We’re all going to die, and there’s hardly a better way of doing it than peacefully in your own bed at 94 after a productive life. Nevertheless we’ll still miss vintner and wine pitch-man Bob Mondavi, who went to that great wine bar in the sky Friday morning from his home in Napa Valley.
If you’ll be enjoying wine with your dinner tonight, as so many Americans do these days, this small pleasure is at least as much a result of the efforts of the senior Mondavi as anyone or anything else.
The wine industry in America after The Great Experiment was in a parlous state. (Reason #786 that I don’t want to go to Hell after I die is that I’ll surely encounter everyone who had anything to do with bringing about and sustaining Prohibition during those terrible parched years.) America had become a beer and spirits drinking nation, and remained so into the seventies when, due to the efforts of Mondavi and a small number of innovative and entrepreneurial California vintners, wine started making a comeback.
And what a comeback. Today Americans drink more wine than they do either beer or spirits. Nothing against beer or spirits, let me hasten to add. There’s little better on offer than a cold beer at a baseball game, or as a refresher after mowing the yard in July. And as a Southerner I’m no stranger to the bracing pleasure of the first hot bosky bite of bourbon (the expression borrowed from Walker Percy) taken neat. But what a different kind of delight wine can be with dinner, or sipped slowly on the back deck as the sun goes down and the birds go to bed.
By the middle of the last century Americans had nearly forgotten these pleasures, or had never known them in the first place. The wine available at the time was mostly some pretty forgettable cough medicine traveling under the names of rose or chablis, along with some even more down-market head-busters, the names of which I have suppressed, and a fair fraction of which could double as coffin varnish.
When I entered my legal drinking years in 1963 (after a few years practice as an unlicensed amateur), the way for a guy to impress his date was to cook spaghetti for her and pull the cork on a bottle of Matues Rose. Let’s just say the selection is much more generous today.
THINGS BEGAN TO CHANGE in the mid-sixties when Mondavi, the son of Italian immigrants, began building his wine-making empire and preaching the beauties of moderate wine-drinking with food.
It soon became apparent that California, particularly the richly-blessed Napa Valley, was producing wines that were the equivalent in quality, and in many cases better than the products of more long-established wine-producing nations, including a large, self-important country east and south of England that shall remain unnamed.
Mondavi built a series of companies that soon included partnerships with French, Italian, and Chilean vintners and produced wines ranging from the extra fine down to merely passable plonk. His many labels could provide wine suitable for the special occasion indulgence or for Tuesday night with Thai takeout and a movie.
Mondavi, the Stanford economics major, was more the businessman and salesman than little old winemaker. He was a tireless missionary for wine, along with food and hospitality, as integral parts of the good life. His considerable success at selling this idea had much to do with his endless energy and agreeable personality.
My wife and I got a taste of some of Mondavi’s better wines and of Bob Mondavi’s charisma on a 2001 visit to Napa. We pulled up at Mondavi’s Oakville winery and got in line with the rest of the tourists. The guy conducting the tour through the vineyards and winery said to keep an eye out because there was a film crew doing a movie on Mondavi on the grounds that day, and the Bob himself might be available to visit.
Sure enough, there was quickly a Bob sighting. Mondavi, who was 88 then, was trim, had glittering eyes that didn’t appear to be missing anything, and had the bounce in his step of a 60-year old who visits the gym every day.
“Can I have my picture taken with you, Mr. Mondavi?,” one of the women in the tour sang out. “First of all, call me Bob,” Mondavi replied, “and sure, any of you women can have your picture taken with me. But you have to kiss me first.”
Impressive. Eighty-eight years old and he clearly still had his eye on the main chance. The line, including my bride, quickly formed to Bob’s right. After the kissing, the shutter-bugging, and some amiable chat from Bob was over, he rejoined the film crew. The tour guide, cooling his heels during this performance, said, “That’s what wine every day for 70 years will do for you.”
I’m not so sure that daily wine will guarantee a rich 94-year life. But the Mondavi Diet is a lot more attractive than most I’ve read or heard about.
It’s Saturday as I write this. Tonight I’ll grill a steak for my wife and me and open a middling cabernet to go with it. We’ll lift one in memory of Bob Mondavi. I think my toast will be, “Rest in peace, Paisano. You done good.”
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