Robert Mondavi, Wine Trailblazer, Dies at 94 Robert Mondavi, the man who put California wines along side the European greats, has died at the age of 94. Mondavi bought his first winery in 1966, and championed the use of cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks, and French oak barrels.
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Robert Mondavi, Wine Trailblazer, Dies at 94

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Robert Mondavi, Wine Trailblazer, Dies at 94

Robert Mondavi, Wine Trailblazer, Dies at 94

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

A pioneer of California wines, Robert Mondavi, has died. He was 94 years old. Mondavi passed away today at his home in the Napa Valley where he made his fortune and did so much to elevate California in the world of wine. Mondavi started his own winery back in 1966.

Joining us now is Julia Flynn Siler, author of "The House of Mondavi" and contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal.

Welcome, Ms. Siler.

Ms. JULIA FLYNN SILER (Author, "The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty"): Thank you, Noah. I'm glad to be here.

ADAMS: Take us back a little bit. We've got Robert Mondavi with Italian heritage and a Stanford business degree. How does he get started and make a success in California wines?

Ms. SILER: Well, beginning in the 1930's as he was just leaving Stanford University, his father said to him, let's buy a derelict winery in the Napa Valley. And Robert worked extremely hard and he worked tirelessly, in fact, to kind of convince the world that America could produce wines. That we're just as good as those from the great chateaus of France. He went to Europe. He brought back new wine-making techniques. He participated in a wine tasting craze that caught in the '60s. And he preached the gospel that drinking wine was part of a civilized life. And by doing that, he helped turn a country that had preferred Coca-Cola and cocktails in the 1950s into a nation of wine drinkers by the '70s and '80s and '90s.

ADAMS: And he's making pretty good wine, I guess.

Ms. SILER: Very good wine.

ADAMS: There was a very famous feud between Robert Mondavi and his brother. Tell us a bit about that.

Ms. SILER: Yes. In the fall of 1965 in California Central Valley, there was a family gathering. And Robert and his younger brother, Peter, got into a fistfight. And ironically, it was a fistfight that was touched off by the purchase of (unintelligible). And when their mother saw that her younger son, whose still nicknamed babe, had mark on his throat, the two brothers, by one account, were rolling around the dust throttling each other. She banished Robert from the family winery. And he went about five miles down the road in the Napa Valley to start his own winery. That got the nickname Robert Mondavi University because it became a training ground for so many great American winemakers.

ADAMS: And did the family business stay together? That's a hard the thing to do?

Ms. SILER: Well, no. Robert Mondavi was a very charismatic man, a visionary. But he also was a complex character and he ended up suing his family when they - he felt that they were taking advantage of him concerning his stake in the original family winery. He ended up in a lengthy years-long lawsuit with his younger brother, Peter, and his mother and his sisters, and he ultimately won his case. But in a very great emotional cause. The family was estranged for many, many years.

And his winery did go public in 1993. But sadly, in a kind of repetition of that pattern, Robert and his own sons couldn't get along. And so, there was a board coup, which resulted in a forced sale of the company for more than a billion dollars in 2004. It was a very sad ending, and he didn't want to sell his winery.

ADAMS: And the wine in the end, did it, stay at a high quality?

Ms. SILER: Well, there were quality problems, which I think that the new owners, Constellation, are addressing.

ADAMS: Julia Flynn Siler, author of "The House of Mondavi," thank you for talking with us.

Ms. SILER: Thank you.

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