JULIA FLYNN SILER
The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
New York: Gotham Books, 2007, 452 pp.
Reviewer: William H. Friedland
This history of the Robert Mondavi experience provides remarkable detail and documentation to a tale of which most observers of California’s wine scene know the main events: Cesare Mondavi’s purchase of the Charles Krug Winery and the grooming of his two sons, Robert and Peter, to develop it; the over-publicized fight between the brothers and Robert’s expulsion from the family enterprise; Robert’s creation of his eponymous winery, making it world-class; touting Napa to make it the equivalent of France’s Bordeaux or Burgundy; the internal struggles within Robert’s own family; taking the winery public which, with Robert’s over-expansive philanthropy, led to the brink of bankruptcy, the loss of family control, the sale of the winery, and the end of the “dynasty.”
These episodes provided grist for the ingrown Napa Valley vinous mill. Siler’s book shifts the stories out of the category of gossip to “fact” through assiduous pursuit of legal documents and interviews with major participants who were unusually open to her.
Robert Mondavi was a remarkable innovator and a super-dedicated proselytizer for up-scale “fine” wine, particularly from the Napa Valley. No single person can claim to have put Napa wine in its hegemonic position – it was a collective effort of dozens if not hundreds of people – but Mondavi stands out as the leading personality. An unsympathetic analyst might call him a “remarkable huckster” but his successes and his instinct for getting the story out placed him beyond such a designation, especially with the Napa cheerleaders.
Yet Mondavi was, in the detailed narrative assembled by Siler, a mass of contradictions. Although Ernest Gallo became a remarkable marketer of Gallo wines, Robert not only innovated marketing in dozens of ways – from choosing an innovating architect for the first winery built in Napa’s renaissance and its location in view of highway 29, “inventing” fume blanc – but also in technical aspects of winemaking such as using stainless steel for fermenting tanks. He was cooperative with fellow winemakers but also very competitive. He built a network of employees, friends, and supporters yet was invariably concerned with touting his own personality which ultimately betrayed many of them who believed in him..
Robert also had a remarkable sense of his own capabilities that made for considerable inflexibility. This led to his battle with his brother Peter and his being cast out of the family business. This wounded him deeply but never led to opening himself to any degree of self-reflexivity. Starting his own winery, however, probably was one of the best things that could have happened to him since it opened possibilities for innovativeness that inevitably would have been more difficult had his expulsion not occurred. But he then reproduced his own family situation in his own children which also contributed to “the fall.” He was generous at times to a fault yet his insistence in enshrining his name made for commitments that threatened family bankruptcy and the loss of the company.
Siler shows how his ability to find talented winemakers became crucial to the winery’s success; at the same time, his dedication to creating a family dynasty made for continual turnover in those winemakers who invariably left to make their own names and reputations. Yet employment with the Robert Mondavi winery became the equivalent of graduating from “Mondavi College.”
Siler provides extensive details about Robert’s family-of-procreation dysfunctionality. What complicates that story is the driving goal of Robert and his children to build a dynasty. It demonstrates the dilemmas of successful family businesses coping with the succession of an innovative and energetic founder where that founder maintains iron control of his children through sustained criticism; trying to build a world-class corporation and a family dynasty simultaneously in two generations is a tough row to hoe. As a family, neither Robert nor any of his children could resolve the contradiction between the need to invest energy in constructing family solidarity and commitment – necessary for dynastic construction – with the incessant need to “grow” the company. There were many good ideas and opportunities – they were not always complementary – that led to adventures and misadventures. Taking the company public provided the structural basis for the fall and even the protections that were built into maintaining family control could not cope with the collapse of stock prices and Robert’s congenital demand for public recognition (undoubtedly encouraged by his second wife).
This book is a “good read”; Siler writes her story well and engages her readers. And although it doesn’t have the proper form, the Mondavi case could usefully be included as a Harvard Business School reading on the problems of family succession. And for those of us with scholarly inclinations, her extensive documentation, as noted earlier, provides a factual base to what has been a mountain of gossip.
William H. Friedland
University of California, Santa Cruz