Allen Balik: Reminiscing at Mondavi

Allen Balik: Reminiscing at Mondavi

On July 16, the Robert Mondavi Winery hosted one of the most inspiring and well grounded anniversary celebrations I can ever recall attending. This “50th” was a massive reunion of former and current employees, local dignitaries and many fans of Mondavi, the man and the winery. Following the reunion the celebration shifted to a day-long festival on the beautiful grounds of the estate attended by perhaps 2,000 locals and visitors.

Robert Mondavi formally launched his dream July 16, 1966 on his daughter Marcia’s birthday with just three employees (including his eldest son Michael and himself). With only “a wife, three children and their clothes” listed as the assets he presented to the bank, he was unable to attract traditional financing. So good friends and ultimate supporters Bill and Ina Hart stepped forward to help with the initial funding and construction of the first new winery in the Napa Valley since Prohibition began.

Robert had a unique ability to attract the best people to perform a wide variety of jobs necessary to ensure the success of the winery. His hands-on relationship with all of them laid the foundation for an iconic success story that brought international attention to the California wine industry and Napa Valley in particular.

Among the many talented “alumni” who worked with Mondavi were Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski. In the ensuing years, both went on to establish themselves in the upper echelon of the global winemaking industry.

Grgich and Winiarski achieved initial fame as winemakers for the best white (Grgich with 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay) and red (Winiarski with his 1973 Stag’s Leap Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon) wines in Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. Both then proceeded to experience illustrious careers as winemakers and vintners of world class Napa Valley wineries.

While I enjoyed the festivities with a celebratory glass of 2015 Gamay Rosé (symbolizing the first wine made by Mondavi) and mingling with many of the reunion guests, I reflected on some of my personal experiences with the winery and especially with Michael and Tim Mondavi.

I recalled a private luncheon in the same Vineyard Room where the reunion festivities were taking place that was hosted by Michael in 1990 for my wife Barbara and me along with a few of our friends. On this occasion, Michael proudly poured 13 vintages of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from the latter 1970s to future releases from the late 1980s.

I also recalled the private tasting Tim hosted for us in the late 1990s in what is now the To Kalon Room. Tim introduced us to the 1995 Fumé Blanc To Kalon I Block from 50-year-old vines along with several other memorable wines expressing his winemaking talent and the winery’s long-standing commitment to excellence.

In 1990, Barbara and I were planning our inaugural “A Culinary Evening with the California Winemasters” charity wine auction benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. On a lark, I called Michael inviting him to act as our honorary chairman. He graciously agreed and also volunteered to serve as our auctioneer. Michael held this role in 1990 and 1992 with Tim assuming the post in 1991 and 1993. More than anyone else, we have them to thank for the success our event has achieved over the past 27 years with more than $29 million raised in net proceeds.

In 2000, my co-author, Virginia Morris, and I were releasing our “Guide to Choosing, Serving and Enjoying Wine.” Michael was kind enough to write the forward to our book as its message was in perfect harmony with his family’s vision of making wine a natural part of the everyday meal.

Some years later. I brought a treasured magnum of 1969 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Unfiltered (later renamed Reserve) to Southern California to share with my close friend, Marty Petersil, a wine merchant and co-chairman of our Winemasters event. This was my last dinner with Marty before he passed away, and I will always remember the twinkle in his eye as we savored the wine. I still have the empty bottle in my cellar.

The Mondavi legacy is one of family, friends, commitment, loyalty and quality accented by Robert’s personality. Many wine-loving fans around the globe have countless Mondavi stories and memories they relish. Perhaps Judd Wallenbrock who cut his marketing teeth at Mondavi and named his own family of small wineries The Good Life Wine Collective summed it up best:

“Without Mr. Mondavi, the California wine industry simply would not be a glimmer of what it is today. He always said ‘Wine is part of the good life, and everyone should have access to the good life.’ I chose our company’s name in honor of my many years with the Robert Mondavi Winery and in homage to the man himself.”


Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.
He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio’s What’s Cookin’ and What’s Cookin’ on Wine programs.

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