Robert Mondavi Winery (acquired by Constellation Brands, Inc. in 2004) is one of the Napa Valley’s most iconic and visited wineries; it is located on the busy “wine strip” on the west side of Highway 29 in Oakville just north of the Oakville Cross Road. It is one of the few wineries in the valley that draws people from around the world from a diversity of cultures. Stand near the entrance on a busy summer weekend and listen to all the languages being spoken. Want to take bets to see if Mondavi is the most photographed winery in the Napa Valley? It is certainly one of them.
One enters the main driveway through olive trees – but it wasn’t always this way. One used to enter the winery past rows of vineyards planted all the way to the edge of the driveway with the main parking lot on site of the present day round-about. Both parking lots (on the left and right side of the main driveway) are surrounded by rows of grapes and gives one a good chance to see a grapevine up close. An excellent garden is situated on the north side of the main building. Like other often visited wineries in Napa Valley, they maintain a good sized gift shop.
An ideal place to relax and taste wine is on the benches and stone walls near the main lawn. On a busy weekend with good weather there are always plenty of people tasting outside overlooking the winery, the vineyards and the expansive lawn. Art plays a prominent role here – as you wander the grounds you will see statues, paintings and other works of art, many by California-Italian artist Beniamino Bufano (noted for a number of public work pieces in the San Francisco Bay Area – and for the Bufano obelisk along the coastline in northern Sonoma County). Robert’s wife Margrit played a critical role in this regard by introducing various works of art to the winery from a number of artists (and even today, the winery maintains an artist in residence program).
Almost single-handedly the Mondavi family, led by Robert played a prominent role in promoting the Napa Valley to the world – improving the standards of vineyard management, wine-making practices and marketing not only their own winery but also the region as a whole to the world. Robert’s philosophy in reference to the Napa Valley was that a rising tide carries all ships – improving the stature of not only his own winery but all the others in the valley will improve the reputation of the Napa Valley as a whole – therefore benefiting everyone involved in the regions’ wine industry.
Robert was one of Napa’s most charismatic and influential individuals having envisioned Auction Napa Valley (he and Margrit were the founding chairpersons of the auction in 1981). Robert also was instrumental in founding the Copia Food & Wine Center (re-opened in 2016 as the CIA at Copia) in the town of Napa and the performing arts center at UC Davis is named after him.
And according to Robert Mondavi’s longtime Director of Winemaking, Geneviève Janssens, Robert’s wine making philosophy was to create red wines with the power of Pavarotti but with the softness of a baby’s bottom.
Robert was born in Minnesota and grew up in Lodi California where his father Cesare Mondavi worked in the grape business (buying grapes and shipping them to clients). Robert’s family purchased Charles Krug Winery in 1943 and Robert worked there until 1965 when he parted ways and founded Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966. Many of the late 20th century Napa winemakers got their start from Robert Mondavi including well known winemakers Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich. Mr. Mondavi’s influence was great – reference all the winemakers who have gone out on their own after time working here.
To Kalon Vineyard
Arguably the most famous vineyard in the country (the Grand Cru of many of Napa’s premiere vineyards), the To Kalon Vineyard under the Robert Mondavi Winery ownership is some nearly 450 acres of vines (although note, that not all of their property was part of the original To Kalon Vineyard). To Kalon dates back to 1868. Founder, H.W. Crabb purchased 240 acres in 1868 started planting grapes, several years later built a winery, called it Hermosa Vineyards and 10 years later it had become the third largest wine producer in Napa County.
The vine composition looked nothing like today – back then varietals such as Malvasia, Burgundy, Chartreuse, Riesling, Chasselas, Berger, Hamburg, Tokay and Muscat were commonly planted. In fact, at one point To Kalon was planted to nearly 400 different varietals which was the largest collection of grape varietals in one vineyard in all of the country. Robert Mondavi Winery maintains a diversity of varietals in their portion of To Kalon including the amazing I-Block, home to their 1945 original plantings of Sauvignon Blanc still head-pruned and dry-farmed (one of the oldest commercial planting of Sauvignon Blanc vines in North America – although the original Sauvignon Blanc plantings at the Lolonis Vineyard to the north in Mendocino County were planted in 1941) with other parts of their vineyard planted to Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Sémillon.
Another special block, also dry farmed and head-trained is the Monastery block – located at the base of the Mayacamas mountains, appropriately named for the still active Carmelite Monastery which rises above this block – slightly visible through the trees. Like the I-block, this block also contains original vines planted in 1945.
