Just after the turn of the 20th century, a small boarding house in Virginia, Minnesota, welcomed a shifting population of Italian immigrant iron miners. Their hostess, Rosa, woke at 4:30, fed them two meals a day, packed their lunches, laundered their overalls, and forbade filth, gambling and swearing.
At age 17, Rosa had married Cesare, from a tiny village north of Rome called Sassoferrato, a name that means “iron rock.” Which is to say that Rosa and Cesare had moved from Iron Rock in Italy to the Iron Range in Minnesota. From one stony, ferrous and forbidding landscape to another in search of opportunity, which they would find eventually, but not in Minnesota.
Each boarder was allowed to keep a 50-gallon keg of homemade wine in the basement, which was labeled with his name and from which he would draw each evening. For while drunkenness was forbidden in Rosa’s strict and tiny kingdom, wine was a natural and important element of nutrition and the pleasure of life.
One of Rosa and Cesare’s four children was named Robert. And their last name was Mondavi.
Enter another Minnesotan, U.S. House member Andrew Volstead, who shepherded through Congress a bill called the National Prohibition Act, known more commonly as the Volstead Act.
While the act in its broadest strokes was meant to enforce the 18th Amendment’s notoriously vague prohibition against “intoxicating liquors,” one small corner carved out exceptions for medicinal alcohol, eucharist wine and home winemaking. This meant that a family could legally make and keep up to 200 gallons of wine for household consumption each year. This had the unintentional effect of creating a booming market for wine grapes between 1919 and 1933, especially among immigrants already accustomed to making their own table wine back in the old country.
So when Cesare Mondavi first took a train to Lodi, California, to prospect for grapes to ship back home to Minnesota — where his boarders and fellow paesani would turn them into perfectly legal prohibition wine — he had, in some sense, a fellow Minnesotan named Volstead to thank for creating a market that would build his reputation as an honest dealer and a man of his word, that would eventually bring him and his family to Lodi to settle permanently, and that would, a generation later, set his son Robert loose in Napa Valley to remake American wine.
Just about a hundred years later, I’m sitting across from Tim Mondavi — Robert’s son, Cesare’s grandson — at Gianni’s Steakhouse in Wayzata. He is delivering an entertaining and well-rehearsed history of his family and of his own lifelong relationship with wine. He has returned to Minnesota to introduce a small audience to his wines, which, it must be explained, are not called Mondavi.
As hard as it is to believe, no member of the Mondavi family owns any rights to the winemaking name or estate, which was lost in a hostile 1980s takeover, after a multigenerational family saga that’s almost Shakespearean in its intrigue, its cast of royalty and commoners, and its solemn march downward from a pinnacle of total triumph to a seemingly inevitable tragic ending. It’s a very American story, and the successes and failures of the legendary reputation that Robert Mondavi built and lost are based on very American notions of opportunity, hard work, competition, expansion and eventual overreach.
There are no unmixed angels among the three generations of Mondavis, but if you follow the specific march of events, one thing becomes clear: At every turn, and at repeated personal cost, when the time came to decide if Mondavi, the organization, should expand sales through more affordable, lower quality offerings or if it should insist on only the finest wines, Tim argued, often strenuously, against succumbing to expedience, to short-term sales goals, to corporate market share in favor of making the best wines possible from the best locations using the best techniques.
“I am not my grandfather, nor am I my father,” Tim tells me at one point. It’s a casual comment made in passing that I’m sure he does not intend to serve as more than a brief aside. But of the many words that pass between us that afternoon, those are the ones I remember.
The statement stays with me, I think, because it serves both as a gentle declaration of independence and as a tacit and somewhat poignant acknowledgement of exactly the opposite: that Tim Mondavi — a master in his field, a lion of Napa Valley, who grew up wearing gum boots and playing with wine barrels, who at 15 installed the first valves on the first vats of the most famous winery in the United States — was always destined to find his place in the world, not exclusively on his own merits, but, to some extent, either in accordance with or in opposition to his position in the line of descent of the American royal family into which he was born.
Later, we retire to the backroom of Gianni’s, where Steve Vranian, a chef who, like Tim, has been quietly doing something extremely well for longer than most of his peers and who perhaps has not gotten enough credit for it, serves a note-perfect menu paired to the astounding suite of wines that Tim has brought from California to the unlikely land of his ancestors.
He introduces each wine, standing up and holding his glass in front of him, each successive glass holding a pool of liquid a slightly darker shade of garnet than the one before as the age and depth of the wines increase to keep pace with the menu’s climb from crab to salmon to quail to duck to ribeye. He tells the story of his family again for this new audience, in much the same language that I heard earlier.
He tells a few corny jokes, acknowledging their corniness. But when it comes to talking about the wine, and especially about the place where the wine is grown and made, he lapses into a contemplative seriousness.
The wine is called Continuum. It’s an intentionally evocative name meant to symbolize, in so many words, an evolution, not a revolution. A continuation, not a break with the past. The label on the bottle is a shadow painting by his daughter of a Cabernet Franc vine planted by his father in the To Kalon Vineyard, possibly the most famous plot of land in American wine.
But it is Tim the winemaker and technician, not Tim the salesman and schmoozer, who brings the wine alive over the course of the evening. It is the Tim who talks about the red volcanic soil halfway up Pritchard Hill where his vines grow — not at the top of the hill where there is no soil and not in the valley where the vines have it too easy, but halfway up, facing west and south, as the best Burgundian vineyards do. It is the Tim who talks elevation above the fog line, a longer fruiting phase in the annual life of the vine, and a gravity system used to fill oak and concrete fermenting vats, which are not the stainless steel preferred by his father, who despised the effects of faulty cooperage.
Even when winemaking reaches the level of art, which it sometimes does, much of the process is a matter of fussy, nerdy quality control: of measuring the structure of the soil, the production of each vine, the precise ripeness of grapes, the specific gravity of juice in a vat, the alcohol content of developing wine. Of fermenting grapes at just the right speed, with just the right extraction of flavor and color, and later just the right exposure to just the right kind of oak container for just the right amount of time.
This is Tim Mondavi’s sales pitch, and it is clear by the end of the evening that, after most of a lifetime spent arguing in favor of quality at all costs, he is making his kind of wine. His father’s son, but not his father.
What we don’t find out until later is that a bit of news has traveled from California to Minnesota: Wine critic James Suckling has just given the Continuum 2015 vintage, along with only four other Napa Valley wines that year, a score of 100. Not 99, to be precise — 100.