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Schrader on Wine: Meeting Mondavi

Caroline Schrader is wine columnist for SouthtownStar newspaper Food section. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

Caroline Schrader is the wine columnist for the SouthtownStar newspaper Food section. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 20, 2013 12:01PM



A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of joining Michael, Rob Jr. and Dina Mondavi for lunch at Naha in Chicago.

Everybody knows the Mondavis. Even if you don’t drink their wine, you’ve heard the name, seen the bottle, and you know it’s one of the biggest names in the wine business. The name is associated with four generations of winemaking, and ultimately establishing the Napa Valley wine country as we know it today.

In more recent years, there’s been controversy over the family selling the prominent Robert Mondavi Winery, one of the most successful and recognized wineries, certainly in the Napa Valley.

Since many people already know a lot about the Mondavis, or so they think, I went in a different direction. I wanted to get to know the family on a personal level; revisit some questions I am sure they’ve been asked before, and ones they maybe would never expect.

I was struck with the humble character of the family when we met. I had placed the Mondavis high on a pedestal; legends of their craft and perhaps at god and goddess status. But you’d never know the magnitude of their success when meeting them.

To the Mondavis, they are just a close-knit family of four who enjoy making great wine, and they relish in sharing their passion and heritage of winemaking with the world.

I know this because when talking with them about the family business, they focus on what got them here: love for wine.

So how did the big Mondavi name turn itself into an intimate operation, not necessarily designed to appeal to the masses? The answer lies in Michael’s passion for his expertise of making wine.

His sale of the Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004 goes against the saying, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” From the outside, the winery seemed to be very much in working order. But on the inside, the daily routines that capture the hearts of any winemaker were getting lost, tangled in big-business matters.

Michael wanted to get back to basics, walking the vineyards to examine the fruit and make wine when the timing was just right to harvest the vines. So the winery was sold to head to smaller pastures, the Michael Mondavi Family Estate.

Today, the Michael Mondavi Estate, in the Carneros AVA in Napa, is the epitome of a family business. Michael’s children Rob Jr. and Dina, after testing out other career paths in the wine industry, share the same interests of making quality wine with their father. The result is a family brand of wines that celebrate their past but look to the future.

The family produces several labels. The three that uniquely reflect the family character are Isabel Mondavi, Emblem, and M by Michael Mondavi.

Isabel Mondavi wines are produced by Michael’s son, Rob. Isabel, Michael’s wife, enjoys food-friendly and elegant wines. This label is produced with her favorite varietals and wine styles in mind, which include Rose, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

These refined wines are lower in alcohol content, easy to drink and incredibly versatile with many meals. I love Isabel’s Chardonnay. When I tasted this with the Mondavis, it was paired with a beet salad — a wonderful combination.

Emblem wines address the family’s four generations of winemaking in the valley. The wine reflects their efforts to find land ideal for growing quality Cabernet Sauvignon. With their father, Rob and Dina craft this wine to pay homage to their rich winemaking heritage as well as showcase premium Napa Valley fruit. The full-bodied wine is designed for diehard red wine drinkers. Big in body, yet subtle in tannins, it pairs perfectly with a meal containing roasted meat and green vegetables.

M by Michael Mondavi is reminiscent of the Cabernet Sauvignons Michael made in the 1960s and ’70s. He was taught that winemaking begins in the vineyard with the fruit that is produced. Mother Nature is the true winemaker, and M reflects the volcanic soils and climate from this single vineyard atop Atlas Peak in the Napa Valley.

This extraordinarily complex wine can be enjoyed now or can be cellared to drink in 10 to 20 years. If you prefer fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon, I recommend drinking this wine in the near future. If it’s a traditional, bold Cabernet you are after, put it in your cellar for later.

Caroline Schrader is a wine writer and wine consultant serving the Chicago area. Follow her on Facebook and visit www.carolineschrader.com.



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