BERKELEY, Calif. - Robert Mondavi, the pioneering vintner who helped put California wine country on the map, died at his Napa Valley home yesterday. He was 94.
Mr. Mondavi died peacefully at his home in Yountville, Robert Mondavi Winery spokeswoman Mia Malm said.
He was 52 and a winemaking veteran in 1966, when he opened the winery that would help turn the Napa Valley into a world center of the industry. Clashes with a brother that included a fistfight led him to break from the family business to carry out his ambitious plans with borrowed money.
"He had the single greatest influence in this country with respect to high quality wine and its place at the table," wine critic Robert Parker wrote in a chat room posting on his website yesterday. He called Mr. Mondavi "an exceptional man . . . a true pioneer . . . a legendary pathfinder . . . and I feel so priviledged to have known him . . . a sad day . . . but also one to pay homage to his enormous contributions."
When Mr. Mondavi opened his winery, California was still primarily known for cheap jug wines. But he set out to change that, championing use of cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, all commonplace in the industry today. He introduced blind tastings in Napa Valley, putting his wines up against French vintages, a bold move.
His confidence was rewarded in 1976 when California wines beat some well-known French vintages in the famous tasting known as the Judgment of Paris.
Always convinced that California wines could compete with the European greats, Mr. Mondavi engaged in the first French-American wine venture when he formed a limited partnership with the legendary French vintner Baron Philippe de Rothschild to grow and make the ultra-premium Opus One at Oakville. The venture's first vintage was in 1979.
The success of the Mondavi winery allowed him to donate tens of millions of dollars to charity, but a wine glut and intense competition gradually cost his family control of the business. In 2004, the company accepted a buyout worth $1.3 billion from Fairport, N.Y.-based
Mr. Mondavi was an enthusiastic ambassador for wine - especially California wine - and traveled the world into his 90s promoting the health, cultural and social benefits of its moderate consumption.
Born in Virginia, Minn., Mr. Mondavi got an economics degree from Stanford University in the 1930s and went to work at the Charles Krug Winery, which his Italian-born parents had bought after moving to California from Minnesota. He married his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Declusin, in 1937, and they had three children, Michael, Marcia, and Tim.
For 20 years, the winery was a family business. But Robert clashed frequently with his younger brother, Peter, who had a more conservative approach the business. According to Robert Mondavi's autobiography "Harvests of Joy," matters came to a head with a November 1965 fistfight.
"When it was all over, there were no apologies and no handshake," wrote Robert Mondavi.
In the late 1970s, Mr. Mondavi's first marriage ended. In 1980, he married a second time, to Margrit Biever. By the mid-1990s, Mondavi had turned over operation of the company to his sons. But like their father and uncle before them, Tim and Michael clashed over management styles.
Later there was a bittersweet family moment when Robert and Peter Mondavi, aided by members of the younger generation, made wine together for the first time in 40 years.