16 May 2008

Loss, keenly felt

[robert mondavi © Carolyn Tillie]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.


Ken Sternberg said...

I remember being at the event, as well, Thor. I can't recall the specific conversation you cited, but it's quite illustrative of Mondavi.

I only wish the American wine industry were following his lead in more ways today.

thor iverson said...

It was hard to hear, and for all I know you were mid-conversation with someone else at the time. I had to ask the Mondavi rep what Margit said, but after that I paid close attention.

And on the latter point: absolutely.

Nancy Deprez said...

What a nice memory of him. I have never met him but I'm beginning to understand him better after hearing and reading all these wonderful things about him. He sounds very inspiring.

Ken Sternberg said...

Until the last, Mondavi seemed to be interested in wine, as opposed to units that could be stacked, shipped and leveraged for a profit.

Thankfully, there are a few (literally a handful of) people out there who seem to get it.

thor iverson said...

Nancy, I wish I'd known him better. Alas, too late now.

Ken, I think that's true, but unfortunately it might have been better had he paid a little more attention to the business, especially as he ceded control to his sons. I don't know if it would have saved the company, but it might have at least staved off the decline and takeover until after his death. I just think it's a shame that this dominant force in California wine passed away having lost control of his name.