Robert Mondavi: Vintner whose innovations in the vineyard and the cellar transformed the California wine industry

Nothing about Robert Mondavi was small except his physical stature. As one of the driving forces of the 20th-century California wine industry, he was a towering figure with an influence that extended well beyond the United States.

A burning ambition to excel, combined with relentless determination and a nose for business, inspired him to success by embracing risk and innovation in the vineyards, in the cellar and in his business practices. Mondavi was a producer of both top-quality wines and reliable everyday wines and became, in later life, an evangelist for the civilising influence of wine in a society riven by fear of alcohol. In tribute to this colossus of wine, the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, said, "It is hard to imagine anyone having more of a lasting impact on California's £20bn-a-year wine industry than Robert Mondavi."

From his boyhood, when he would find his water flavoured with it, wine was an integral part of Robert Mondavi's life. His parents Cesare and Rosa Mondavi were Italian sharecroppers from Sassoferrato in the Marche who emigrated to Hibbing, Minnesota in 1908. As Prohibition kicked in, in 1923 the family decamped from Minnesota to Lodi in California to buy grapes for the massed ranks of Italian home winemakers of the Midwest and East Coast.

Throughout "the hated Volstead Act", which lasted until 1933, the young Robert helped his father make wine at home in the basement. Nourishing an ambition to join the wine business once Prohibition ended, he studied business and chemistry, and after graduating from Stanford University aged 23, Mondavi started work at Sunnyhill, subsequently renamed Sunny St Helena Winery. "I was fortunate to find a job I loved," he claimed, "and if you find a job you love, you'll never have to work a day in your life." It was an ironic statement from a relentless workaholic.

With the acquisition of Charles Krug in 1943, one of Napa Valley's foremost wineries of the 19th century, the Mondavi family signalled a move from bulk production of dessert wines in the warm San Joaquin Valley to drier table wines in the relatively cool Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi was responsible for management and PR, his brother Peter for the winemaking side. In 1940, he met the legendary French-trained Russian winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard, André Tchelistcheff, who, with a number of other producers, was to set up the Napa Valley Technical Group later that decade. The group's common objective was the improvement of wine quality by cutting down on yields, harvesting at the right time and improved management of the fermentation and ageing of wines. One of the Mondavi brothers' innovations was the use of stainless steel coils in wooden fermenters to achieve greater freshness and fruitiness in white wines, a practice that was to become widespread.

From the early 1950s, wine consumption grew rapidly thanks in part to the popularity of a new "sweeter style of dry wine", made specifically to suit what Mondavi called "the palate of the masses" for wines with a touch of residual sugar. At the same time, the threat of growing imports from overseas led Mondavi to suggest an association of quality producers that in turn led to the formation of the Premium Wine Producers of California in 1955. It was a seminal trip to the vineyards of Europe in 1962 that opened Mondavi's eyes to the limitations of the California wine industry of the day, and to its potential. Spurred on by ambition, he could at last start to dream of what could be: the production of complex and subtle wines in California to rival those of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Among the lessons learnt, he realised the importance of the role of oak barrels in fermentation and maturation and immediately started to import oak on his return to the United States.

After many divisive clashes with his brother Peter, Mondavi split from Charles Krug. He bought vineyards, then established the striking California mission-style Robert Mondavi Winery at Oakville in 1966, the first to be built since Louis Martini's in 1934. This marked the beginning of a new era of growth and frenetic promotion, with 69 new wineries built in Napa County between 1966 and 1979.

Convinced that cold fermentation in stainless steel would give white wines "the necessary spark and vitality", Mondavi became the first to use stainless steel, temperature-controlled tanks for fermentation in Napa Valley, developed varietal wines based on European premium grape varieties, pioneered "Fumé Blanc", an oak-aged sauvignon, in 1968, and, thanks to the use of ageing in new French oak barrels, launched the first Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon in 1971.

