Thursday, June 19, 2008

More than 1,000 honor Mondavi

Twelve hundred people gathered in Oakville on Wednesday evening to remember the celebrated life of Napa Valley vintner Robert G. Mondavi, an extraordinary man who lived his dreams and helped elevate the reputation of California wines around the world.

A packed, convivial crowd of family members, Napa Valley vintners, growers, chefs and former employees gathered for the invitation-only event on the back lawn at his namesake winery on what would have been Mondavi’s 95th birthday.

In tribute to a man who loved a party, there were fun, fond memories shared and much fine wine and food served in tents manned by 13 local restaurants ranging from Meadowood to Mustard’s Grill to Angele and LaToque.

With the temperature hovering at 95 degrees, attendees wore everything from T-shirts and flip-flops to suits and ties as a 12-piece band played songs such as Dean Martin’s “Volare,” said to be Mondavi’s favorite song.

“We’ve been so blessed by all the stories that have been recounted, all the letters received about our dad,” said his daughter, Marcia Mondavi Borger.

“He had the ability to egg us all along. You could feel the pulse here, feel everyone’s desire to excel.”

Her brother, Tim Mondavi, added, “It’s a little like coming home.

“And nice to be here, though bittersweet, of course.”

Choking back tears, Tim Mondavi ended with a toast to his father, recalling how he lived every second of his long life, not only changing the world of wine but “our world through wine.”

Mondavi, who died May 16 at age 94, was the son of Italian immigrants and spent the early part of his life in Minnesota. At age 10, Mondavi’s family moved to Lodi, where his father Cesare found success buying and shipping wine grapes to Italian families across the United States who were looking to make homemade wines during Prohibition.

The Mondavis eventually moved to Napa, taking over the fabled Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, which continues to be owned by Peter Mondavi and his sons, Marc and Peter Jr.

Robert left to start the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966.

Over the next decades, Mondavi presided over and helped advance the cause of California wine, tirelessly traveling the world and hosting countless visitors to make the point that Napa wines could be counted among the finest in the world.

“Wine to me is a passion,” Mondavi wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business.”

“It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit.”

In late 2004, he sold the business to Constellation Brands for $1.3 billion, still serving as an enthusiastic ambassador for his namesake wines as his health began to decline.

Mondavi, with wife Margrit always by his side, also remained a regular fixture at the signature Auction Napa Valley, a charity wine event he helped found decades ago, and any event supporting his other chief causes, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, the Napa Valley Opera House, the Napa-based Oxbow School and the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis.

Inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2007, Mondavi, honored as a pioneer, was described as someone who always set the highest of goals and consistently led the wine industry to ever-greater achievements, true to his creed, “Go forward, this is only the beginning.”

Mondavi also was involved in Continuum, a high-end cabernet sauvignon winery project with his son. The first bottles were released this spring.

A public celebration of Mondavi’s life is scheduled for July 5 at the Robert Mondavi Winery.