How Entrepreneur Robert Mondavi Changed Wine Forever

The wine world is filled with entrepreneurs.

But if pressed to pick one that has truly changed Napa Valley, no one would argue the name Robert Mondavi.

He was an innovator, brilliant marketer and champion, not only for his own wines, but for all of Napa Valley. His life-long mission was to prove that Napa Valley was one of the world’s most outstanding wine regions. 

And he succeeded.

I recently had the privilege of attending a wine-tasting dinner in Manhattan that kicked off the 50th Anniversary of the Robert Mondavi Winery. Genevieve Janssens, director of winemaking, poured wines that dated as far back as 1976.

But the real story starts in 1966, 50 years ago, when Robert opened the first new winery in the Napa Valley after the 1933 repeal of prohibition. Robert went on to win lifetime achievement awards, such as Winemaker of the Year by the American Wine Society, was inducted into the California Hall of Fame and even carried the Olympic torch in 1996 at age of 83.

And with all his wonderful achievements, his life story still reads like a Shakespearean novel that includes family drama, interfamily lawsuits and even brotherly fist fights. You can go to Google for that grist or, better yet, read The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, by Julia Flynn Siler.

What’s relevant here what we can learn from Robert Mondavi, the consummate entrepreneur. 

He was motivated by the people around him

Maybe it’s thanks to the spirit of his Italian immigrant parents, Cesare and Rosa, who landed in Minnesota (of all places) back in 1907 and struggled to make ends meet. Robert watched his father do everything from work in a bar to relocate the family to Napa so that he could ship grapes and wine-making supplies to community.

Or maybe it was meeting Alexi Lichene, an avant-garde French vineyard owner and wine writer. Alexis introduced Robert to the five best wines of Bordeaux, France. “My father thought those first-growth Bordeauxs were the most prestigious wines in the world and he wanted to compete and beat them,” says his son, Michael Mondavi, now founder and coach at Folio Fine Wine Partners.

Or maybe it’s just that latent gene that causes some to be ambitious. “He was so driven, so stubborn in his beliefs, that he didn't quit,” says Michael.

Related: The Entrepreneurship of Building the Best Wine Cellar

It was most likely a combination of it all that caused Robert to push himself and everyone around him. He convinced his father to eventually buy the Charles Krug Winery, which is where Robert and his siblings would grow up, ultimately split up and lead Robert to open his namesake winery in 1966.

He pushed Napa Valley to up its standards and compete with the world.  He supported everyone and shared everything he had, all to make sure they won.

He was willing to change course 

While Robert’s true love was producing high-end Bordeaux-style wines, many people today associate the Robert Mondavi name with table wines you buy in the supermarket.

But in the 1970s, Robert Mondavi Reserve was one of the top 10 best Napa Cabernets.

Then the economy turned in 1977.  So the family had no choice but to adjust. “We were risking bankruptcy,” says Michael.

Robert’s mother always said make good wine that people can afford and so that’s what they had to do. With Michael’s help, they created a master blend of all the wine they couldn’t sell.

The moved the production of that wine out of Napa to Lodi, Calif., because producing a table wine was hurting the image of the higher-end reserve wines. They named the new stuff Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, which still exists today and is a big reason for the black bottom line.

Now many marketing pros claim that producing a lower-end product taints the overall brand. Maybe, but there is a reason that Porsche makes and sells more Cayennes than its infamous sports car. 

You have to keep the lights on.

He aligned himself with the greats

While Robert wanted to keep the business within the family, he knew the right times to align himself with industry leaders.

He met Baron Philippe de Rothschild of the powerhouse of Chateau Mouton Rothschild of Bordeaux in Hawaii in 1970. The baron was impressed with what he was doing in Napa and suggested the idea of a joint venture.

That idea later morphed into Opus One, a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Its first harvest was in 1979 in Napa and is still one of the world’s greatest wines.

Then in 1993, Robert sought to make a wine in Italy. He approached one of Italy’s great wine makers, Vittorio Frescobaldi, of the infamous Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi wine family.

Related: Wine Ring App Lets Your Taste Shape Your Ordering

And a few years later, Luce, a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese was created in Tuscany, with its first harvest in 1995.

Robert and Vittorio’s sons, Tim and Lamberto, were also involved in Luce, which is celebrating its 20th harvest this year.

“I was fortunate to meet him – he gave me invaluable advice,” says Lamberto, now president of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, with sole leadership of Luce. “He’s one of the most influential people in the wine business I’ve ever met.”

He was able to admit a mistake

Robert ended up taking his company public in 1993 because the costs of expansion and another tough market in the ‘80s plagued the company.

But Wall Street didn’t love the idea and the stock fell. Couple that with mounting debt and they almost had no choice but to accept a $1.3 billion bid from the global drinks giant Constellation Brands.

The family business that was once eponymous with Napa Valley was all but gone.

Now hindsight is always 20/20, but Robert has been quoted as saying they shouldn’t have taken the company public. 

That’s when he lost control.

He still took time to give back

Long before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan decided to donate the farm, Robert was very philanthropic. 

Quite frankly, many will argue that his uber generosity and future charitable commitments were a huge part of the company’s rising debt and reason they had to sell to Constellation.

But Robert took pleasure in giving and didn’t understand why more people with money didn’t do it more.

His second wife, Margrit, also instilled the notion in him that food and wine and art should all be one. So under her direction, Robert Mondavi Winery developed cultural and culinary arts programs, and they became major benefactors of cultural and educational institutions, including the University of California at Davis, where they established the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

So raise a glass to the entrepreneur

Robert never dropped his dream. Maybe it was at the sacrifice of his family or his company for that matter.

But he was a pioneer and an innovator for Napa Valley. Heck, when they couldn’t sell dry Sauvignon Blanc, they renamed if Fume Blanc because people were more apt to buy French wines back then. That’s still on the bottle today.

There are so many things we can learn from his life – things to do and things not to do.

Related: Popping the Cork on Champagne