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Murray: Raise a glass to a wine pioneer

POSTED: June 15, 2008 5:01 a.m.

We in the wine world lost a giant of a man last month. Robert Mondavi, whose name became synonymous with California wines, died May 16 at his lovely home in Yountville, on the northern tier of the Napa Valley, at age 94.

In my mind, three people are primarily responsible for how America viewed, selected and consumed wine in the last half of the 20th century: Ernest and Julio Gallo ... and Robert Mondavi.

Who would have thought that a fraternal fist fight 43 years ago would have exploded into a global enterprise bringing together the then-fledgling California wine industry with vintners from around the world?

Sons of Italian immigrants who arrived in Ellis Island in 1906, Robert and his brother Peter set out to create something new and wonderful with Napa's Charles Krug Winery.

Peter was more of a traditionalist, opting to follow the ages-old techniques of European wine making. Robert, however, was looking way down the wine road; he wanted to do things in a new way ... the American way.

The two argued, then duked it out in 1965, and Robert bolted. He headed for Oakville in the heart of Napa to establish his own winery. And history was made.

Robert Mondavi's name has appeared on wine labels bearing prices from less than $10 to well more than $100. In the late '60s he created "Fume Blanc," another name for an oak-aged sauvignon blanc. The renaming of the wine quintupled its sales in months and created something new for California. Robert would never look back.

French oak aging, using stainless-steel containers for fermenting white wines to sustain fruit flavors, blending lush Napa Valley fruit with old world wine making, all these belong in the eulogy for a truly great man. He created friendships and business links with respected winemakers in France, Italy, Chile and Australia. With his full-bore energy and accessibility, Robert Mondavi literally wrestled the wine world into a new, bright, modern age.

I knew not quite four years ago Robert was on the decline. A vital and vibrant man, he suffered from health issues. But it was the sale of the Robert Mondavi empire to a huge corporate entity in 2004 that, I believe, hastened his demise. He was all about family - even though his was occasionally divided and quarrelsome. The loss of the family venture must have hurt his pride terribly.

I met the man for the first time in the mid-1980s when I was a wine consultant for a trend-setting Pennsylvania restaurant. We learned he would be in Philadelphia and invited him and wife Margrit to host a special Robert Mondavi wine dinner in our nearby town. It was to be an eight-course meal using only Mondavi wines - in the kitchen and on the table.

We were happily stunned when he accepted. When we announced the great man himself would be the host, we sold out the dinner - 40 tables - in less than a day.

That night when Robert arrived, we were crushed to find he had laryngitis. His voice was a raspy whisper. "I'm sorry," he croaked. "I just can't talk."

He then proceeded to talk to and with our guests for two hours. That's the kind of man he was.

About two years later we were having lunch at the Mondavi winery with the public relations director. Robert was strolling the grounds and recognized me. I felt flattered.

Thank you, Robert Mondavi, for a life well and fully lived.


On a cheerier note, Georgians will soon be permitted to buy wine on the Internet and have it delivered to their homes. Kudos to our legislature and governor for correcting an anachronistic nuisance for those of us who often find the offerings on the shelves, even of better wine shops, leaving us wanting more.

The change in the law becomes effective July 1, but paperwork and bureaucracy will delay the actual starting date of the process by which Georgians can go online, shop a winery and place an order. Wineries must apply to the state for shipping licenses.

There is a limit of 12 cases from each winery per individual per year. Wineries and shippers will be required to verify that recipients are at least 21 years old. One of the arguments used by opponents to this sensible measure was that it would encourage teenage alcohol consumption. That thought is, in a word, rubbish. There is no documentation from any state that has loosened its Internet sales laws linking a rise in underage drinking with direct sales via the Internet.

Opposition stemmed primarily from the big beverage distributors who were worried about their bottom line, not teenage drinkers.

This move will be a big boost to Georgia wineries. Most have limited retail store access and rely primarily on sales in their tasting rooms. Internet sales will help provide a wider spectrum of consumer interest.

Steve Gibson of Habersham Winery near Helen is president of the Winegrowers Association of Georgia. He applauds the legislature for passage of the new laws.

"It's something we've been working at for many years," Gibson told me recently. "We're obviously very happy, because it gives our primary customers, the residents of Georgia, better access to our wines.

"Most state wineries do not have statewide distribution," he explained. "With a state as large as Georgia, it's hard to get products to customers. This benefits all Georgians because they will be able to access wines not only from Georgia wineries, but from wineries all over the country."

For more information contact Gibson through the Wine Association of Georgia Web site at

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. E-mail him your questions about wine. His column runs on the first Wednesday of the month.


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