The vineyards and winery were renamed to To-Kalon in 1886. By the turn of the century Phylloxera had destroyed much of the vineyard and it was replanted to cherries – which incidentally became one of the largest cherry orchards in the country. The winery shut down during prohibition, reopened after, only sold bulk wine and unfortunately a fire in 1939 ended both this massive winery and their operations. Today nothing remains of this old winery and the old site is completely covered in grapevines.
The name To Kalon itself is Greek and according to founder H.W. Crabb, “…means the highest good, but I try to make it mean the boss vineyard”. The name has seen a number of variations with “To” being separated by a “=” originally, then a “-” and finally simply, To Kalon.
Today only a fortunate few wineries and producers manage its overall sizable acreage (Crabb’s original To Kalon holding was 526 acres): Robert Mondavi Winery owns the largest portion, Opus One has several larger blocks and grower Andy Beckstoffer owns and manages a relatively small percentage of the entire vineyard and sells to approximately 15 producers who then make a single vineyard wine.
Two families own and manage small portions of what historically is the rest of the vineyard. The MacDonald’s have 15 planted acres – all planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and their second cousins, the Detert’s focus on Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Also a tiny portion of Pinot Noir (under different ownership) planted in historic To Kalon is used for POP 300 wine brand (on the site of HW Crabb’s original homestead – his house burned down in 1997).
UC Davis also manages a 40 acre “experimental vineyard” of which 20 acres are within the historical To Kalon vineyard’s boundaries. Incidentally, after H.W. Crabb died this experimental vineyard was under the control of the USDA and was instrumental in its research on developing Phylloxera resistant rootstock.
And the allure of To Kalon continues – in 2017 Constellation Brands, Inc., formed the To Kalon Vineyard Company.
Tours & Tastings
Robert Mondavi Winery offers some of the most well-rounded wine educational seminars, unique wine experiences and a diversity of tastings & tours of any winery in the Napa Valley. Several tastings and tours are available by walk-in, other more in depth experiences require appointments.
Robert Mondavi’s philosophy was one of openness and to always to share his winery operations with visitors – to bring visitors into the heart of the winery and explain the various processes. And while most wineries in the valley now have gates, Robert Mondavi Winery still has no gate. This philosophy of sharing information continues today; For first time visitors, we highly recommend the 90 minute Signature Tour & Tasting and make reservations in advance if possible. This experience provides an informative overview of the winery, it’s rich history and general information about the region including the Oakville sub appellation (where Robert Mondavi Winery is located).
Before any tour, guests are handed a small colored token which indicates you have paid for the tour (clip this to your shirt or simply show the guide); meet your guide on the walkway or grassy section near the entrance. As one of our guides mentioned to start the tour, “grab your cameras, turn off your cell phones and lets go”.
Questions are encouraged throughout the tour, however keep in mind the winery caters to all levels of education in regards to wine and sees visitors from around the world – some of whom have a limited knowledge of wine. Case in point: on one of our tours, one of the guests asked if the wine making team puts cranberries and cherries into their wines to give it those particular flavors. The simple answer is no – and our guide very patiently answered this question.
Guests proceed out to the edge of the vineyards (weather permitting) for a quick vineyard overview (including a stop in front of several short rows of Mission grapevines (a nod to the first grapes planted in the state of California by Europeans) followed by a visit to the impressive fermentation room. Fifty six 20,000 gallon tanks were assembled in France, then dissembled for the journey to the winery and then reassembled on site. These Tonnellerie Taransaud manufactured tanks are used for fermentation (not aging). Each tank is equivalent to approximately 339 fifty nine-gallon wine barrels. A production video is shown at this point. The tour culminates with a seated tasting of several of their current release wines.
And for select International visitors, tours in Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Spanish or French can be arranged by prior appointment.
The Discovery Tour is ideal for guests who do not have reservations and want to have a quick introduction to Robert Mondavi Winery. This tour includes a 30 minute walk through parts of the property including the To Kalon Cellar, and barrel aging room followed by a quick tasting of two of their wines.
Other experiences (some seasonal or weekend only) include a bicycle tour of the To Kalon Vineyard, an Art Tour, the Twighlight Tour, an after hours Fireside Tasting and with a full time in house chef on site + commercial kitchen, a number of food and wine experiences are also offered including lunch and dinner experiences.
NOTE: we have personally been on the Signature Tour + Tasting, the Discovery Tour, the To Kalon Vineyard tour and will experience these select other offerings first-hand as time permits.
Wines & Winemaking
During harvest, the fermentation room becomes a hive of activity especially with employees doing pump overs (mixing the fermenting juice with the cap – seeds and skins that rise to the top of each wooden tank). Over the years the Mondavi staff have devised a simple communication system between the employee on the top of the tank and the employee hooking up the pump to the bottom of the tank. The employee on top simply drops down a soccer ball hanging from a net to let the other employee know that he is ready to start the process – and then the pump can be turned on!
