The Good Life: How Robert Mondavi Transformed Napa Valley—and Aging

i-social-1 In 2003, Robert Mondavi surveyed the world-changing company he had built, and was slightly unhappy with it. He felt that the winery which bears his name—that remarkable name which had signified a new era of wine in California and the United States—was focusing too much on substandard and inexpensive wine, and he wanted to refocus the brand. So he rolled up his sleeves and got back to work. He was 90 years old at the time.

This passion, this energy, and this commitment to doing the job right was not surprising. For decades, Mondavi had been engaged in transforming the way we make and drink wine in this country, and in elevating the perception of American wine. In doing so, he has also reshaped the destiny of Napa Valley, while simultaneously showing us that growing older doesn’t have to mean abandoning the good things in life: good drink, good food, good friends, and hard work. He showed us that people can age like… well, you know.

From the Earth

For Bay Area residents used to going into Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and seeing racks and racks of American wine, of varying quality and prices, it might be hard to remember that until the 1960s, the phrase “American wine” was something of an oxymoron. Sure, you had local vintners, mostly producing fruit-based wines, but there was no national wine that was on par with European blends. In fact, the thought of competing with Italian or French wines was considered laughable.

It wasn’t laughable to Mondavi, though. In 1966, at age 53, he founded the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, nestled within Napa Valley. The centerpiece of the winery was the To Kalon vineyards, home to the simple grape plants from which he would grow his empire. With years of experience, Mondavi set out to transform the barren fields of American winemaking into something fertile and beautiful.

It took time and hard work. At an age when most people were gearing up for retirement, Mondavi used a lifetime of experience at winemaking, and a passion for creating the best, and started to forge a new path for himself. He began partnering with leading European vintners, including the magnificently-named Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild, one of the leading winemaking families on the continent.

In 1997, Mondavi, then 84 years old, achieved an enormous victory when his Chardonnay Reserve was ranked highest at the Grand European Jury of Wine Tasting. This was truly remarkable. If 30 years seems like a long time to achieve success, remember that many of the great European wineries had been creating their blends for centuries. In a very short time, starting in his mid-50s, Robert Mondavi brought American wine to the forefront.

However, the American wine industry isn’t all that he changed. Napa Valley became synonymous with wine, as others recognized the great soil and Mediterranean climate. The Bay Area is one of the nation’s leading regions for wine, filled with high-end collectors and aficionados. Through his steady efforts, Mondavi transformed a country. Before him, American wine was virtually non-existent, or it was thought of as cheap and jug-based. Now, no one blinks an eye at the thought of excellent American wine, and that’s largely due to the work of one man and his family.

Mondavi and a New Look at Aging

There’s a common metaphor for life, one that resonates with anyone whose lives revolve around the growing of plants: that of the changing seasons. Spring is the first bloom, summer the full. The fall then begins to close in on itself before we reach a barren winter. That’s handy as a metaphor, but it is deterministic and unfair, and not truly indicative of how we can live. It implies inevitability, but we can fight against that path.

Mondavi certainly did, both in reality and metaphorically. He was already reaching what we would consider his late fall when he started his winery with a dream of surpassing the long (long) established brands of Europe. Instead, for Mondavi, it was a growing season. The grapes weren’t yet even sprouting on his vines.

For any of us, regardless of our age, it can always be a season to grow. Aging doesn’t mean closing up, nor does it mean that the time for personal growth and experimentation is over. There are always new challenges to meet, new ideas to explore, new choices to make. Simply being alive means that there is always time to sprout.

That’s an important lesson, and it is one that Mondavi always took to heart, from his first sip of life to his last. He knew that as long as one had soil beneath his feet, he could unfailingly make something magical. He made Napa Valley and the Bay Area a richer, more culturally-connected, and frankly more enjoyable place to live, and he can serve as an inspiration for anyone who feels that their cups still runneth over.

At Institute on Aging, we believe that older adults deserve to live with independence, dignity and happiness. Our programs help families, caretakers and aging loved ones live full and healthy lives. Connect with us today to learn more.


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Institute on Aging

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