It was a heady time for Robert Mondavi. Three years earlier he had built his iconic winery where it could be seen at roadside in Oakville, shortly after having a fight with brother Peter and being thrown out of the Charles Krug family wine business. The new winery was a statement to his established up-valley neighbors, and to the wine world in general, that Bob Mondavi had landed on his feet and, though in his 50s, was ready to take a leadership role in Napa under his “a rising tide raises all ships” motto. Not that things weren’t tight. Son Michael will tell you with a note of undisguised chagrin about how—as a young man—he was the one who had to deal with creditors while his father was smiling for the flashbulbs.
But now it is 1970, and Robert is in Hawaii, at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel no less, and he is talking with – would you believe it? – Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who had faced down the staid French wine regulators and had his Château Mouton Rothschild elevated – unheard of – from second- to first-growth status, and here the two of them are chatting away like old college frat brothers about getting together and building a joint-venture winery in Napa Valley. How sweet can it get?
It was about 10 years later that Opus One actually happened, first being named “napamedoc” before someone had the sense to name it “Opus One” instead. To call it a master stroke of guts and diplomacy is an understatement. Mondavi sold the venture 35 acres from his To Kalon vineyard – more famous now than then – and made the wine at his place until the moonscape winery was completed across Highway 29.
It was just the first of the Bob Mondavi & Associates partnerships. In 1995, Mondavi set up a joint venture in Chile, Seña, with Eduardo Chadwick and in the same years established Luce in Montalcino with the Frescobaldi family. In 1999, he began buying shares in Ornellaia in Bolgheri and two years later completed purchase of the famous estate from the Antinori family, again in partnership with Frescobaldi. By 2002, Bob Mondavi’s joint ventures had his company owning not only his flagship Robert Mondavi brand but also, in partnership, four of the world’s most-revered wines – Opus One, Ornellaia, Luce and Seña. A four-pack of them today would cost about $1,000: $414 for Opus One, $255 for Ornellaia, Seña for $144 and Luce for $124.
The good times didn’t last long. In late 2004, the now publicly traded Robert Mondavi Winery crashed and burned and was sold to Constellation Brands and, in the doing, caused another tear in the tattered Mondavi family fabric. Siblings Marcia and Tim Mondavi ended up helping to terminate brother Michael’s leadership in a board fight. Don’t ask Michael what he thinks about banks or listing your company on the stock exchange.
The memory of all that was revived over the past few months when the “& Associates” part of three Bob Mondavi partnerships – the owners of Seña, Ornellaia and Luce – came to New York to talk about their wines, now completely owned by Mondavi’s former affiliates. I had talked with Eduardo Chadwick by Zoom before he appeared in person in Manhattan. Lamberto Frescobaldi, always a fascinating person to talk with, was next with Luce. Finally, winemaker Axel Heinz came to pour and discuss Ornellaia.
Before Seña, Chadwick had found himself in the role that then lesser-known Mondavi played to the famous Baron Philippe. “Bob was planning to come to Chile in 1991 for the first time and needed someone local to drive him around,” says Chadwick, whose father headed the Errázuriz winery there. “I was wine guide and chauffer for a week with him and Margrit (Mondavi’s second wife and planning partner). After the trip, Robert said he saw Chile being where Napa Valley was in the 1950s.” And Mondavi asked young Chadwick to move up from being his chauffeur to his partner. Seña was launched in 1995.
In the same year, the Luce partnership was established between Mondavi and Lamberto Frescobaldi’s father. This time it was more of a meeting of equals. Although the Frescobaldi family dates its debut in the wine industry back about 1000 years, give or take a decade or two, Mondavi by this time was certainly the better known name in the world wine arena.
In New York, both Chadwick and Frescoabldi fondly remembered working with Tim Mondavi, who was the son who dealt with vineyards and winemaking while Michael headed marketing and business matters. For some years now, Tim has had his own winery, Continuum, in Napa. “We had a happy 10 years working with Tim and his team,” Chadwick said, noting that Tim was somewhat of a terroir genius when it came to planning vineyards. Tim was also a fan of Merlot, which was one of the benchmarks of Ornellaia before it spun off the Merlot-dominant Masseto as its own brand. As far as Chile was concerned,
“Unfortunately, Merlot lacked consistency in our vineyards,” Chadwick says. “We had to replant it with Malbec.”
So even though Bob Mondavi & Partnerships ultimately fell apart as business ventures, the wineries, the wines and the good memories still remain. “In fact,” Chadwick said after pouring 10 Seña vintages dating back to 1996 in New York, “Tim Mondavi is coming to town, and some of us are planning to get together for dinner tomorrow night.” Later, I received a photo of Eduardo Chadwick and Tim Mondavi and their grown daughters posed alongside Frescobaldi. It was apparently a lively evening with a lot of partnership-related wines being poured – Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Continuum, Seña, Luce and Ornellaia.
In the end, the fact that the Mondavi family had to drop out of these stellar partnerships does nothing to diminish Robert’s brilliance in choosing the right venues, the right markets, the right timing – and, most of all, the right partners – to ensure the survival of these beautiful estates they had established together.