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The Aging King of the Napa Valley

One of the questions I’m often asked when I talk at library fundraisers or with book groups about The House of Mondavi is how Robert Mondavi is doing.

Still referred to respectfully as “Mr.” by some of his former employees, Robert Mondavi will celebrate his 95th birthday on June 14th of this year. But it’s unlikely to resemble the birthday parties of decades past – such as at the one to celebrate his 85th birthday in 1998. “Mr.” donned sunglasses, burst onto the stage, and started jamming with the band.

Since the takeover of the Robert Mondavi Corp. in late 2004, he’s had a series of health scares resulting in trips to the hospital. And although he and his wife Margrit still attend many functions and can be spotted dining out at restaurants such as Redd in Yountville, Mr. Mondavi is now confined to a wheelchair and doesn’t say much anymore.

Robert and Margrit meet Gov. SchwarzeneggerThis year’s Auction Napa Valley, the big June fundraiser for Napa non-profit groups organized by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, will feature a tribute lot called “It’s Only the Beginning,” donated by the J. Davies Vineyards, Staglin Family Winery, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and other wineries and chefs in honor of Robert Mondavi. The lot comprises an event for 90 guests which will take place June 28th at Robert Mondavi’s brainchild, Copia. A five-course dinner cooked by Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, and others will be served, and tributes to Robert delivered by his brother Peter Mondavi Sr. and others. Starting bid: $10,000 per individual ticket, or $80,000 for a table of ten.

Based on last year’s event, in which the Staglin lot sold for a record $1 million, this year’s offering should do very well as a sentimental favorite.

I haven’t visited with Mr. Mondavi or Margrit in quite some time. And I’m sorry to say that $10,000 for a seat is a little beyond my budget. But for a lovely and very poignant description of the aging king of the Napa Valley, read Jim Laube’s blog posting of March 29.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger greets Margrit and Robert Mondavi at the December ceremony inducting Robert into California's Hall of Fame.
AP Photo by Steve Yeater

Jim, a senior editor at Wine Spectator who was written about Napa Valley for decades, spent an evening recently at the Mondavis’ home on Wappo Hill, best known for the indoor swimming pool that is the centerpiece of its living room.

Jim’s posting drew many comments, including from his boss Marvin Shanken. But the comment I enjoyed the most was from someone who had not appreciated Jim’s 2003 criticisms of the Mondavis’ problems, which in retrospect proved prescient. Wrote reader Richard Hutchinson from Chicago:

"A couple of years ago Mr. Laube harshly criticized some of the wines being made at R. Mondavi. Specifically those of Tim Mondavi. At the time I thought … ‘What they (sic) hell is his problem.’ This is the Mondavi family and you probably don’t even know them or they somehow slighted you. With this blog I get it…James Laube was doing his job!!! A true friend or true business associate tells his boss the truth. I apologize James. I was wrong…”

How often does that happen to a journalist who is trying to do his job?