Sometimes we take legends for granted. They become so ingrained in our everyday lives that we forget of a time before they blazed the trail. It isn't an exaggeration to say that the late Robert Mondavi changed the course of the American wine industry when he founded his eponymous winery in Napa Valley, California in 1966. Mondavi's determination and talent showed the world that America could indeed produce fine wine. Mr. Mondavi passed away in 2008 but the winery remains not just a symbol of American winemaking excellence but is respected as a leader that embraces both tradition and innovation.
Mondavi's tremendous success paved the way for many other fine winemakers in Napa Valley but I suspect, that for many of us, the first quality Napa Valley wines we sipped had the Mondavi name on the label. The winery is no longer owned by the Mondavi family but the winemaking team is committed to their founder's vision. Director of Winemaking, Geneviève Janssens, first worked at the winery in 1978 and has been at the helm of winemaking since 1997 and said, "We continue to follow Robert Mondavi's inspiration, with a holistic philosophy of growing our grapes naturally and making wines naturally - fine, balanced wines that harmonize with food."
I recently experienced a taste of that Mondavi magic at a very special dinner in Brooklyn hosted by author and television personality Ted Allen ("Chopped", "Queer Eye") at a breathtaking Brooklyn mansion. The festive evening featured a creative menu prepared by Chef Theo Friedman of Theory Kitchen, the elegant wines of Robert Mondavi, and charming winemaker Joe Harden.
Winemaker Joe Harden oversees the red wine program at Robert Mondavi Winery and works on their Bordeaux varietals.
It almost seems destined that Joe would land at Mondavi. He grew up in Lodi, California and in the early 1990's his parents planted 30 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines on the family estate in Woodbridge. Fruit from the Harden family vineyard was ultimately sold to the Robert Mondavi Winery and Joe recalls a childhood meeting with Mr. Mondavi when he joined his father on a visit to the winery in Napa Valley. "What I remember most, is the warmth of his presence and how down to earth he was."
Joe also has a warm personality and standing tall at 6'7'', he is inevitably asked if he plays basketball. He did. And his impressive hoop skills earned Joe a scholarship to Notre Dame University. Finding the Indiana winter brutal, Joe returned to California and graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Viticulture and Oenology. After graduating, Joe still felt torn between his two passions - winemaking and basketball. Deciding to give basketball another chance, he tested the waters professionally and played on teams in the US and abroad. But the lure of winemaking proved impossible to resist and a serendipitous interview in 2012 with Geneviève Janssens (director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery) led Joe to a one-year internship at the winery. In 2013, Joe joined the winery as a full-time enologist and in 2014, he was asked to take the prestigious role of winemaker for the red wine program at Mondavi, working on their Bordeaux varietals. "I have to pinch myself frequently to make sure this isn't a dream," said Joe.
Chef Theo Friedman's Hudson Valley Duck Breast with Cocoa and Malt Glaze, Preserved Berries & Maitake paired beautifully with the Robert Mondavi Winery 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, To Kalon Vineyard.
I felt as if I were in a bit of a dream state as I looked around the gorgeous table and artistic cuisine, the glasses filled with Mondavi wines, and Joe effortlessly guiding us through the tasting experience. The mansion and VIP guests were certainly a thrill but the Mondavi wines stood on their own. Here are a few of the wines that Joe shared with us on that early summer evening in Brooklyn. Even if you're not in a mansion, these Mondavi wines will elevate any occasion.
Robert Mondavi 2014 "Fumé Blanc", Oakville District ($40)
Inspired and impressed by the fine white wines of the Loire, Robert Mondavi made history when he coined the term "Fumé Blanc" for a dry style of Sauvignon Blanc. In California, Sauvignon Blanc had generally been used to make sweet, ordinary table wines so Fumé Blanc was a game changer and a tremendous success when it was formally released in 1968. The 2014 Oakville Fumé Blanc blends Sauvignon Blanc (79%) with Semillon (21%). The grapes were harvested from Mondavi's legendary To Kalon Vineyard, which surrounds the winery and is one of Napa Valley's oldest and most respected vineyards. A vibrant and elegant wine with elegant flavors of exuberant lemon verbena, lime blossom, and a hint of fennel.
Robert Mondavi 2014 "Fumé Blanc" Reserve, To Kalon Vineyard, Napa Valley ($52)
To Kalon is Greek for highest beauty and the Fumé Blanc Reserve is described as a true expression of the vineyard's historic Robert's Block, which was first planted in 1960. More than half of the Sauvignon Blanc in this elegant wine was sourced from Robert's Block. The exceptional character of the Sauvignon Blanc really shines in the Fumé Blanc Reserve, where it comprises 98% of the blend and includes a 2% kiss of Semillon. Energetic flavors of tangerine and crisp Asian pear gracefully mesh with hints of fennel and thyme. Crisp minerality adds texture and enhances nuance.
Robert Mondavi "Maestro" 2014, Napa Valley ($50)
Inspired by their limited-release 50th Anniversary Maestro, this beautiful red is also an artistic and free-spirited interpretation of a Bordeaux blend. Cabernet Sauvignon (73%), Cabernet Franc (23%), Merlot (2%), and Petit Verdot (2%), are weaved together masterfully in this show-stopping vino. Rich and juicy flavors of plum and cassis with hints of violet, unsweetened cocoa and spice are in harmony with velvety tannins.
Just because Mondavi is a familiar name, doesn't mean that you can't be excited and surprised by their wines. These wines are made with care and attention that respect their Napa Valley legacy and elegantly express a sense of place. From a simple salad to haute cuisine, Mondavi has a well-crafted wine to match your mood and lifestyle. I'm certainly inspired to explore more of their wines and a visit to Robert Mondavi Winery ranks high on my wine wish list.