Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty" by Julia Flynn Siler

Before I get into the details of this amazing book, I feel it is only fair to give you a head's up on the emotional baggage I carry around on my shoulders with regards to Mondavi wine. At the risk of lowering your opinion of me, I will admit to being a wine snob. My husband and I have come to really appreciate a good bottle of wine. We feel that making wine is an art form. The wine doesn't necessarily have to be expensive to be appreciated (although I can't say I've found many of them for less than $10 that I would want in my house). With that said, I have always had a very derisive attitude towards Mondavi wines. I know they have good wines in their cellars somewhere. But to me, they are the ultimate sell-out...a winery claiming to be high quality that isn't. A winery that sold its name and soul to the Disney in Anaheim (and failed, thank you). Their cheaper wines are swill...not drinkable, and not even fit to cook with. Where is the pride in their craft, for Pete's sake???? Their Oakville estate is like Disneyland - swarms of tourists and queues everywhere. On the various trips to the Napa area, I have visited over 50 wineries, but never this one. I refused to go in, even though my husband wanted to see what it was all about. I stood there, arms crossed, like a petulant two-year-old. Having worked in the business sector for most of my adult life, I understand the need for growth, profit margins, and managing investor expectations. Still, I have very little room in my heart to feel too much respect for Mondavi.

When I first heard about this book, I scoffed. Why on earth would I want to read about these people? But I trusted the opinions of those that recommended it to me. And I do love wine. Emotions aside, how can you go wrong with a book about wine? Begrudgingly, I will admit that I am glad I read it. The author took off a considerable amount of time from her job at the Wall Street Journal to write this heavily researched book. Her sources are credible, with countless details laid out in a very readable prose. And the details make it all quite clear why the Mondavi family had the tiger by the tail, and they blew it all to hell.

The story starts with the classic American Dream of Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, Italian immigrants, who came to America to make a living for themselves. And through sweat and hard work, they did. They purchased the floundering Charles Krug winery in Napa, and dreamed of a small but successful multi-generational legacy. This was not to be, however. Their oldest son, Robert, had the flash of a sky's-the-limit entrepreneur. The younger son, Peter, was quiet and deliberate. (The two daughters were not considered to be plausible contributors to the business.) Aggravated by Cesare's favoritism towards his older son, spite and bitterness grew between the boys like a cancer, even culminating to an infamous fist-fight. Once Cesare died, however, Rosa jumped in to protect Peter, and Robert was literally thrown out of the family business on his behind. Robert, in turn, sued the family in an ugly courtroom drama, and won a large settlement. Rosa died in the middle of the ruckus. The brothers did not speak again until they were in their nineties.

Ever the positive thinker, Robert forged ahead to establish his own winery. I must give Robert his due and call him a visionary, because he started from virtually nothing, just the seed money from the court ruling against his family. He grew it into the monster it is today through acquisitions, partnerships, and an unlimited fount of energy and passion to be the biggest and the best. He was the ambassador for wine, fostering the education of the masses of the benefits of wine drinking, and the necessary connection between wine and food. Between point A and point B, however, some critical issues started to erode the foundation. History predictably repeating itself, Robert took more of a shine to his flashy older son Michael (the businessman), and found faults with the younger son Timothy (the winemaker). The fighting was incessant, bitterness and jealousy directing every move they made. Robert was also a philanderer and ended up leaving his wife for greener pastures (interestingly, Timothy was the same way). To fill the niches in the retail market, they began producing the swill I complained about, and the company began to have an identity crisis.

As Robert got older, he began to allow his dysfunctional sons to take over the business. To raise more capital, they took the company public, which is when it became very clear through investor scrutiny, that the company was very mismanaged. The brothers constantly fought, nepotism was the rule versus the exception, millions were dumped into indulgent projects. If you were an outside executive and you climbed your way to high up the ladder, fault was found, and you were given the boot. If you were a shrink or a management consultant in the Napa area, you were in like Flynn. Dozens of professionals were invited to analyze and help the Mondavis with their issues, but the advice was usually ignored. To cut costs to please the shareholders, they started to get sloppy with their winemaking, and even their premium wines earned severe criticism from wine authorities. Timothy was forced to take a sabbatical for that one. Eventually Michael was forced out of the company. (Honestly people, you really don't know who to root for here!) To raise more cash, and to bail Robert out of a philanthropic binge, the Mondavi family sold their shares and their voting rights. The Sands brothers at Constellation Brands smelled fresh blood, and acquired the company through a hostile takeover. The Mondavi family certainly aren't out on the streets of Napa panhandling, but Cesare's legacy was no more.

