The last time I saw Robert Mondavi, who passed away this morning at the age of 94, was at a restaurant in Boston about ten years ago, for some sort of celebratory event at which his wines were being poured. Even then, he was getting older. You could see it in his carriage, in his face. From a distance, he seemed to be shrinking in front of our eyes.
Anyway, on this occasion he was with his wife Margrit and Boston’s own culinary royalty, Julia Child. Margrit is even tinier than Robert, and though Julia obviously towered over both of them, by this point in her life her back was stooped with age, bringing her down to a somewhat normal height.
What struck me right away was that these three people – all at an age where a well-earned lifetime of rest by the pool should be appealing – all exuded a powerful, intense energy. When Mondavi looked at me, shook my hand, said a few words, I felt the force of his will. The same will that drove him to revolutionize American wine…not just from a qualitative standpoint, but also in the way it was marketed and sold. The energy flowing from this fairly slight man was, unmistakable, and seemingly undimmed by age. Up close, he seemed larger, stronger, more alive.
But my lasting memory of the evening came later. The Mondavis and Julia were seated together, and they were speaking a bit about each course and its wine pairing as it arrived from the kitchen. I believe we were about to move on to a chardonnay, but before Robert could get started, Margrit spoke up.
“I didn’t like that pairing at all.” I believe I saw the chef – one of Boston’s most celebrated – stick his head out from behind the kitchen door at that one. “It didn’t work.” Julia started laughing. If she had an opinion, she kept it to herself.
At first, Robert looked slightly startled. Then he smiled, and joked, “well, I guess we can’t blame the wine.”
Margrit shook her head. “Yes, Robert, I think we can. I think it was the fault of the wine.”
Robert turned to look at her, love and bemused admiration in his eyes. There was a silent pause while the rest of us waited. Would they continue their entertaining little disagreement? No. Clearing his throat, he simply moved on to his philosophy of chardonnay and its food pairings as if the exchange had never taken place. Always the tireless promoter.
And that, I think, was Mondavi in a nutshell. Passionate about his relationships (for good and, sometimes, for ill), but always…always…focused on his wine. There have been many who have done their part for America’ wine industry, but among all of them he reigns like a giant. And now, a fallen giant. We will all be the poorer for the loss of him.