First, the good news:
Egg white is a fining agent used in Burgundy to clarify wine. Although other products work equally well, albumen is particularly prized because lots of Cordon Bleu recipes call for egg yolks, and that leaves the country with a surplus of homeless egg whites looking for a resting spot. At the bottom of a wine vat? Voila!
Meanwhile, the French really need to consider ending blind jury tastings, because the egg they need for their wine keeps ending up on their faces.
Everybody in the wine world is familiar with the earth shattering ‘Judgment of Paris’ where, in 1976, a pair of virtually unknown Napa wines (Chateau Montelena chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet) bested France’s top estates. Less press is given to the Grand Jury Européen 1997, an equally prestigious tasting held in Bordeaux where more than 70% of the entries were French and 100% of the judges were European. Twenty-seven chardonnays competed—among them, a who’s who of Grand Cru Burgundies from the region’s most acclaimed producers. Three vintages were sampled—1989, 1992 and 1994—and in the end, the judges awarded top honors to Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay.
Something in the Water…?
The late Robert Mondavi (1913 – 2008) is to American wine evolution what Bob Dylan is to American pop music evolution—Templar Grand Master, professor emeritus, king of the hill. The fact that both are from miniscule Hibbing, Minnesota lands near the top of the list of things that make you go huh?
From the outset, Mondavi—who broke from his father Cesare and his brother Peter during the early days of their California winemaking ventures—had a mission, and that mission was a mission; at least, a mission-styled winery that would produce wines to rival the world’s best.
And here’s a guy who truly deserves to be standing on a flight deck in front of a sign reading ‘Mission Accomplished’. Spearheaded by Mondavi Fumé Blanc—which established a sauvignon culture in the United States—and pinnacled by Opus One, a joint venture with Château Mouton Rothschild’s Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Mondavi wines have reached stratospheres of quality that other California winemakers dream of.
I had the honor of standing in Robert Mondavi’s shadow a couple of times over the years, and by shadow I mean shadow: Mondavi was a vividly handsome, supernally tall man whose presence, even in his final years, was daunting. His sons, Tim and Michael, shared the elder Mondavi’s ‘look’ if not always his outlook.
Robert was vocal about the boys’ early focus on Mondavi’s associated cash-cow brands Woodbridge and Coastal. He saw it, rightly, as ‘trading down’ a cachet that he’d built from the ground—literally—up.
The 1997 award notwithstanding, Mondavi’s decision to go public four years earlier was, in fact, the beginning of the end. Once Robert himself lost control of his company’s direction, the winery began to crank out oenological oceans; seas of Safeway staples; generic gushers of grape. Its ultimate fate was, in many ways, inevitable.
The Fall of the House of Gusher
Now, the less-than-good-news:
To feed the plonk-line, the company went capital-crazy, investing millions in new vineyards while the shareholders happily lapped up the twenty percent growth rate that sustained Mondavi throughout the remainder of the Nineties, even in the face of the winery’s astronomical 28% overhead. Still, the premium line continued to hold its own as the Opus One reputation solidified.
Then, Along Came 9/11.
Along with premium everything and luxury anything, the collapse of the Twin Towers was a metaphor for the disintegration of many window-dressing brands in virtually every industry out there. Mondavi’s woes were hardly unique, but when Constellation Brands offered the board a billion-with-a-b-and-then-point-three, there was not a lot of discussion—the company was in process of imploding anyway, with Robert’s son Mike ousted as board chairman and bookoo bickering over corporate direction.
Shareholders took a grand total of twelve minutes to say ‘I do’.
Thus, Mondavi the Legacy, co-creator of America’s first ultra-premium wine, became but another blip in Constellation’s $ 3.7 billion galaxy.
Apt name. What is a constellation? A collection of unrelated, unassociated points of light that appear to have cohesion only from a disinterested distance; in reality, the components have nothing in common and may fizzle out, self-destruct, or go supernova independent of one another.
The final humiliation for Robert Mondavi may in fact have been that the fortune that bought his name and reputation was forged from a label that represents the antithesis of his philosophy; one of Constellation’s lodestar brands, Wild Irish Rose.
All that said, I have tucked into four of the newest releases from the Robert Mondavi Private Selection label and can report that although these are not handcrafted gems from the juice-stained extremities of an old world master, they are well-made, middle of the road supermarket varietals, neither outstanding, but absolutely drinkable.
They are boardroom wines with every bottle’s drop calculated to the final molecule. The flavor notes are chosen by consumer polls and the PR is maddeningly contrived. But translating the hokum is relatively easy, because wine cartel marketing tricks are about as transparent as those of a second-string birthday magician on a three-day bender.
- When you see ‘Robert Mondavi Private Selection’ on the label, you read: ‘Somebody other than Robert Mondavi selected these wines via committee in a quest for maximum profit’.
- When you see ‘Created to celebrate the diversity of California’s wine growing regions,’ you read: ‘It’s a lot cheaper to buy bulk wine from all over California than to buy from a recognized AVA, or God forbid, an individual vineyard.’
- When you see ‘Suggested retail price $11’ you read: ‘We have struggled and argued and hemmed and hawed before we came up with a price that represents the absolute top dollar our Board of Directors figure you’d be willing to fork over for this product, adding meaningless words like ‘Private Selection’ and ‘exceptionally balanced’ (you can’t be exceptionally balanced, wordsmiths—you’re either balanced or you’re not—ask Karl Wallenda) and designing a label with baroque script to make it appear that you are buying a wine that’s worth more than $11 instead of a wine that’s probably worth a couple bucks less.’
But that’s okay, I know how the game works and so does Wall Street.
And the penultimate salesman Robert Mondavi knew it too—and made $400 million, secure in the knowledge.
And as his fellow Hibbingite Robert Zimmerman so eloquently quoth:
‘All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie’.
Robert Mondavi Private Selection Riesling, 2009, about $11: Even the best of the boutique Central Coast rieslings are also-rans compared to those of Germany and Alsace; they’re like listening to a bar band covering Led Zeppelin—the chord changes are right, but the soul is missing. This competent but lightweight wine offers tart yellow peach, honeysuckle, Meyer lemon and a generally steely profile.
Robert Mondavi Private Selection Sauvignon Blanc, 2009, about $11: Clean and grassy, crisp and tickled with a bit of grapefruit and lime, it’s a fine entry-level sauvignon blanc, but not one that stacks up to the classically Fumé Blanc on which Mondavi made his first big gamble. Mostly sourced from chilly Monterey, the wine is pungent and somewhat acidic, citrusy but without the tropical flair that many have come to expect with this grape.
Robert Mondavi Private Selection Zinfandel, 2008, about $11: The best of the four; California’s native son is both prodigal and a prodigious producer, and this one shows textbook bramble fruits, especially blackberry, along with some toasty spice, earth and coconut on the nose—likely the result of the Paso Robles fruit. An assertive wine and an excellent value.
Robert Mondavi Private Selection Syrah, 2009, about $11: Also a winner, especially at the price point. Nice spicy black fruits, buoyant with sweet oak and grippy tannins; the wine is creamy enough to counteract the cool-weather acids, and the finish is juicy, velvety and long-lived. Some odd stats on the spec sheet though. The grapes are 99% Monterey and 1% Paso Robles. The varietal composition is 99% syrah and 1% merlot. Something is going on with those crazy, lone percentages… something big, something dark … but I can’t for the life of me figure out what.