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Escape Artists

A global discourse about great finds close to home and adventures far afield

In the steps of an American vintner



About 100 years ago an Italian immigrant to the Iron Range was elected President of the Società Mutuo Soccorso Roma, loosely translated as the Mutual Aid Society of Rome. Boasting the largest membership in Minnesota of any such organization at the time, this Italian-American group would help shape the future of American viticulture by selecting one of their fellow citizens to represent them as a grape buyer in California. The man’s name? Cesare Mondavi, best known today as the father of Robert Mondavi, who went on from humble roots in Virginia, Minnesota to make American vinous history.

In 1906, Cesare Mondavi sailed to Ellis Island on his way to Minnesota’s Iron Range, where he joined his brother and others from his hometown in becoming a miner. After two years of saving money, he briefly returned to Italy to marry and once again make the ocean voyage, this time with his wife Rosa, before putting down roots in Virginia, Minnesota. When his brother was killed working in the mines Cesare apparently decided it was an occupation not worth the risk as he left to open a grocery store in Virginia. (According to an ad in the 1919 Virginia Daily Enterprise, it was located on 2nd Avenue North, between where two furniture stores are now.)

An enterprising businessman, he opened a saloon where his fellow countrymen could drink familiar wines. He allowed them to keep their wooden wine casks in the basement and served them their drinks at dinner. It makes sense that fellow townsfolk would have selected him to travel to Lodi, California, where he discovered a climate similar to his hometown in Italy, much more conducive to grape growing than the harsh climate of northern Minnesota.

Mondavi was responsible for ensuring the trainloads of grapes would get back to the Iron Range so his fellow immigrants could produce their yearly wine. At the same time, he was starting a family, which included the oldest son Robert, born in Virginia in 1913. He moved his family west in the 1920’s, where Rosa reportedly spent the train trip crocheting while her sons played in the aisles.

Robert Mondavi helped put American wines on the international map and is still widely viewed as a visionary who helped show that California could produce these alcoholic beverages on par with anything in Europe. Although standard practice now at the approximately 8,000 wineries in the United States, the Mondavi family was one of the first to open a visitor’s center and let people sample wine on the grounds. 


On a trip to the Bay Area to visit my cousin, I asked him to accompany me on a side trip to Napa to see the fruits of this native son’s handiwork firsthand. We leave the city as the landscape turns into majestic rolling hills that look like velvet green carpets. Driving along Highway 29, we pass the famous sign greeting us: “Welcome to this world famous wine growing region Napa Valley…and the wine is bottled poetry…” We pass the Napa Valley Wine Train and wander through Yountville past the area’s most famous restaurant, The French Laundry. (Uber is ubiquitous here and we did see a police cruiser on the side of the highway when we left in the evening.)


The Robert Mondavi Winery is right off the highway and as we pass by the curved cream brick signs that welcome us I notice a California license plate reading “SKIVINO.” As you would expect, vines surround the parking lot, with Cabernet Sauvignon to my right and Sauvignon Blanc to my left. I hear running water from the fountain in the middle of the plaza as I approach the visitor’s center. There is a person on a bench reading a Lonely Planet guide titled “Ouest Americain” (French for “The American West”). The winery buildings are an example of Spanish mission style architecture, and the interiors feel classic yet contemporary, like an art gallery mixed with a winery.

I pass under the ancient weathervane atop the main cream brick building covered in ivy and am greeted by a large outdoor green space where people sit leisurely about, enjoying the mild California weather. I decide on a glass of 2013 Stags Leap District Sauvignon Blanc, which promises “fragrant aromas of lemon verbena, fresh thyme and wild sage mingling with white flower and stone fruit.” Greenery of all sizes surrounds me, from short vines to tall pines. As we leave and pass a sign reading “grape delivery only,” I wonder if this is how Cesare Mondavi felt visiting this enchanting land more than a century ago from a small mining town in Northeastern Minnesota.  

Casa Loma: Finding Edwardian England in Toronto

If Casa Loma, the Edwardian castle perched above the modern city of Toronto, had been built in United States, no one would have batted an eye. At five acres, it wouldn’t compete with the American odes to excess built by the Hearsts and the Vanderbilts. But for reserved Canadians who distrust grandiosity, there lies a fairy tale chateau near the corner of Davenport and Spadina that is sometimes referred to as “Pellatt’s Folly.”

Think Thomas Edison – Ontario businessman Henry Pellatt was a visionary that saw potential in transitioning the sometimes dangerous gas lighting lining the city’s streets into more stable, brighter electrical lighting. After also using his acumen to build a fortune in the railroad and mining industries, he was knighted in 1905 and commissioned Canadian architect E.J. Lennox to build Casa Loma (Spanish for “The House on the Hill”). When it opened in 1914, it was the largest private residence in Canada.

It took me two subway transfers and a jaunt up 110 stairs to reach the Gothic Revival castle and begin my self guided tour. The 20 meter high Great Hall greeted me with colorful flags representing Ontario and the United Kingdom hanging from the ceiling and dark walnut paneling lining the walls. It reminded me of a scene out of “Downton Abbey” – Casa Loma is often described as Edwardian, which refers to the short reign of King Edward VII at the turn of the 20th century that is sometimes looked back upon as a simpler era before the horrors of World War I.

In addition to the grandeur of this 98-room estate, it also has its share of servant staircases, secret passageways and the oldest wine cellar in Toronto. On the garden terrace, you can get a perfect view of the CN Tower rising above downtown. Up on the third floor, you can learn about Canadian military history as Sir Henry Pellatt was once Commanding Officer of a militia regiment called The Queen’s Own Rifles.

Casa Loma has been the setting for many movies including “Chicago” and “Cocktail” and on the lower level you can view film clips showcasing the building. (When I was there, it was showing the scene in “Cocktail” where Tom Cruise’s character goes to meet the wealthy father of the woman he got pregnant – makes me want to go back and watch the movie again.)

So why is it called “Pellatt’s Folly”? Some thought the castle was garish and the architectural elements such as the towers and crenellations led to “delusions of grandeur.” It may also survive because World War I and the faltering post-war Canadian economy hit Pellatt’s fortune hard, necessitating the sale of Casa Loma less than ten years after moving in.

Sadly, most of the furniture is not original as a lot of it was sold to pay off the family’s debts but the rooms have been restored to what they would have looked like – one guest bedroom is decorated in the Chinoiserie style of 17th century Europe and is adorned with a Chinese screen featuring soapstone carvings of flowers and trees and a mother of pearl peacock.

As with many historic landmarks, it was once faced with demolition and sat vacant during the Depression. The city of Toronto took ownership in 1933 and considered many uses for the building, including as a permanent residence for the Dionne quintuplets. The Kiwanis of West Toronto stepped in and ran it as a tourist attraction for 75 years. Today, approximately 350,000 visitors each year stop at the house and gardens once referred to as “a mixture of 17th century Scottish baronial and 20th Century Fox.”