Michael Mondavi Family Estate builds on legacy

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Robert Mondavi almost singlehandedly changed the nature and direction of the California wine industry.

Already a second-generation winemaker when he emerged on the scene in the late 1960s, Mondavi was an early champion of naming wines after the varietal grapes of which they were made. His technical innovations and marketing strategies revolutionized the wine industry, and The Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the University of California-Davis, established in 2008, was named in his honor.

Fortunately, the grape doesn’t fall far from the vine. The Michael Mondavi Family Estate owned by Robert Mondavi’s son Michael, his daughter-in-law Isabel and grandchildren Rob Jr. and Dina, carries on the legacy of producing extraordinary wines in the Napa Valley.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay form the foundation of the family enterprise. The winemaking operation, headed by Rob Jr., pushes the envelope, producing the best possible wines from the grapes the family grows. The outcome has been extremely fruitful.

WiG: Tell us about the Michael Mondavi Family Estate and the direction in which you’re headed.

Rob Mondavi Jr.: My forefathers taught me that all great winemakers, first and foremost, have respect for their soil, site and terroir. Therefore, our family farming philosophy is organic and sustainable.

Our vineyards are located within the eastern mountains of Napa Valley. In recent years, we have been working to go beyond organic to look at the overall health of the vineyards and land. We are using organic composts and organic compost teas to replenish soils and to keep the soils healthy for today and the future.

Our crown jewel is the Atlas Peak vineyard, covering only 15 acres of rocky, volcanic soil at an elevation of up to 1,350 feet. The yields from mountain vineyards are sparse, yet rich with flavor, and they form the backbone of our M and Animo Cabernet Sauvignons.

The Oso vineyard, located further north near Howell Mountain, comprises 100 acres and is planted with classic Bordeaux varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon comprises the vast majority of the planted acres and Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon hails from this vineyard.

Why do grapes grown at higher elevation produce such rich and flavorful wines?

Dina Mondavi: Vines that are grown on hills or at higher elevations have better drainage, receive more direct and concentrated sunlight and experience wider temperature shifts. This means that we get fewer berries, but they are more flavorful.

Rob: It is true that yields are less prolific, yet the intensity of the grape is amazing. Margins, cultivation and everything else associated with mountain farming is a bit more difficult, yet the effort pays great dividends in the style and quality of the wines.

You grow your grapes organically. Why is that important?

Rob: What I like about the organic path is that vines and terroir find balance with one another, harmony among vintner and what the land can offer.

Dina: Farming as organically as possible is very important to us because we care about our health. We walk our vineyards year around, we drink the wines from our vineyards year around. Plus, most of us live amongst the vineyards and our drinking water wells are on vineyard property. Farming organically is not important only for us, but also affects everyone who comes to our vineyard for a visit or to work.

My great-grandfather Cesare Mondavi told my father that we have to care for this land, and to leave it in better shape than we receive it for future generations. That lesson still guides us today.

What are you doing to push the envelope and further enhance the Mondavi winemaking legacy?

Michael Mondavi: I believe that wine is meant to complement food, not overpower it. As food styles and trends change, wine has to change with it. In the 1950s and ’60s, there were a lot of heavy sauces put on foods in the better restaurants. The wines of that era had to be bigger, fuller-bodied wines to cut through those sauces.

Today we have fresher foods, lighter foods. The wines today have to have better balance and elegance with complex flavors. We have learned that the soil and climate have a lot to do with the ultimate character of the grape and, therefore, the wine.

In 1966, we were the first winery to extensively use French oak barrels for aging both the white and red wines. From that point, over the next 20 years, the use of oak increased to the point where there was too much oak in the wine and overpowered the character of the grape. We have learned to use oak as a fine chef would use herbs or spices to complement an excellent piece of fish or meat.

Rob: My grandfather taught me to “never let making good wine get in the way of making great wine,” and to that end, I push myself and my team to fine tune and look for new solutions to create great wine.

It is much easier to be satisfied with something that is good than to take it to the level of greatness. It’s about the extra effort and attention to detail and looking for new opportunities to succeed beyond what you think is possible.