The barrel aging room located below this giant tank room is a sight worth seeing. Mist released from ceiling misters combined with the romantic play of light helps create a unique ambiance in this, one of the largest and most seductive barrel aging rooms of any Napa winery. Two private tasting rooms anchor each side of this barrel room.
Robert Mondavi’s first ever wine released was the 1966 vintage in 1967 – a rosé from Napa Gamay (rosé being a quick to market wine) followed by a Chenin Blanc. In 1966 Robert Mondavi created what he called the first Fumé Blanc from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. This wine is sourced from what is called the “I-block” located in the To Kalon Vineyard (featuring old Sauvignon Blanc vines – up to 60+ years old). Along with Sémillon this is the only white varietal planted in the To Kalon Vineyard. Today there is a barrel aging room devoted entirely to this wine. Visitors will pass by it before entering the primary tasting room.
There are numerous reasons why Robert Mondavi Winery has become one of Napa’s most well-known wineries and one of those is they consistently produce a quality product that people enjoy. Producing wines of this caliber each year helps when they source from premium vineyards including their own well-regarded To Kalon Vineyard on site. In our opinion this is an example of a winery with a large sized production (by Napa standards) that has not compromised quality in their wines.
The winery is large by Napa standards but in the real scope of the wine world they are just medium sized. And note that the Robert Mondavi wines are their flagship wines and are produced in much lower quantities than their Woodbridge label.
The 2006 Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc is a crisp wine with citrus aromas and flavors and some intruiging minerality characteristics.
The 2006 Robert Mondavi Winery Pinot Noir Reserve which is mostly from the Carneros growing region in the southern Napa Valley is one of the nicer Pinot’s we have had from Napa. Dijon clone perhaps? It shows plenty of cherry and cranberry aromas with layered flavors and well structured tannins.
The 2002 Robert Mondavi Winery Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (one of Napa’s top vineyard sites, also located in Oakville) has rich aromas of blackberry, violet and chocolate which also carry into the palate. This is a premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – and should be on the list of any serious Napaphile.
The 2014 Reserve Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir from Carneros (the Napa side of this sub appellation) was fermented in open-top tanks – the wine was cold soaked for several days and saw some extended maceration post fermentation. The majority of this wine was aged in new French oak for 9 months. Highly aromatic, the bouquet shows red berry fruit on the palate with a noticeable earthiness complemented by dessert spices (cloves and cinnamon). Excellent acidity – but also noteworthy is the structure of this wine – especially felt on the long lasting slightly spicy (white pepper) finish. It is a robust Pinot Noir with certainly plenty of life ahead of it.
The Robert Mondavi Winery Moscato d’Oro (Muscat Canelli) is a light, sweet crisp wine very popular for summertime drinking or for pairing with spicy foods. These are just a few of the wines we have sampled at Mondavi during multiple visits as as they produce a wide diversity of wines.
Summer Music Festival
Visiting in the summer? Mondavi’s Summer Music Festivals (held annually since 1969) are extremely popular. This event has come a long way since 1969 when a stage was borrowed from a high school in the city of Napa (the first performance was by the Napa Valley Symphony). The great lawn is home to each concert (always held in the evenings). A number of well-known individuals have performed here since the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra performed at the inaugural event – some of these individuals include, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Glen Campbell, Ray Charles and others. All proceeds from these concerts directly benefit Napa Valley Unified School District high school music programs (over 2 million dollars raised since the inception).
Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Known as the Mondavi Center, its official name is the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. Robert Mondavi donated 10 million to finance as part of its initial financing.
Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, UC Davis
Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science opened in 2008 funded in part by a $25 million gift from Robert Mondavi to the University of California, Davis. The institute encompasses the Viticulture & Enology and Food Science & Technology department as well as the UC Davis Olive Center and Honey and Pollination Center. The world’s only LEED Platinum Teaching and Research winery is part of the Viticulture & Enology department and 12.5 acres of nearby vineyards are used to for viticulture education.
This review is undergoing an update. Please check back by July 2019.
For more information, to book an appointment and or to join one of Robert Mondavi’s select wine clubs, visit: www.robertmondavi.com
To Kalon Vineyard
Sauvignon Blanc, Historic I Block
Cabernet Sauvignon, Historic Monastery Block
Summer Concert Series
Photos coming by summer 2019 (we already have tickets to one event). Stay posted amigos!
Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, UC Davis