I realize this is a long post, and I'm sorry...I try to boil these books down to the nitty gritty. I just can't boil it down to anything less...I just can't! This book blew me away. You don't even need to have a passion for wine to be entertained. I liken it to seeing a horrible accident along the side of the is tragic, ugly and bloody...but you still have to look. As I finished the last few chapters, I reflected on my views of the Mondavi's, and whether they have changed. I don't think they have. They made the bed they are sleeping in. I was saddened by the image I was left with, however, which was a family full of dreams, bitterness and regrets. It was of two men in their nineties attempting to make amends by making a barrel of wine together to sell at a fund-raising auction. Of Robert Mondavi, sitting at the auction, who can't hear, can barely walk, selling off his favorite vintners jacket for charity, holding hands with his brother.


Beth F said...

Terrific review. All you said is so true. This is sibling rivalry taken to some Uber level!

Unknown said...

I've never heard of the book, or the wine before.

This is a great review, and has inspired me to add it to my ever growing wishlist!

Michele said...

My confession: I want to learn to be a wine snob. Always have.

I'll be buying this book for certain, Sandy!

Wonderful, wonderful review.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Beth - I know this was on your favorite list for 2008, and justly so. Unfortunately, this type of bitterness between siblings is not so uncommon, but because of the Mondavi fame, was aired like dirty laundry for all to see. There is a lesson to be learned here!

Jackie - It is intriguing that the Mondavi name didn't cross over the pond. Well, I am happy to tell you, you aren't missing much. It is still a fabulous book!

Michele - The best way to become a wine snob is to hang out in Napa or Sonoma for a few days. Or better yet, a week. After our first trip, our average price spent per bottle went up about 15 bucks! It's hands-on education at its best. It becomes very easy to distinguish the differences between mediocre wine and excellent wine! If ever you do go, let me know. I've got a whole huge document of wineries to visit, places to stay and places to eat.

caite said...

It all sounds like a soap opera...but in my experience, it is common when family members go into business together. You might think it would be better...but very often isn't.

I must confess that I am NOT a wine snob. My theory is if you like a wine...drink it. No matter what it costs (I mean how little) or what others think of it.
There may well be objectively excellent wines, but for many drinkers of wine it is more about pretention than knowledge and good judgement. They like to show they can go into a restaurant and spend an obscene amount on a bottle, but I doubt they could tell the difference without the label..
Just my

Sandy Nawrot said...

You know Caite, you are absolutely correct. If you like it, drink it! Where the snob thing comes in is when you begin tasting different wines, and realize the difference between swill and non-swill. Your expectations rise the further you go. I guess your palate changes (sorta like when I used to think vienna sausages and spam were good stuff as a kid!).

Beth F said...

The way to become a wine snob is to drink a bunch of wines! Price is not the only factor. In fact, we *love* finding great wines for under $10 or $12.

Darlene said...

Wonderful review. I've never heard of this book. I love wine!!!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Beth - I know! Boy, I feel like I have won the lottery if I find a good drinkable wine for less than $10!!! They are not always easy to find. In our house, we call these wines the "daily" drinks. We save the cellared stuff for the filet or veal chop dinners on the weekends!

Dar - liking wine is an extra bonus when reading this book. You would love it!

Melody said...

Great review, Sandy! Loved hearing your insights... I've to confess I'm not a wine person, but still this book has piqued my interest!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Melody - this book is actually a study of the familial disaster; the family just happens to sell over a million cases of wine a year! It could easily be the people next door!

Literary Feline said...

I admit this is probably not a novel I would turn to on my own, being that I don't drink alcohol and therefore little interest in those who make it, but your review certainly makes it sound worth reading.