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Bob's centenary

18 Jun 2013 by Jancis Robinson

Today would have been Robert Mondavi's 100th birthday and I understand it is being celebrated with many an event in the Napa Valley, California - which is as it should be for no one did more for the reputation of the wines of the Napa Valley, California, and the United States. I hope there may be some acknowledgement of his unique role at Vinexpo in Bordeaux today but it is right and proper that the main celebrations should take place in the place he put firmly on the world wine map and where he made his extraordinary home on Wappo Hill in the middle of the valley.

If I hadn't met him and knew him only by reputation I would suspect he was merely a showman, obsessed by his own image and by publicising his eponymous winery. But I know from many delightful personal experiences that he was a complete one-off, absolutely dedicated to proving, in his own words, 'that California wines belong in the company of the finest wines of the world'. He succeeded, even if the great majority of Napa Valley wines made today, including those of the Robert Mondavi Winery, bear little resemblance to the wines he saw as archetypes.

Visiting wine writers could be sure of tasting more Bordeaux first growths in the glamorous, airy dining room of the Mondavi winery overlooking the To Kalon vineyard just off Highway 29 in Oakville than anywhere else, including Bordeaux. I would hate to have been his CFO. He spent vastly on everything, including ensuring that his wines were always shown alongside the best wines of their type made in France.

Our paths crossed often, and by no means always in California. I first met him at a dinner party in San Francisco in 1976 given by wine writer Gerald Asher. Other guests included James Beard, of Awards fame, and the Portets, who were just establishing Clos du Val in the slipstream of the hurricane of enthusiasm stirred up by Mondavi when he established his stylish winery in 1966. ('The same year Christie's wine department was established', Michael Broadbent pointed out to me on Sunday night when we were discussing Mondavi's many achievements - look out for the amazing wines we shared, soon to be added as Standalones to our tasting notes database.)  With Gerald's first course we drank a Mondavi Fumé Blanc, a wine style and wine name entirely new to California then.

Six years later, when I was in the Napa Valley filming the first series of The Wine Programme for Channel 4 (the world's first  TV wine series, I think), we of course filmed Mondavi, who was never short of a word. (I always said his catchphrase was a rasped 'I just want to This about That'.) Nick was with me, as was our firstborn, a four-month-old in a Moses basket. Bob Mondavi, not yet married to his soulmate Margrit Biever, insisted on taking us three out to dinner, though I was very conscious of the middle-of-the-night feed and the early call for pre-filming hair and make-up (those were the days of giant film crews). He started to order the wine. Not just an array of his own wines but the usual accompaniments of at least another three or four top wines of the same style. I started to demur about the sheer number of bottles for just the three of us but Mondavi gave me a shocked look. 'Don't you want to learn?' he asked sternly.

We kept on meeting. He'd turned up on the opening night of Nick's restaurant, L'Escargot in London's Soho, having heard that it was serving only American wines. We once sat waiting together in a room in the Connaught Hotel, London, for his business partner in Opus One, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild to turn up. Wherever there was a major wine event, he'd be there. We had a great time in Melbourne with him and Margrit at a massive international wine judging organised by Len Evans. And our paths crossed of course all over the wine map in Europe and America. But he and Margrit did not confine their travels to wine country. They went trekking in the Himalayas and were the first people I knew to travel in China. He was determined to convince the whole world of the virtues of California wine and, in sharp contrast to the Gallos, was thrilled to share what he had and knew.

He is much missed.

Tags:  California
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