White Hats of Winedom
INTRODUCTORY NOTE: As I update this article in March
of 1999, there's been some concern in the press over layoffs at the Robert Mondavi winery.
Folks are anxious that Mondavi not abandon its traditional pursuit of excellence in the
interest of boosting its stock-price. There's also some question whether management is
biting off more than it can chew in its foreign ventures.
All this throws some cold water on the enthusiastic article
below. But I see no reason to panic. Yet.
Center: Dyson Demara, Mondavi Trade
Relations. To the left and right, fellow intrepid wine bozos Jim Daugherty and Stuart
(February 23, 1998) Count on Gallo to do whats good for Gallo -- but count on
Mondavi to do whats good for wine. Its not a new observation, but my visit to
the Oakville winery last week left me feeling that its still as true as ever.
Consider our host at Mondavi. Dyson DeMaras title is
"Trade Relations and Education," but hes no garden-variety flack. A former
grower, he speaks with both learning and passion about viticulture. He was frank about
Napa Valleys problems and full of news about whats being done to address them.
He mentioned, of course, that "no one spends more on R&D than Mondavi," but
hey, isnt that right?
Dyson showed us print-outs from Mondavis site-mapping
project, which uses Landsat data from NASA. Bordeaux growers had more than 500 years to
figure out what should grow where. The object here is to compress the learning curve into
We looked at a map where much of Napa Valley was color-coded
according to vigor. For example, a gravelly bench land might be "low vigor"...a
valley floor site with rich soil might be "high vigor"...and theres also a
Why bother? Well, for one thing, it helps you figure out
They learned this the hard way at Opus, he said. This is a
fairly high vigor site, planted closely, as in Bordeaux. In 1992, they green-harvested
here to get yields down to 2-3 tons per acre. But the resulting wine was more vegetal than
before. Raising the yields on this particular site actually gave better results.
Dispute this if you like, but the 92 Opus is indeed
somewhat herbal, and its hardly self-serving for someone at Mondavi to admit this.
The 94 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, he told us,
came from sites with varying yields -- as high as 10 per acre and as low as 2. Again, you
can argue the theory, but, as we found later on, its hard to argue with the results.
Mondavi has been mapping phylloxera spread for the past 12
years. And heres a sobering fact -- 39% of the AXR stock in Napa Valley is still in
Lots has been printed about all the new plantings happening
everywhere, but many growers simply cant afford to do it. This says to me that more
vineyards will be changing hands in the years to come, and the big, well-heeled firms are
the obvious beneficiaries.
What about Pierces Disease? How big is the problem? Very
big, said Dyson. So far, no one has a solution, but theyre beginning to understand
the enemy a little better.
One theory is that the insect which spreads Pierces --
the blue-green sharpshooter -- tends to favor vines that are being "pushed." So
for this reason alone, big yields on young vines are not a good idea.
Close-planted sites like those at Opus also seem to be more
vulnerable, simply because its that much easier for the disease to spread.
Theyre encouraging growers to rid sites of succulent,
non-indigenous plants that tend to attract the pest. And theres research going on as
to the best ways to "insulate" vineyards from the creek-beds where the
sharpshooters like to live.
After an hour or so of geek-talk we tasted some wines -- all
nice, with a couple of absolute stunners.
Leading the pack was ***MONDAVI TO-KALON I BLOCK 1995 FUME BLANC RESERVE.
Made with grapes from gnarly old, head-pruned vines. Yields were 1-1.5 tons per acre.
Sniffing it makes you feel like youre walking through an orange grove at
blossom-time. Gooseberry, melon, muscat-type orange flavors. Pungeunt acidity and not much
oak apparent except for some spice on the aftertaste. This wine has incredible fragrance,
bite, fruit, everything you could want. Best-tasting American Sauvignon Blanc Ive
ever sipped. Maybe the best anywhere.
**MONDAVI 1994 CHARDONNAY RESERVE is a very different kind of wine --
a lipsmacking powermonger of a Chard. Very intense upfront fruit with a lingering coffee
and creme-brulee aftertaste. Lacks the finesse of the 95 but makes up for it in pure
Then Dyson poured some stuff from a bag-covered bottle. It was deep ruby with a fairly
complex nose and marvelous, rich strawberry-tinged fruit. After a while, some game and
beet flavors emerged. Pinot Noir for sure, but from where? We were pretty sure it was from
nearby and argued over whether it might be 94 or 95, Napa or Carneros. Turned out to
be *ATA RANGI 1995 MARTINBOROUGH PINOT NOIR -- from New Zealand! Imported
by Epic wines. First Pinot from down under that Id buy more of. Really good stuff!
The *MONDAVI 1989 RESERVE PINOT NOIR was excellent too. A 9-year-old
Pinot that has mellowed very well. Has the velvet of an older Burg with some tea notes on
the finish. Wouldnt hold it any longer, but its a fine performance from this
*LA FAMIGLIA 1995 CALIFORNIA BARBERA looks to be a bargain.
Tooth-staining, with pomegranite-tinged flavors, made from Kunde fruit.
The red of the afternoon was, unsurprisingly, ***MONDAVI 1994 CABERNET
SAUVIGNON RESERVE. Just about black, deliciously viscous, with lots of cassis and
perfume on the palate, shaded with classic Napa olive. Initially the aromas werent
much, but finally my glass bloomed with violets. Textbook Mondavi Cab. Score one more for
the good guys.
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