Notes from Napa

Tuesday, August 22, 2006



Saw him at a lunch on Sunday. A flood of memories came back.
Ina Hart always called him Robert. Back then, his last name was pronounced Mon-day-vee. Of course, she could call him anything she wanted. Were it not for her, Ivan Schoch and Fred Holmes, who backed him, there would have been no Mondavi facility down in Oakville. We might never have heard the name Cliff May, the architect who designed the memorable structure, to say nothing of Warren Winiarski or Mike Grgich.
The Hart’s, Holmes, Schoch’s et al gathered Saturday nights to Square Dance at the Lodi Farm Center. Once a month was enough, as the evenings would often end up with Ina cooking breakfast way up at the ranch on Spring Mt. I think that’s where Jim Pop and Maggie met them. It was 1957. We were newbies.
They called him Bob. And due to Marj’s insistence that we come over “so the children could play”, Maggie and Jim Pop would drag us down to Krug for dinner. I hated it. I was 9 or 10. Mike was too old, Tim was too young, and Marci was a girl—yuck!
I liked the spaghetti, but they wrecked my water glass by adding red wine. It was supposed to be a treat. Double Yuck!
As we moved into our teens, the fact that Marci was a girl didn’t seem so bad. She, her best friend Sara, and I became fast friends. Marci and I never discussed marriage. Her daughter just graduated from Stanford and my three chose Cal. It wouldn’t have lasted.
Next thing anyone knew, Bob was going to stomp grapes in Oakville. This, at a time when cattle was the biggest cash crop in the Valley. Folks claimed it was the first new winery since prohibition.
The town was a-buzz with gossip.
Bob was now calling himself Robert Mon-Dah-vee. At first everyone chuckled.
Maggie (ever the wise acre) nailed him as he signed in at a wedding. “How are you going to spell that Bob? Mon-Dah-vee or Mon-day-vee.” No one laughed louder than Bob. At that time I’m not sure anyone understood his fierce dedication to authenticity and the beauty of his roots.
After College, quite by accident, Marci, Sara and I ended up in New York together. Three little kids from St. Helena in the Big Apple. We each met our spouses while bar hopping—okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it sounds sexier that way.
None of us thought much of Sara’s, hubby, Sandy being a DKE from Yale--until his fraternity brother, George, appointed him Ambassador to China. Now Sara’s singing Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes to heads of State in Beijing, the way her mom, Clare used to sing show tunes in living rooms around the valley. Ah, the irrepressible Irish. Clare and Marj. They were a pair, just like their daughters.
Bob went to Europe and came back with all sorts of ideas. We could beat the French at their own game. He was sure of it.
“The Future.” He was always talking about the future.
I distinctly remember an argument--arguing (or more aptly “sharing my wisdom with adults)--was my major at Ca--where I opined that the new stainless steel tanks were “tacky”—and that wood was the only way to go.
Big Bob patiently explained to me about “the future” and how we had to be innovative to compete. He would go to Europe, learn new techniques, and bring them back home--sharing his knowledge with anyone who wanted to learn.
When Jim Pop was dying, I called Bob and he called right back. (Jim Pop and Chuck, the most loyal partner ever, had pieced together the Opus deal).
Bob told Jim Pop that he’d just met with his boys and that we were to continue on as friends, just as he and Jim Pop had. (Bob always knew just what to say.)
Jim Pop was on Cloud 9 when he hung up. Alas, he was also on many different drugs. He couldn’t wait to tell Maggie. Unfortunately, by the time we got home, the drugs had kicked in, and he told Maggie that Bob had called to tell him I was to be the new President of Robert Mondavi. I knew I liked Bob.
There is no Napa Valley as we know it today without him. He was the best. He was the boldest. He was amazingly unselfish.
As I saw him Sunday with his soul mate, Margrit, you could see he was still in love. And he is loved still—not as spry at 93 as he was at 90—but the twinkle had not left his eye.
Still, one couldn’t help but wonder. No doubt it was necessary, but the move to Wall St. changed things for all time. Like Moloch, Wall St. eats its young. And eventually, it devoured a great man’s dream. Yes, wallets were fattened—but hearts were broken all across the valley.
We know that a writer writes and a fighter fights.
Wine is what Bob did. He was a visionary, a promoter, a dreamer. But mostly he was a humble man of the dirt, who loved to grow grapes and make fine wines.
Wine was his voice. And when you take away a man’s voice, not only can he not sing, he can not express who he is.
But at least we, the hoi poloi can remember—and be grateful. He turned a back breaking business into an art form.
Everything we have in this Valley, we owe to that old Rugger from Stanford. What my kids, my wife, and I have today, is because of what he did yesterday. We will never forget. It was good to see him.