A Brief History of California Wine – Tasting With Michael Mondavi


Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon 1959- at 59 years, magnificent!Photo ©Tom Hyland

On a recent trip to Napa Valley, a colleague in the industry asked me if I would like to meet Michael Mondavi and taste through a number of wines with him. Mondavi is one of the sons of Robert Mondavi, the legendary producer who was instrumental in promoting Napa’s wines to the world throughout his illustrious career (Robert Mondavi passed away in 2008 at the age of 94; his visionary work will be an inspiration to California winemakers for many years to come.)

Michael worked for his father for many years, and today is head of an wine import company named Folio Wine Partners, situated in the town of Napa. The younger Mondavi also has his own line of wines known as Michael Mondavi Family Estate that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

I did taste these wines, which I will comment on in a future post, but the true highlight of my time with Mondavi was the chance to experience the history of California wine from the late 1950s until now, with a tasting of more than a dozen wines in his personal cellar. Having traveled to Napa Valley more than 30 times in my wine career, beginning in the 1980s, I couldn’t pass up this remarkable experience.

As we selected wines to taste that day, Michael told me that I could choose whatever I wanted, as long as there were two bottles left in stock. That meant I had a wide range of wines to choose from, as he had deep selections of many wines, not only from his father’s winery, but other highly regarded Napa Valley producers as well as a few from other regions in California.

Michael shared several entertaining stories about the years when he got his start in the wine business. My favorite was about the times back in 1966 and 1967, just after the Robert Mondavi Winery opened, and he would drive very slowly to the winery, so no one behind him could pass him. As he approached the driveway to the winery, he would put his turn signal on and hope that a few cars following him would also turn in, and taste a few wines. That’s what is was all about for Mondavi – and other producers – back in the late 1960s, as everything was new and business was earned one customer at a time. Quite a change from today’s digital and internet-fused society!

Below are notes on a few standouts from the wines I tasted in Mondavi’s cellar. There were only a few wines that had seen their better days, as most were in excellent condition, and still had enough fruit to enjoy for at least another 5-7 years. Those growers and winemakers back in the mid-1960s and the 1970s really knew what they were doing!

Mayacamas Napa Valley Chardonnay 1971Photo ©Tom Hyland

Mayacamas Chardonnay 1971 (Napa Valley) – Mayacamas has always been renowned for their long-aging Cabernet Sauvignons from their estate vineyards in the Mayacamas Mountains, but true devotees of this producer also know about their beautifully structured Chardonnays. This 1971 had the amber color you would expect from a 47 year-old Chardonnay, but on the palate, this is a wine with beautiful fruit expression of apricot, butterscotch, pear and a hint of caramel corn. Quite rich, this is ripe and lush and while at peak, and should hold well for another 5-7 years, or perhaps longer. I mentioned to Michael Mondavi that this wine would be heavenly paired with trout almondine with a brown butter sauce (just thinking about this makes my heart skip a beat); Michael smiled and nodded his head in agreement.

Robert Mondavi Johannisberg Riesling 1972 (Napa Valley) – You don’t see much Riesling being grown in Napa these days, as the land is too valuable, meaning Cabernet Sauvignon is the chosen variety. But 40-plus years ago, producers experimented with any number of grape types. This 1972 Riesling still shows delicate apricot and peach fruit, has a light sweetness, good acidity and beautiful harmony. Quite a wine! This is also at peak, but should be fine for another 2-3 years.

Michael MondaviPhoto ©Tom Hyland

Stony Hill Gewurztraminer 1978 (Napa Valley) – Ah, the famed Stony Hill, one of Napa’s most celebrated cult wineries. Always praised for their Chardonnay, Stony Hill also produces tiny amounts of Riesling and Gewurztraminer. This 40 year-old Gewurztraminer immediately displayed classic varietal perfumes, including lanolin and grapefruit – yes, they were evident even at 40 years of age!

Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir 1967 (Napa Valley) – Deep garnet/light ruby red – amazing color. Aromas of bing cherry, cardamom and red herbs.Medium-bodied with beautiful varietal character. Peak in 5-7 years.

Mirassou Petite Sirah “Unfiltered” 1978 (Monterey County) – I remember when this wine was released – Mirassou was a force with Petite Sirah in the 1970s and ’80s. Bright ruby red- lovely color. Aromas of black plum, licorice and black pepper. Medium-full with very good concentration. Still big tannins! Gorgeous wine! Peak in 10-12 years.

Photo ©Tom Hyland

Robert Mondavi Petite Sirah 1974 (Napa Valley) – 1974 was an outstanding vintage in Napa Valley – I remember tasting numerous examples of Cabernet Sauvignon from that year. Here is a Petite Sirah from Robert Mondavi that is truly special. Beautiful ruby red; aromas of black plum, black cherry, clove and mincemeat. Medium-bodied, this has great freshness, very good acidity and elegant tannins. So elegant and delicious! Great drinking over the next 7-10 years. Outstanding

Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon 1959 (Napa Valley) – The name on the label is Cesare Mondavi, Michael Mondavi’s grandfather, who made this wine. As I was tasting this wine, Michael told me “1959 was a spectacular vintage in Napa.” It must have been, given the glories of this particular wine. Light ruby red; aromas of red currant, red cherries, and yes, red rose petals! Medium-full, with good acidity, light tannins and beautiful varietal character. This is is excellent condition at age 59, and should drink well for another 12-15 years!

Michael told me that this wine was fermented in open-top red wood casks and was aged in used Jack Daniel’s bourbon barrels! A wonderful story about an amazing wine, one that tells quite a story about the history of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This truly is one of the greatest Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste. Magnificent

It should be noted that many of the wines I tasted this day had not moved very far over the course of four to five decades, and had been stored in exceptional conditions. But even given that, these wines are evidence of the aging potential of California wines, as well as the brilliant work undertaken by a number of grape growers and winemakers in California that were true trailblazers.

A big thank you to Michael Mondavi for this one-of-a-kind tasting!

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