Tasting Wine: An ode to Robert Mondavi

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial beginning of summer (officially it’s June 21, and for those of us who live in San Francisco, it begins around Labor Day and ends right before Halloween). But instead of recommending great wines to kick off summer, I want to remember a pioneer of the wine world who passed away last week.

Robert Mondavi was 94; he had a good, long journey. He was one of the people who made the rest of the world take California wines seriously. Perhaps no one else did more to further Napa’s reputation for cabernet sauvignon; he also was involved in other projects toward making the Napa Valley a respected wine region and tourist destination.

The best winery tour I ever had was at Robert Mondavi in 2003. Full disclosure: a few years back, his grandson Carlo and I worked together, so I realize I received VIP treatment. That said, I know others who felt that their tours of Mondavi were among the most educational experiences they ever had. Since then, Mondavi was sold to a large corporation. From what I understand, the tours continue to be top-notch.

I blind-tasted the 2005 Mondavi Reserve cabernet sauvignon a few months ago and was rather underwhelmed. However, when the Mondavi family controlled the winery and Tim Mondavi, Robert’s son and Carlo’s father, made the wine, I had some of the best wines I’ve tasted from California.

I’m not talking about just the cabernet sauvignon, but also the reserve pinot noir — the 1994 especially memorable — and the Stag’s Leap sauvignon blanc. I’ve also been lucky enough to try some of the older wines. Sometimes I wish more folks in Napa and elsewhere would make wine like this again.

Let me leave you with a little story: After driving up from Los Angeles during the night in a terrible rainstorm and not getting a lot of sleep, Carlo and I went to the winery to do some tasting. Robert and his wife Margaret were having lunch in one of the rooms with a few guests when Carlo went to greet his grandfather and introduce me to the legend.

No sooner did I try to shake his hand that he pulled me toward him and gave me a big kiss. From a 90-year-old, I take that as a sign of affection.

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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