Decades after the pioneer winemaker made his mark, success in the region has become tricky.
NAPA Valley lost a charismatic leader when Robert Mondavi died on Friday. Has the Napa Valley that fostered such a maverick passed as well?
Mondavi's Napa was the Wild West of winemaking. For the dozen wineries in operation in 1966, costs were low, there was room to grow and mistakes weren't fatal. The challenge was to persuade Americans to drink wine at all. Today, high costs have created a region dominated by small producers. Four hundred wine brands with limited landholdings compete for a share of the top 10% of the U.S. wine market.
When Mondavi planted his initial 12 acres in Oakville, an acre cost less than $10,000, according to Vic Motto, chairman of Global Wine Partners, an investment bank dedicated to the wine industry. He gradually expanded to 1,400 acres.
Now an acre of "good" Oakville vineyard land costs an average of $250,000. Prime land can cost $500,000. Most of Napa's 450,998 acres of planted vineyards are owned by individuals, Motto says. Big holdings are the exception. "Napa is really hundreds and hundreds of small growers." Most are economically viable, but no one is getting rich quick, Motto says.
That doesn't faze today's novice vintners, many of whom arrived in Napa with considerable wealth. The cost of a vineyard can be rationalized as an investment in the wine lifestyle. Deep pockets don't guarantee success, Motto says. "More than money, you need drive and passion to succeed here."
Good news for these vintners: Bottle prices have skyrocketed. Motto recalls the furor in 1970 when Mondavi raised the retail price of his reserve Napa Cabernet Sauvignon by 50% -- to $3 from $2. Today, he says, the average price of a Napa Cabernet is $45. A $100 price tag is common.
Getting a fledgling brand noticed among the proliferation of pricey bottles is tough, says Bo Barrett, Chateau Montelena owner and winemaker. "It was difficult in the old days when no one thought we made good wine, but at least you could buy an old cow pasture to expand your vineyards. We didn't have to charge $70 right off of the bat."
Mondavi was instrumental in this transformation, but he failed to appreciate that surviving in Napa had become a high-wire act. When he ignored a shift in critical and public taste toward a lusher wine style, sticking instead to his personal preference for lighter, more reserved wines, his publicly traded company suffered. In 2004, Mondavi was forced to sell his winery to Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine company .
Concern spread that more of Napa Valley would be owned by outside corporations. Constellation already owned Mount Veeder Winery and Franciscan Estate. Australian beverage giant Foster's Group owned Beringer Vineyards, Stags' Leap Winery, Etude and St. Clement. Another spirits giant, Diageo, owned Beaulieu Vineyard, Provenance, Acacia and Sterling Vineyards. In 2007, U.S. Tobacco added a 50% stake in Stag's Leap Wine Cellars to holdings that included Conn Creek. But there has yet to be a rush of outside investors into Napa.
Will one of the boutique producers rise to fill Mondavi's shoes? Without him, there is no individual or institution who personifies Napa, says Jacques Lurton, scion of one of Bordeaux's most prominent winemaking families. "Mondavi not only created Mondavi wines, he created Napa."
Whoever takes his place, Lurton says, will be someone who can transform Napa Valley yet again. "That person will be the new hero," he says.