WHEN, many years ago, I visited Robert Mondavi and his winery in California’s Napa Valley, the thing that impressed me most was Mondavi’s openness to new ideas and winemaking techniques, and his generosity in sharing them with anybody who was wise enough to listen. I am happy to say that this openness has paid off handsomely: Bob Mondavi has not only produced superb wines, he has become the unofficial spokesman for wine in America.
The excellence of American wine is beginning to be recognized abroad, although here at home the industry is not doing well at all. Per-capita wine consumption in the United States remains at 2.43 gallons a year, compared to a whopping 21.6 gallons in Italy. And not only do we drink little wine, but the increasingly tough regulations against drunken driving, the raising of the drinking age to 21, and the American preoccupation with health, all militate against an increase in wine consumption; the one exception being wine coolers (heavily promoted, fruity, low-alcohol soda pop), which are drunk very cold to suit the American taste for sweet, icy drinks, and especially for such drinks as deliver a slight alcoholic buzz. Though wine-cooler sales in 1986 have shown an increase of 36.8 per cent over 1985, I wonder whether wine-cooler drinkers will mature, as some people hope, into table-wine drinkers; it takes a lot of exposure to develop a taste for dry wines if you have not been familiar with them since childhood. (More information with wine cooler and wine cooler reviews). Nevertheless, expensive table wines and costly imports do well with our wine drinkers: we have become a nation in which a few people drink good wines and many others drink no wine at all.
Bob Mondavi has an instinctive sense that what is good for Robert Mondavi is also good for the nation, and vice versa. When he started his winery in 1966, he was this country’s most innovative winemaker, producing the splendid big vintages fashionable at the time. Other producers were inspired by his success, and California wine started making waves in Europe. In the process, Napa Valley became known as America’s finest wine country, a fact much resented in other California wine regions. Nevertheless, the national wine market has changed a good deal during the last decade. Before that, well-made but rather bland jug and generic wines suited the general American wine-drinking public; as a matter of fact, these still make up the bulk of wine coming out of California, even though between 1976 and 1986 they fell off by 44 per cent.
Meanwhile, American wine producers, propagandists, and wine writers, having become less snobbish, discovered that wine is not a fancy drink, but rather a staple accompaniment to the everyday meal. Now the nation needed a good, much less expensive red or white for everyday drinking. In the past, some big winemakers like Gallo and Almaden had produced clean, well-made wines, inexpensive and far superior in quality to their European equivalents, yet nevertheless not quite classy enough to suit the sophisticated American taste. Bob Mondavi, trading on the excellence of his premium wines, in 1977 started to make the Robert Mondavi white, red, and rose, which he called simply White, Red, or Rose Table Wines. These wines were also marketed in big bottles, and they cost less than his fine varietals, such as the vintagedated Cabernets, Chardonnays, etc. (A varietal wine is one whose label identifies the grapes from which the wine is made. Federal law requires that at least 75 per cent of these grapes be of the variety that gives the wine its name. Vintagedating means that the grapes were of a specific vintage, as stated on the bottle label.)
Bob Mondavi has discovered that Americans like varietal wines, meaning that they like to know what is in their bottles, as well as the proper vintage year. Equally importantly, he knows that the days of high-priced premium wines are gone: very few people who drink wine with their meals can afford to pay premium prices for their daily tipple. Grasping the precarious situation of wine in America, Mondavi has come out with four new, inexpensive, vintage-dated varietals, namely a Sauvignon Blanc, a red Cabernet, and two made of the prolific Zinfandel grape–a fruity, somewhat sweet rose, and a white Zinfandel (the latter being fashionable now). The grapes from which these wines are made are abundant and not very costly to grow. Furthermore, these new wines are made in Woodbridge, near Lodi, and south of San Francisco, so that they cannot and do not bear the prestigious Napa Valley label of origin. They are called simply California Sauvignon Blanc, etc., and although the Robert Mondavi name is prominent on the label, the design is different from the usual Napa Valley Winery label on the Robert Mondavi premium wines. In other words, they are Bob Mondavi’s “second’ label, which Americans and Europeans use for their lesser products.
I have tasted the new Mondavi Woodbridge wines, and they are pleasant, well made, and somewhat thin, which, everything considered, is only to be expected. The name of Robert Mondavi on their label is a guarantee of their quality as long as he lives.