Vintage vision

Vintner Robert Mondavi shares his vision of a better world with good wine

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

Robert Mondavi, patriarch of the wine company that bears his name, turns 90 this month. In a career that has spanned more than six decades, Mondavi has played a key role in making good wine a way of life for many people in this country. His company now produces a mind-boggling 9.3 million cases a year. Sitting at a spare wooden desk in his small, photograph-filled Napa Valley office, Mondavi shared a few thoughts with me.

Q: When did you begin loving wine?

A: My mother served me wine and water from the time I was 3 years old. I've always looked at it as liquid food. Later, at Stanford University, I thought I'd become a lawyer or businessman, but my father came to me and said he thought there was a big future in the fine-wine business. I realized he was right. Wine has been with civilized man from the beginning. For me, that made the industry inspiring and challenging.

Q: How did you come to go to Stanford University, when your parents were poor and the country had just come out of the Depression?

A: My brother and I had saved $15,000 by working many years nailing fruit crates together. At one point, when my father's business wasn't doing well, he asked me to loan him the money and he'd send me to any college I wanted to go to. Of course I chose Stanford!

Q: So far, what has been your single greatest professional contribution?

A: Convincing the world that California wines belong in the company of the finest wines in the world.

Q: Many wine drinkers and makers in the rest of the world think California wines are too big, powerful, and oaky. What do you think?

A: Those are the kinds of wines I've always tried not to make. I want to make wines that harmonize with food ― wines that almost hug your tongue with gentleness. When you make a wine like that, you know you've really achieved something.

Q: When you began, there were no wine critics and wine scores. What do you think about the role of critics today?

A: Critics have done the wine industry a lot of good overall. However, the problem is they often imply that their view or evaluation of a wine is the only one, and I disagree. Also, many consumers consider a critic to be like God Almighty. I say to consumers: instead of relying totally on critics, drink what you like and like what you drink.

Q: You have always put wine with food; now you are connecting both to art as well. The first pairing is easy to understand, but where does art fit in?

A: If you go back to the Greeks and Romans, they talk about all three ― wine, food, and art ― as a way of enhancing life. I've always wanted to improve on the idea of living well. In moderation, wine is good for you ― mentally, physically, and spiritually. What else are we living for?

MONDAVI STARS

The Robert Mondavi wine company makes scores of different wines. Here are three of our favorites from its flagship winery in the Napa Valley.

Robert Mondavi Chardonnay 2001 (Carneros), $25. Refined, elegant, and sleek, with hints of butter and roasted nuts.

Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve 2001 (Napa Valley), $50. Sensual, soft, and languorous on the palate, with deep, earthy notes.

Robert Mondavi Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Stags Leap District), $50. Beautiful cassis and tobacco aromas open up to a firm, concentrated Cabernet ― the classic "iron fist in a velvet glove." Lay it away for a few years. ― K. M.-F.

Sunset's Wine Club