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A Mondavi Reunion

Gil Kulers

Gil Kulers

Families are funny…in the same way that the movie Fargo is funny. There are lots of stresses, arguments and comical misunderstandings, and every once in a while, someone has to go headfirst into the wood chipper.

The winemaking Mondavi family is no different. Theirs is a common American story told again and again:

Honorable, hardworking immigrants make good on the American dream and build a successful winemaking company; parents leave business to two strong-willed sons; sons disagree on direction of company and serve each other knuckle sandwiches; angry eldest son leaves company; eldest son starts iconic, billion-dollar wine juggernaut with his three children, which they ultimately fumble and lose to the world’s largest corporate wine behemoth.

So goes the story of Peter and Robert Mondavi, the sons of Italian immigrants Cesare and Rosa Mondavi. Their sons’ bitter, 40-year feud never really healed. Overtures at reconciliation, such as a jointly made barrel of 2004 cabernet sauvignon for the Napa Valley Auction, were strained and chilly. Robert died in 2008 at the age of 94. Peter survives and perhaps owns the argument’s last laugh (if anything is actually funny in this real family drama).

 The renewed picture of family harmony, Mondavi-style. The Mondavis: Michael (from left), Marc, Peter Sr., Peter Jr. and Tim. (photo: M. J. Wickham)

The renewed picture of family harmony, Mondavi-style. The Mondavis: Michael (from left), Marc, Peter Sr., Peter Jr. and Tim. (photo: M. J. Wickham)

Peter’s sons, Marc and Peter Jr., handle the daily operations of the Charles Krug Winery, the winery purchased by his parents, Cesare and Rosa. Peter Sr. successfully sailed the winery around rocky shoals of hard times and deep debt. A force of nature at 96 years old, he maintains an office at the winery and is proud to say that Charles Krug remains family run and most importantly: family owned—something Robert’s branch cannot claim with regard to The Robert Mondavi Winery, now owned by Constellation Brands.

These days it’s not hard to trip over a Mondavi in the wine business. Tim and Marcia (Robert’s youngest and middle child) are making high-end cabernet blends in Napa Valley with their children; Michael (Robert’s eldest) runs a multi-faceted wine business that imports, markets and sells wines from around the world, including his own wines. Peter Sr., Marc and Peter Jr. enjoy a relatively prosperous time at Krug after surviving decades of challenging finances and extensive renovations to the winery and vineyards.

And while the apples have not fallen too far from the tree planted by Rosa and Cesare, most of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren remain far outside the canopy of the original family business.

But perhaps a few cracks are forming in the icy relations between the Robert and Peter Sr. branches of the family.

On an evening earlier this month—almost 45 years to the day when Peter accused Robert of swindling and Robert popped his younger brother in the mouth, twice, thus causing the great schism—the three divisions of the Mondavi clan gathered at the Carriage House of Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley. More than 1,200 wine enthusiasts assembled at Morton’s steakhouses across the country, including Atlanta, to watch the event on closed-circuit TV.

Ostensibly, the dinner was to announce a joint charity project of the second, third and fourth generations of the Mondavi families. The families joined together to make what is called a primat bottle of wine. The 27-liter bottle (equivalent to 36 regular bottles or three cases) has been officially dubbed: The Legendary Primat—Siamo Insieme (Italian for “we are together”). The 125-pound bottle is being auctioned by the Hart Davis Hart auction house to raise funds for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The 27-liter Siamo Insieme (we are together) requires a specially built siphon, as it is not practical (or safe) to pick up and pour. Bids will be accepted until Saturday, Oct. 30 at11:59 p.m. Go to www.mortons.com/makeawish for more detail bidding information. (photo: M. J. Wickham)

The 27-liter Siamo Insieme (we are together) requires a specially built siphon, as it is not practical (or safe) to pick up and pour. Bids will be accepted until Saturday, Oct. 30 at11:59 p.m. Go to www.mortons.com/makeawish for more detail bidding information. (photo: M. J. Wickham)

Much was made of the good deeds of Make-A-Wish and Morton’s cool, 53-city satellite hook up with wall-sized, high-definition screens, but one could not overlook the portrait of family harmony being painted…this time with warmth and sincerity. Five Mondavis sat on the dais at the front of the room with Peter Sr.’s sons, Marc and Peter Jr., on the left side of the podium. Instead of sitting next to his sons, Peter Sr. sat on the right with his estranged nephews, Michael and Tim.

I’ve suggested to several folks from the various companies that it seems like there’s potential for a reunification at some level of the various Mondavi strands. Nobody indicated that anything was in the works, but interestingly, the suggestion was never discounted or flatly denied.

Taylor Field III, Morton’s vice president of wine and spirits, interviewed Michael Mondavi during the dinner. Besides appearing perfectly joyous, Mondavi said he hoped future generations of Mondavis would be “going beyond what me, my brother and cousins have done.”

Sounds pretty conciliatory and optimistic to me.

One staggeringly large bottle of wine does not a peace treaty make. But, you gotta start somewhere. All three operations seem to be hitting on all cylinders these days. The simultaneous dinners across the U.S. gave attendees a chance to taste many of the Mondavis’ wines side by side. The biased consensus at my table at the Morton’s in Atlanta was the wines were all delicious, for different reasons to be sure, but delicious all the same.

Physicist and cosmologist Steven Hawking says that the nature of the universe tends toward destruction and decomposition, but he wasn’t talking about human nature. Out of family turmoil, fraternal strife and an occasional wood-chipper incident can come re-birth with renewed understandings. Maybe the third, fourth and fifth generations of Mondavis will coalesce and lead an American wine revolution away from corporate consolidation and back to family-owned-and -operated wineries. Now, that’s something worth fighting for.

To bid on The Legendary Primat—Siamo Insieme, go to www.mortons.com/makeawish. Bidding ends Saturday, Oct. 30 at11:59 p.m.

Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.

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