshing acidity and subtle vanilla accents from nine months in new and neutral oak barrels. Mondavi chose Petaluma Gap, the country's latest AVA, for its unique terroir and cost control. "Not every wine from northern California has to be $200." A delicious complement to Wildfire's Moroccan Chicken Skewers and Tuna Tartare, this is an excellent "emblem" of California winegrowing, for $35.

M by Michael Mondavi, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015 (Napa Valley, California): Opulent dark fruit, ripened 1,300 feet above the valley on Atlas Peak. Careful timing of harvest, short maceration on skins and aging in large ok puncheons (rather than small barrels) yields plush tannin, not generally associated with mountain fruit. Seamless integration of dynamic flavor and finely-tuned structure produces a richly satisfying wine now and hints at complexity over ten years. Serve with blue cheese, roasted veggies, the richest poultry and red meat. About $200.

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at food@daily

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