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.