After running out of money, Mondavi found a partner in the Seattle brewers Rainier, enabling him to buy the historic 500-acre To-Kalon vineyard planted by Hamilton W. Crabb in the 1870s. In 1978, Mondavi bought Rainier out after receiving the spoils of victory from his long drawn-out legal battle with his brother Peter. The period of the mid-1960s to the 1970s had been one in which Mondavi's creative energies inspired a new generation of Napa winemakers of whom the writer Roy Brady wrote in 1975: "Great wine is not an accident of climate and geography. It is a creative act of men. California's greatest asset is a set of winemakers who want to make the finest wine in the world."

Drawing on the inspiration of great industry figures such as Tchelistcheff, Louis M. Martini Snr, and Maynard Amerine and Harold Olmo, professors of oenology at the University of California, Davis, Mondavi's can-do mentality and a willingness to share his vision inspired in others the confidence to realise that they too could produce wines with their own style, quality and character. He eventually expanded the vineyard holding to around 1,600 acres (650 hectares) in Napa and Carneros and in 1979 purchased a co-operative in Lodi, the Woodbridge Winery, for the production of so-called "fighting" varietal wines.

Michael, Tim and Marcia, Mondavi's children, joined him in the business in the 1970s, a turbulent emotional period for Mondavi, who divorced his devoted first wife, Marge and in 1980 married an employee, Margrit Biever. Margrit was to help him with the expansion of wine tours, tastings, seminars, chefs' programmes and, later, in his devotion to philanthropy and the arts.

Determined to prove that California wine at its best had nothing to fear from Bordeaux, Mondavi set up an audacious joint venture in 1979 with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Mouton Rothschild. Rothschild had pulled strings to get Mouton Rothschild elevated to First Growth status in 1973, the only person ever to achieve a change to the seemingly immutable Bordeaux classification of 1855. Together, they assumed they could create California's first First Growth. The first name Rothschild came up with, Gemini, was rejected on the grounds that it was the name of the largest gay newspaper in San Francisco. Opus One was chosen instead for the grandiose winery which ended up costing $29m to build.

It achieved Mondavi's objective of raising the profile of Mondavi in particular and California wine in general, but while Opus One today commands the high prices of a classified Bordeaux château, it has arguably been superseded in the California "first growth" stakes by smaller volume boutique wines such as Harlan, Grace, Bryant Family and Screaming Eagle.

In face of the neo-prohibitionist threat which saw a sharp downturn in wine consumption in the 1980s, Mondavi developed his "Mission Program" in 1986, becoming tub thumper-in-chief for the defence of drinking wine as part of a civilised way of life. "If wine were a prescription we would prescribe two glasses with each meal because: it enhances food, it reduces stress, it encourages friendship and it kindles romance. In moderation, it helps digestion, it protects the heart, it promotes good health and it improves our disposition. However, if abused, it is unsafe, potentially dangerous and decidedly uncivilised." He was convinced that the wine industry needed to raise public awareness about the responsible use of wine as a mealtime drink of moderation but left the California Wine Institute in 1992 because he didn't feel the institute had done enough to defend wine from the new puritans.

In his eighties, Mondavi continued to create further joint ventures. He became friends and partners in a joint venture, Luce, with the Frescobaldi family in 1995, and latterly Ornellaia, in Seña in Chile with Eduardo Chadwick in 1996, in Vichon in the Languedoc, and Byron in Santa Maria Valley. Continuing expansion led Mondavi to float on the Nasdaq exchange in 1993, a move that initially backfired when the shares halved in value, but eventually enabled him to transfer the running of the company to his two sons.

In an echo of the feud with his brother Peter, family squabbles led to the demise of the family business and the sale of the winery to the global wine conglomerate Constellation in 2004. It was a huge disappointment for the intense family man, yet he remained immensely proud that he had been able not only to provide for his family but to realise his dream of elevating fine California wines to the world stage.

Anthony Rose

Robert Gerald Mondavi, winemaker: born Virginia, Minnesota 18 June 1913; founder, Robert Mondavi Winery 1966; married 1937 Marjorie Declusin (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1980 Margrit Biever; died Yountville, California 16 May 2008.

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