A century or so ago, Robert Mondavi's parents were part of a wave of Italian immigrants who settled on the Iron Range. Thankfully for him, and for wine lovers, they didn't stay.
Mondavi, who died Friday at age 94, was born in Virginia, Minn., and revisited the state frequently. His winery was a huge success, but more than that, Robert Gerald Mondavi was a visionary and tireless ambassador for American wine. I asked several Minnesotans to share their thoughts on this iconic figure.
Jack Farrell, president of local retailer Haskell's: "His father [Cesare] was a miner in Virginia, and he went out to California to buy grapes to send back here. He did that for a couple of years, and he finally told his wife, 'It's really nice out here, we're moving.'
"I used to run into him in the early '70s in France. He would tell me, 'Someday, young man, California wines will be the greatest wines in the world.' About 10 years later, I was staying in his guesthouse, and he brought out this wine, and I said, 'You finally have done it. This wine is as good as anything in the world.'
"He was a nice, nice man. And he had a vision. His mission statement was that wine had been a great part of the cultural ascent of man, and it should be that way with California wines."
Lynn Johnson, chairman of the board of local wine distributor Johnson Bros.: "Even though Bob was an internationally acclaimed winemaker and a legend in the wine industry, he never forgot his Minnesota roots and was the personification of 'Minnesota Nice.' He was a true gentleman.
"Bob asked if I would do him a favor and distribute his brands back in the 1960s. To be honest, there wasn't exactly a huge demand in Minnesota for high-end California wines. But Bob was a hard guy to say no to and joked that we'd at least get a few orders from his relatives in Virginia. I agreed to carry his wines, and the rest is history."
Cindy Pawlcyn, Golden Valley native and chef/owner of three Napa restaurants: "He would come in about once a week, and whenever somebody would order a Mondavi wine, he would pay for it. We'd bring them the bill, and they'd say 'What about the wine?' and we'd say 'Oh, Bob Mondavi is over there, and he paid for it. And they'd just flip out."
Paul Daggett, longtime local wine teacher and sales rep: "It was Robert Mondavi who made the California wine boom of the 1970s possible. His fierce devotion to excellence, and to experimentation, was both liberating and a challenge to the entire generation. "
Duane Hoff, longtime Best Buy executive and owner of the Fantesca winery in Napa: "We were at a 2002 auction, and a friend introduced us. Bob was in this Spanish poncho regalia. He was the ultimate marketer; he was going to be noticed. He leaned in for a kiss on the cheek from [Duane's wife] Susie, then stepped back, winked and leaned in again with the other cheek. He was the pinnacle of charm, absolutely won people over easily."
Bill Belkin, manager of the Byerly's/Lunds wine portfolio: "In the summer of 2003, my brother and I took our mother to Napa. The first night, at Bistro Don Giovanni, we looked up to see Robert Mondavi, his wife, their son Tim and his son being seated two tables away. We, of course, were agog and a bit star-struck. My mom and brother wanted badly to approach them with the Minnesota-connection thing, but I lobbied against it. I figured he gets accosted everywhere he goes. So we just stared and enjoyed the star sighting.
"Then just one month ago, I am at Bistro Don Giovanni again, regaling everyone with the story about the sighting five years earlier. We are seated at the same table next to the fireplace, and yes, here come the Mondavis again! Again we are all tempted to pay some tribute to this great pioneer in the business we all love. I asked the server how best to do this, given his frail health.
"Two minutes later I feel a hand on my shoulder, and it's Tim Mondavi. The waiter had filled him in, and he came over to say hello and thanks to all of us for supporting his dad and family. We raised a glass to his father, and when I told him we had seen him five years earlier, he smiled and said his dad would really have enjoyed meeting my mom and brother."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643