Vintner Robert Mondavi Dies at 94

Helped Give California Wines Worldwide Cachet

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CHICAGO ( -- Wine industry icon Robert Mondavi has died at 94.

Mr. Mondavi is widely credited for playing a central role in elevating the reputation of California wines worldwide through his role as an icon and ambassador of the region, as well as through the benchmark quality of the top wines at his namesake winery.
Robert Mondavi
Robert Mondavi Credit: AP

Perhaps his greatest marketing coup was luring Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of the venerable Bordeaux estate Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, to partner with him in a Napa Valley estate called Opus One. The blessing of the region by French wine royalty such as Mr. Rothschild led to enormous new investment and interest in a wine region that, barely a decade before, had been best known for cheap jug wines.

'Fume' gains a following
He also proved a clever salesman on a micro level. Confronted with consumer confusion between his then little-known white sauvignon blanc grape and the better-known red cabernet sauvignon, Mr. Mondavi boosted sales by dubbing his version "fume blanc," an invented but appealing name eventually adopted by many winemakers.

As his winery grew, however, it also fell prey to traps encountered by many other brand managers. Its success in selling lower-end wines bearing the Mondavi name ultimately exacted a toll on the reputation of his once-hallowed "Private Reserve" wines, which many high-end wine buyers felt were surpassed by a new generation of smaller cult wines.

His life story featured several soap opera-like turns, most notably a rift with his brother and mother that saw him leave his family's Charles Krug winery to start his own winery in 1966. Echoes of that split -- and the messy court battle that followed -- were unavoidable in the 2004 takeover of Robert Mondavi Winery by Constellation Brands, a deal enabled by boardroom intrigue that pitted some of Mr. Mondavi's children against each other.

New era for California growers
The winery he founded not only established a benchmark for quality wines in California that elevated the region's reputation, but it also trained a new generation of winemakers who pushed that mantle even further.

The two wines that beat top offerings from France in the famed Paris Tasting of 1976 -- Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stags' Leap Cabernet Sauvignon -- were each made by former Mondavi winemakers.
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