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My Dinner With Michael Mondavi

By Charles Olken

Yesterday was September 10. It is a date to which I tend to pay a certain amount of attention, because even at my ever-advancing age, birthdays are precious. Most years, I spend that day with family, but last night was one of those nights when I spent it with a group of friends who make wine and a somewhat extended group of friends who like to drink it.

Truth be told, the family event this year came on the previous weekend, and with the night not otherwise scheduled, I joined a small group who gathered in San Francisco to dine with Michael Mondavi to taste his newly released “M” Cabernet Sauvignon.

What impresses me most about this generation of Mondavis, and has impressed me in the time since the Robert Mondavi Winery was sold upon the passing of the patriarch, was the love of wine that runs through the entire clan. Michael and his children have almost immediately gone back into the wine business and have their fingers in several pots including a variety of wines as well a broad selection of imports. Tim Mondavi, Michael’s younger brother, and his clan have started a own small and very upscale winery in Napa’s Pritchard Hill area (think also of brands like Chappellet and Colgin, among others, from that locale high in the eastern hills of the Napa Valley just south of Lake Hennessy) and his wines, under the Continuum label have been very successful in our tastings.

As for Michael, he early on purchased land on Atlas Peak, inspired by the tales of medal-winning wines back a century ago. We all like to talk about the Paris tasting of 1976 as a watershed event, and truly it was, but back before Prohibition came into existence, wines from Atlas Peak were winning competitions in Paris. Those vineyards were all lost in the decade and a half of darkness, and when Repeal came, the vines were not to be seen. It is a little appreciated fact that wine drinking in the United States lost a great deal of standing during Prohibition, and it was not until 1968 (some thirty-five years after Repeal) that table wine consumption finally caught back up to fortified wine in volume.

We spent a bit of time last night in lively conversation about those bygone days because they not only delivered a near-knockout punch to the industry, and instead of having now a century and a half of experience, California winemaking has only a couple of generations of depth—notwithstanding the admirable and rather amazing feats pulled off by folks like Andre Tchelistcheff, Martin Ray, Ambassador Zellerbach and Fred McCrea—in the current version of the wine industry. Indeed, if one sees the phylloxera problems of the first of the new generation as its own watershed moment, and the resulting replanting of most of the Napa Valley and other areas, we are now just one full generation into the real rebirth of winemaking in these parts.

Michael Mondavi’s role in helping to reinvigorate winemaking on Atlas Peak is but one of the stories of the current era, but it is one that shows that we are still in the relative infancy of our industry in some ways. Yes, the Napa Valley is now pretty much saturated with vines. They went first into the heavy, deep, rich soils on the valley floor and have now pretty much moved up into the adjoining lower slopes. What we see in the next generation, in the Michael and Tim Mondavis, is a move further up the hills to less vigorous soils that invite a more rigorous winemaking, and can, in the best locations, produce wines of strength and character like Michael’s “M” and Tim’s “Continuum”. We gathered to celebrate new wine. We wound up celebrating the generations of change in California winemaking as well.

By the way, the food and the company were delightful, and they sang “Happy Birthday” to me without asking my age.


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