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 hisname, turns 90 this month. In a career that has spanned more thansix decades, Mondavi has played a key role in making good wine away of life for many people in this country. His company nowproduces a mind-boggling 9.3 million cases a year. Sitting at aspare wooden desk in his small, photograph-filled Napa Valleyoffice, 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 3years old. I've always looked at it as liquid food. Later, atStanford University, I thought I'd become a lawyer or businessman,but my father came to me and said he thought there was a big futurein the fine-wine business. I realized he was right. Wine has beenwith civilized man from the beginning. For me, that made theindustry inspiring and challenging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: If you go back to the Greeks and Romans, they talk aboutall three ― wine, food, and art ― as a way of enhancinglife. I've always wanted to improve on the idea of living well. Inmoderation, wine is good for you ― mentally, physically, andspiritually. 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 theNapa 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, earthynotes.

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

Sunset's Wine Club

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