For Michael Mondavi, wine practically runs through his veins. The third-generation winemaker grew up in the vineyards of his family-run winery in St. Helena in Napa Valley. “From the time that I was about five years old the cellar master was my babysitter,” he jokes. “The tanks, the barrels, the equipment; they were my jungle gym.”
Growing up next to the vineyard was more than just fun, it was an educational experience as well, even if he didn’t realize it at the time. Every time he would stroll the vineyards with his uncle or grandfather he would learn something new; he could prune a grape by the time he was eight years old.
With an upbringing like this, it may seem as though Mondavi was destined to enter the family business, but his parents always encouraged him to explore other interests. He toyed with the idea of studying architecture and entering the Air Force, but ultimately decided the wine business was for him.
“My mother kept saying ‘Find a career you enjoy; don’t come into the wine business unless it’s something you really want,’”
“My mother kept saying ‘Find a career you enjoy; don’t come into the wine business unless it’s something you really want,’” he says, which made him realize he wanted to be in the business after all.
Mondavi’s “official” work in the winery began when he was a freshman in high school. “I was a summer employee in the vineyard, I was paid 60 cents an hour, that’s a penny a minute!” he says. He worked in the vineyard helping with weed removal and suckering the grapevines. “It was a very unskilled job, but it was exciting to me because it was a new experience.” The following year he was able to work in the maintenance shop, and when he was 18 he was finally able to work in the wine cellar itself.
There’s no doubt that his background has heavily influenced him as a winemaker. In 1966, he and his father Robert co-founded Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, where he stayed on in various capacities through 2004.
The lessons learned were invaluable, but the biggest takeaway of all he credits to his grandmother.
“She said: ‘Michael, make wine that tastes good.’ I said what do you mean? And she said, “Oh it’s very simple, when you serve one of your wines to family and friends with a meal, if they drink a second or third or fourth glass, that tastes good. But if they only take one, you go back to work.’ It’s probably the best single piece of advice I got from anyone about the wine business.”
This simple and straightforward approach to winemaking translates well to the Michael Mondavi Family Estate, which was founded in 1999 along with his wife, Isabel. They purchased the Animo vineyard in Atlas Peak and produce a range of wines including Isabel Mondavi wines, Emblem wines, Animo wines, and M by Michael Mondavi. The vineyard is farmed using sustainable practices and is a “Napa Green Certified Winery,”a value that is important to Mondavi and his family.
“Our grandfather had taught us to respect the soil and that the soil should be in healthier condition for your children than you receive it from your parents,” he says. With that thought in mind, Mondavi began learning about and implementing sustainable farming practices. “We have to be a good steward of the land. If we do that, we’ll get better quality fruit for making better quality wine and we’ll be doing the right thing and leave the soil healthier for our children and the future.”
While moving away from chemical farming was challenging at first, winemaking has come a long way. And as technology continues to improve efficiency, the wines will improve as well. The tech already exists to monitor the irrigation system in the vineyards and turn it on and off from an iPhone anywhere in the world. There are also prototypes being developed for microvalves that would evaluate the state of each grapevine. Instead of watering an entire parcel, a drone would be able to take an infrared photo of the vine and communicate with the computer about its state. Then, an individual drip emitter could turn on for the vine if it needs it. Ultimately, this would save tons of water, time, and improve the quality of the grapes produced.
Some of these developments may be a few years out, but they’re improvements Mondavi is excited about. Until then, Mondavi can be found doing what he does best: producing excellent wines.
“We make people happy. People use wine for celebration, to toast to good health at a party or to simply help food taste better.” And that is the reason Mondavi is so passionate about what he does.
Photo by Galdones
Spend an intimate weekend with Michael and Isabel Mondavi November 2-4, 2018 at L’Auberge de Sedona, A Destination Hotel. The Winemaker’s Epicurean Experience includes a meet and greet with the Mondavis, a four-course prix fixe menu with Mondavi Family Estate wine pairings at Cress on Oak Creek Canyon and a Creekside Winemaker Brunch. To explore packages and make your reservation, click here.