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Carneros vintner Nicholas Molnar, who shined in face of adversity, dies at 94

Nicholas Molnar, a vintner whose innovative thinking helped establish Carneros as a premier wine-growing region, died Jan. 11. He was 94.

“My father had a real entrepreneurial spirit,” Arpad Molnar said. “I think my father’s life experience shaped the flexibility of his mind, and he had that flexibility of mind all the way until his passing.”

Molnar wasn’t swayed by the naysayers who said Carneros, at the south end of the Sonoma and Napa valleys, was too cold and windy to groom grapes for fine wine. The native Hungarian, who fled the country after the 1956 revolution failed to topple the Stalinist regime, eventually made his way to Northern California and became an unconventional grape grower in the 1960s.

He took a chance on a 100-acre plot in 1973 not far from the marshlands of the San Pablo Bay. That vineyard became instrumental in the Molnar family’s chief enterprise, Obsidian Wine Co., 12 years before the Carneros wine region was officially recognized as an American Viticultural Area.

“You have to throw caution to the wind that others aren’t willing to,” Arpad Molnar said.

Molnar also disregarded those who said Lake County was unsuitable for growing premium cabernet sauvignon grapes, as well as those who scoffed at the prospect of California wineries buying Hungarian barrels.

The unorthodox thinker was born in Budapest in 1927 during uncertain times of economic depression, world war and Soviet occupation. In the 1940s, Molnar’s father ran a trucking company and, disparaged as capitalists, both father and son spent time in jail.

Molnar was married to gymnast Andrea Bodo. While she competed in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Molnar participated in a revolt in Budapest. When it was clear the revolution wouldn’t triumph, Molnar fled across the Austrian border and eventually reunited in Melbourne with his wife, who had won a gold medal.

At the time, magazine magnate Henry Luce had launched Sports Illustrated, and he invited the Hungarian Olympic team on a tour of the United States. With the Cold War intensifying, Luce sought to shine a light on refugees of a communist regime, Arpad Molnar said.

“It was definitely commercially motivated,” he said. “The political overtones of the time made for great press.”

Molnar, who had experience as a journalist, seized the opportunity to cover the story for the magazine.

After the tour visited San Francisco in 1956, Molnar and Bodo were charmed by the city and decided to stay. But they ultimately divorced, and Molnar remarried Catherine de Bokay, another Hungarian refugee, in 1966.

When Molnar began selling insurance, he crossed paths with the Pepi brothers of Robert Pepi Winery, now known as Cardinale and owned by Jackson Family Wines. With the Pepi brothers as his new client, Molnar was inspired to plant a vineyard. Short on capital, he found investors by placing ads in newspapers, Arpad Molnar explained.

The 100-acre Carneros property he bought in 1973 had been used for sheep grazing. There were just a few vineyards in the region at the time. Once he had converted it into pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards, Molnar found a ready buyer for his harvest. The French Champagne company Moet Hennessy built Domaine Chandon and purchased his grapes through 1985 to produce its sparkling wine.

Today, part of the fruit is used for the Molnar family’s Poseidon label, while the lion’s share is sold to Napa Valley sparkling wine houses Mumm Napa and Schramsburg.

“There was certainly a lot of doubt, if not fear, around the idea of planting right on the banks of the San Pablo Bay,” said T.J. Evans, winemaker of Domaine Carneros. “It was perhaps perpetuated from farmers farther up valley who had concerns about the humidity and the wind. … I think we can all admire (Molnar’s) type of leadership and willingness to go out and take a risk.”

Anne Moller-Racke, owner and winemaker of Carneros’ Blue Farm, agreed. Molnar, she said, was among a small group of people who knew the potential of the Carneros soil for growing concentrated, flavorful grapes.

“Nicholas knew that clay soils are restrictive, giving smaller vines, which leads to smaller yields,” she said. “He was a trailblazer. He wasn’t risk-averse. He was a refugee, and it takes a certain spirit to leave a country behind. He had the courage to try something new.”

Moller-Racke remembered meeting Molnar at a social event at Mumm Napa years ago. He was a very charming gentleman, she said. “He was from the Old Country, and very interesting.”

Molnar also was ahead of the curve with importing barrels made in Hungary, from Kadar, a company that met with hard times during the Soviet occupation. California winemakers said this was futile, Arpad Molnar said, because vintners were set on using French oak barrels. But Gallo stepped forward and bought the Kadar barrels, and today 120 wineries across the globe buy the Kadar barrels from the Molnars. The family eventually took an ownership stake in the cooperage.

“My father was always a bit of an outsider in the wine industry, but I don’t think by choice,” Arpad Molnar said. “It’s just how he saw the world, and when you see the world differently, it doesn’t lend itself to being an insider.”

The insiders, who pedal in conventional wisdom, also didn’t believe Lake County was promising for premium cabernet sauvignon. But, once again, Molnar saw an opportunity that eluded others.

In 1999, Molnar and sons Peter and Arpad bought a 100-acre walnut orchard and converted it into a vineyard. This vineyard, named Obsidian Ridge, continues to have the reputation for rivaling Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons.

“I’m not sure if it was my father’s DNA or the circumstances he was born with that made him an entrepreneur,” Arpad Molnar said. “Like everything, it’s part nature, part nurture. He had to make due with what he had.”

Nicholas Molnar is survived by his wife, Catherine; his children Aniko, Peter and Arpad; and grandchildren Renna, Kyla, Nichos, Gabriel, Eszter and Andreas.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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