BERGER: Mondavi's greatest hits

Six glasses containing red wines sat on the white tablecloth as we entered the room, anticipating something fascinating. We were not disappointed.

It was about 25 years ago, in the late 1980s, and the wines, we had been told, were first-growth Bordeaux as well as at least one Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which we all knew would be a Robert Mondavi wine.

That's because the tasting was being staged at the Mondavi winery in Oakville, and the aim of this little demonstration was clear: Bob Mondavi wanted to show that his wine was as good as the best France had to offer.

A decade earlier, a number of California cabs had done extremely well at a tasting in Paris at which the judges were French. After that, Mondavi realized there was a major story on which he could capitalize.

As the winery celebrates this week (June 18) the 100th birthday of the late visionary winery founder, I recall a number of Bob's greatest hits, which included his wonder at some ancient Burgundies at a tasting we attended; and his "mission" for bringing wine, food and the arts together in a tripartite cultural revolution.

And I recall his missionary zeal in talking about the greatness of the Napa Valley and how it could make world-class wine with numerous grapes, not just Cabernet.

The tasting we walked into that day long ago turned out to be a masterful stroke, a passion play that Mondavi performed over and again in various cities, each time with a similar result.

As we sniffed the wines, it wasn't hard to see which wine probably was Chateau Mouton, which perhaps was Latour, which was likely Lafite-Rothschild. Nor was it too hard to tell that the quality of these wines was roughly equal.

Before Mondavi got up to speak about the reason for this little display, it was obvious to me and others that the goal was not to show that the Mondavi cab was best, but, as Mondavi later said, "that our wines belong in the company of the world's best."

At the event staged at the winery, I judged the Lafite (glass No. 2) to be slightly ahead of glass No. 4, which turned out to be the Mondavi Reserve cab. All tasters also liked the Chateau Margaux.

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