Robert Mondavi Winery: An American Icon Approaches 50

Robert Mondavi Was the Biggest Game Changer in US Wine History

Gabe Sasso

Robert Mondavi Is America’s Most Important Winery.

In 2016, the Robert Mondavi Winery will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Having just spent a couple of days in Napa Valley as their guest, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact that the man and his namesake winery have had on U.S. wine history. Back in 1966, when Robert made the bold move of leaving the family business (Charles Krug Winery), he had audacious ideas. He believed that Napa Valley was capable of producing world-class wines on par with those from any region of the world. In particular, his standard was French wine. Back then, Napa Valley had only a small number of wineries. In fact, the Robert Mondavi Winery was the first large winery built there since prohibition. Today, Napa is home to more than 800 different wine brands of all shapes and sizes. Most of this wouldn’t have been possible without the vision, dedication, and relentless passion of one man: Robert Mondavi. Striving to make the best wine possible is one thing, but he did much more. His zeal for Napa was such that he shared everything he could with his fellow vintners. Whether it was knowledge, equipment, or paying market value for grapes, even when his contract stipulated a lower price, he wanted to help everyone. What was as clear as day to him was that the success of each and every Napa winery helped raise the profile of the entire valley.

Over the course of several days I tasted through a ton of different wines from the Robert Mondavi Winery in a variety of settings. The wines sampled included both current releases and library offerings. It’s clear that the winery is continuing to honor his vision of producing well-made, food-friendly wines. The level of quality from the Napa Valley tier all the way through Reserve and small lot wines was eye-opening. Here’s a look at some of my personal favorites.

Robert Mondavi Winery 2013 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($19)

Classic chardonnay aromas of orchard fruit and lemon zest fill the nose here. The palate is clean and fruit-driven, with spices playing a supporting role. Wisps of tropical fruit join the orchard characteristics to form an appealing combination. Pie crust and lemon curd are in evidence on the finish, which has good length. This is a nice example of chardonnay that shows off its fruit instead of masking it with an overabundance of oak.

Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Pinot Noir ($26)

The fruit for this wine was sourced in Carneros. The inviting nose is studded with wild strawberry, Bing cherry, and spice aromas that really leap from the glass. Wisps of mushroom show up on the palate along with continued cherry and strawberry characteristics. Cinnamon, clove, and bits of earth are in evidence on the finish. I enjoyed this wine with duck confit — it was a wonderful pairing.

Robert Mondavi Winery 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($28)

30 percent of the fruit for this wine comes from the legendary To Kalon Vineyard. The color is intense and a bit darker than the average Napa Cabernet. Dark fruits, minerals, and savory herbs emerge from the nose. The palate is rich and ripe, stuffed with blackberries and black raspberry fruit. Crushed cherries, earth, and a touch of cocoa are all part of the velvety finish. This wine is a very fine example of Napa Valley cabernet. It’s also a screaming good value. This would be a great case purchase to drink over the next 4 to 5 years.

Robert Mondavi Winery 2012 Fumé Blanc Reserve ($40)

All of the fruit for this wine came from the To Kalon Vineyard. Peach and nectarine aromas abound on the nose. The palate is stuffed with citrus, minerals, savory herbs, and continued stone fruits, all delivered in a steely package. Wet limestone, pepper, and additional citrus elements emerge on the impressively long finish.

Robert Mondavi Winery 2011 Oakville District Cabernet Sauvignon ($45)

93 percent of the fruit in this wine came from To Kalon, and the balance is from other Oakville properties. Cherries, leather, and savory herbs are prominent on the nose here. Red raspberry and cherries are part of an even-keeled, mouth-watering palate that is stuffed with fresh fruit flavors joined by spices and herbs. Dark chocolate, earth, and black pepper are all in evidence on the persistent finish. This is a terrific, well-priced cabernet that showcases genuine Oakville character.

Robert Mondavi Winery 2011 I Block Fumé Blanc ($90)

During my time at Robert Mondavi Winery I had the opportunity to ride a bicycle through the legendary To Kalon Vineyard. Along the way we made a handful of stops, one of them at the I Block section of the vineyard. It was there that we sampled this wine, surrounded by the vines it came from. A tiny amount (147 cases) of this wine was made, and it’s sold only at the winery.  A bevy of savory herbs join bits of lemon on the welcoming nose. The palate has deceptive weight. It seems light and almost airy at first, but wave after wave of fruit and other characteristics belie that initial sensation. The flavors go on and on, carrying through the long, impressive finish. If there is a better American example of sauvignon blanc, it hasn’t passed my lips yet.

Robert Mondavi Winery 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (N/A)

Tasting older vintages is always a treat. This almost 15-year-old wine was brought to dinner by head winemaker Genevieve Janssens, and it was no exception. It opens with a remarkably floral nose that is as intoxicating as it is simply amazing. The palate is remarkably giving, loaded with red fruits tinged with black, spices, and ever-emerging mineral characteristics. Continued fruit, earth, and more spices are all part of a finish that goes on and on prodigiously. This is an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous example of Napa cabernet sauvignon at its best. It’s delicious now, but it’ll continue to drink well for another five years at minimum.

Robert Mondavi Winery 2004 Reserve Fumé Blanc (N/A)

This library wine, which I had the opportunity to taste on the property, was a revelation. On balance, there aren’t a ton of New World whites worth aging. This offering is a stunning exception. The nose is remarkable, with subtle yellow fruit and bits of spice. The palate is a bit austere, but it’s layered with mineral notes playing a more prominent role than the fruit at this point. The finish is long, steely, and simply stunning. This selection makes a definite argument for laying down some Mondavi Reserve Fumé Blanc.

In life, one is often looking for the next big thing. Sometimes, though, something that has been around a while is just as vital and exciting. Such is clearly the case with the offerings from Robert Mondavi Winery. Nearly 50 years into their existence as a Napa Valley winery, they are remarkably relevant and still lead the charge on quality, sense of place, and food-friendly wines sold for a fair price. In short, Bob was right: Napa can make wine as impressive as wine made any place in the world. The notes above represent just a portion of the wines in the Robert Mondavi Winery portfolio; certainly a great place to start.

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