How Robert Mondavi's White Smoke Captured the Wine Industry
In the history of Napa Valley, California, Robert Mondavi (1913 – 2008) holds a special place. In 1965, Robert had a much-publicized split with younger brother Peter Mondavi. The rift precipitated Robert’s leaving the family business at Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena. In what seemed like no time, Robert Mondavi then created the California premium wine business, as we know it today.
Among his first moves was to secure a location in Oakville for his new winery. Mondavi hired architect Cliff May (1909 – 1989) to design his new winery. It also happened to be the first new winery in the Napa Valley since the passing of Prohibition in 1930. Well known for his California ranch style homes, the Mondavi Winery soon became May’s most prominent commission. Even today, the arched entrance arouses both our contemporary esthetic and our search for timeless beauty. From his first vintage onward, Mondavi featured the building’s front façade on his label. Experiencing only minor variations in style, the Mondavi premium contemporary label looks much like one from the 1960s. To this day, the Mondavi label is a reliable symbol for quality California wine.
Mondavi was a marketing genius. The first vintage for Robert Mondavi Winery was his 1966 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. Upon its release in 1968, the entire vintage sold out almost immediately. Soon after his Cabernet Sauvignon sold out, Robert Mondavi rechristened an otherwise plebeian Sauvignon Blanc, calling it “Fume Blanc”.
By featuring the “white smoke” designation on the label, Robert Mondavi succeeded in convincing many neophyte wine consumers that he had invented a new varietal wine. Advances in large-scale cold fermentation were still years away, so making a distinguished Sauvignon Blanc was not easy. I will leave it up to others to determine if Mondavi succeeded in making a remarkable Sauvignon Blanc.
On my first visit to Robert Mondavi Winery in 1969, the ubiquitous Fume Blanc was the only wine available for sale to the public. Although I have since consumed many bottles of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, I have not noticed a bottle of Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc on sale for years. However, there are images of 2007 Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc on the internet, so they must still make that wine.
For those who bought land early, like Joseph Heitz, producing the only other 1966 Oakville Cabernet on the market was a natural step. Before Mondavi and Heitz, Beringer, Inglenook and other Napa Valley winemakers saw the place as just another California viticulture area. It was after Mondavi opened his winery that the Napa Valley became one of the hottest real estate markets in the United States. Wealthy individuals and corporations alike rushed to own a part of the California premium wine business.
Until Napa Valley real estate prices skyrocketed, Sonoma County and Mendocino County held nearly equal viticultural status to the nearby Napa Valley. After a string of international accolades for its premium wines in the 1970s, Napa Valley rose to preeminence in the minds of most California wine aficionados. To the present day, a Napa Valley "domaine de origin" still holds sway with wine aficionados, both young and old. Regardless of how imperfect a Napa Valley wine may be, most vinophiles will unconsciously give a Napa Valley wine the benefit of the doubt.
For Robert Mondavi, one could say that he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Although he was certainly in the right place, he capitalized on several trends, including the rush to varietal wine labeling. Until ridiculed by Mondavi and others, the term “California Burgundy” was in common usage. Soon thereafter, new laws required winemakers use accurate geographical and varietal wine labeling.
As with the red wine tradition in Bordeaux, France, a blend of California Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot often makes a wine preferable to straight Cabernet Sauvignon. However, Robert Mondavi’s push for varietal labeling won the hearts of both legislators and consumers. Unless a wine could meet the seventy-five percent-of-content threshold, such a blend might be labeled “Claret” or worse yet, “Red Table Wine”. Out of misplaced deference for Robert Mondavi and his successful push for varietal labeling, we now drink our California Cabernet Sauvignon and even Merlot mostly straight, rather than in more thoughtful blends. For a winemaker to do otherwise, risks having his or her wine languish on the shelf, rather than consumed by the public.
Another reason for the success of Robert Mondavi and his fellow Napa Valley Vintners is the compact geography of the appellation. The valley is only twenty miles long and several miles wide. In the 1970s, a tourist could visit almost every winery in the valley in one day. In the early 1970s, stops at Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Charles Krug, Inglenook, then newly reformed Freemark Abbey and the new Sterling Vineyards might make for one full day of Napa Valley wine tasting.
Today, a tasting-trip north on the same California Highway 29 might take a week, given the large number of wineries now along that road. From Calistoga, a return trip south along the Silverado Trail yields scores more wineries, all still in the Napa Valley. On a weekend during the crush, the Napa Valley can seem like one giant amusement park for adults. When at Sterling Vineyards, be sure to ride the overhead tram out to the tasting room and back. After a glass of wine, it is a real experience.