Let It Pour

Let It Pour: Rebuilding the Mondavi empire

CorrespondentJuly 2, 2014 

NIMOCKS,AMBER.NE.051206.PLM

PAUL MAGANN

  • Sip tip

    Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Riesling is my go-to wine when I’m unsure of a dinner host’s tastes. It’s so palatable that I’ve never found a white wine lover who didn’t take to it. Their 2012 Horse Heaven Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc is similarly crowd-pleasing, so I’m thinking I’ll switch partners for the summer and make this my seasonal go-to.

    It’s 95 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 5 percent Semillon, but don’t dive in trying to touch rock bottom. If what you love about Sauvignon Blanc is slate and steel, stick with South Africa and New Zealand. This one, from the hills next to Washington’s Columbia River, is softer and sweeter than that but offers a snappy, crisp finish with flowers and a hint of citrus on the front. Basically, it’s light and not too complicated, just like a summer fling should be.

I figured a scion of the legendary Mondavi wine family would demand a suite at the Umstead when staying in the Triangle. It turns out the Hampton Inn on Glenwood South was just fine for Dina Mondavi.

Granted, it’s a spiffy new Hampton Inn, but its reasonable rates and tidy lobby fail to conjure the images of the sun-dappled Napa Valley good life that her grandfather, Robert Mondavi, cultivated. Mondavi came to North Carolina to work, not play, though. She greeted me with a warm smile, a collection of bottles opened and ready to taste on a table by the window. Her schedule was tight.

The Mondavi family, like many others in America these days, is rebuilding.

A decade has passed since the Mondavis had to sell the family wine empire, and with it the Robert Mondavi labels and the landmark Napa Valley winery, to behemoth beverage corporation Constellation brands. Since then, Dina, her parents Michael and Isabel and her brother Rob have been the force behind the Michael Mondavi Family Estate and Folio Fine Wines. While it’s a startup, it started up with plenty of funding and a nice lead on the marketing front.

Dina Mondavi is in charge of stretching that lead. She came to the Triangle and Charlotte earlier this month to get some exposure for the labels her family makes now – Isabel Mondavi, Emblem, ‘M’ by Michael Mondavi and, new this year, Animo. The goal with these is not to re-create the massive popularity of a Woodbridge but to craft small-lot wines with recognizable character.

She says the new start has been good for the family. “It’s more fun for us now.”

Her father Michael, who worked as a winemaker early in his career at Robert Mondavi, loved being in the cellar. But as the business grew, he wound up spending most of his time in an office dealing with accounting and compliance issues.

“Before the sale his eyes were gray. Now they are bright blue,” Mondavi said.

Being family-owned means not having to answer to shareholders, which provides a measure of independence. “It gave us a chance to be small again,” Mondavi said.

Dina Mondavi studied art, art history and Italian literature at Santa Clara University and worked for a while at the de Young and Legion of Honor museums in San Francisco.

“I wanted to become an artist but the beautiful ideas in my head wouldn’t come out on paper or in sculpture,” she said.

Aspects of her current role allow her to flex her artistic muscles, like helping design the bottle labels. But she says one of her favorite parts of her job is cleaning the crush tubs. She also likes selling wine, especially when it means introducing drinkers to new tastes.

“I think the most exciting thing is to hear is ‘You really changed my mind on rosés,’ she said.

The Isabel Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon rosé was my favorite of the wines we tasted. It’s full-bodied with a hint of residual sugar and a smooth-as-glass finish. Its dark, beautiful blush prompted Mondavi to label it Deep Rosé, because she wanted consumers to know that, yes, it’s meant to be that color.

Rob Mondavi makes the wines that bear his mother’s name to suit his mother’s tastes. Dina says their mother doesn’t go to the winery to participate in the blending sessions, but it’s easy for Rob to tell if his creations hit the mark.

“We bring them home for family dinner,” Mondavi says. “If the glass goes down, then he did a good job.”

She says her father likes to drink the rosé over ice while he’s in his garden. Dina Mondavi has a more unorthodox suggestion. “I really want to put it in a blender and make a slushy,” she said.

Maybe that wouldn’t jibe with her grandfather’s idea of the good life, but a rosé slushy sounds like gracious living to me.

Amber Nimocks is the editor of N.C. Lawyers Weekly. In her spare time, she drinks wine, most often in downtown Raleigh where she lives.

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