An invitation landed in my inbox recently with the subject heading: “Mondavi and Backen.”
Reading a bit further, I learned that the Peter Mondavi family, owners of the Charles Krug winery, had hired the famed Napa Valley-based architect, Howard Backen. I was invited to the groundbreaking celebration for the $6 million refurbishment of the winery’s grand old Redwood Cellar.
I’d first visited this 1872 building about eight years ago, as I began reporting the Wall Street Journal story on the Mondavi family that would eventually become “The House of Mondavi.”
My memory of it then was a decrepit wooden pile laced with cobwebs. The family had stored boxes of ancient files, furniture, and toys dating back decades on the cellar’s third floor. It was clear from the state of this creaky old structure that the Peter Mondavi side of the family had not invested in its winery in the way that the Robert Mondavi had since the famous family bust-up in 1966.
On my tour, I was more interested in the file cabinets and papers that were gathering dust on its third floor – I remember hoping that I might someday have a chance to look through them (I never did, though that branch of the family did help me with my book, as did Robert’s side of the family.) I especially loved seeing the the catwalks where the Mondavi boys would shoot spitballs at unsuspecting visitors walking below.
Nowadays, the cobwebs and boxes are nowhere to be found as the family’s latest 14-month construction project on the Redwood Cellar begins. The old-fashioned sign beckoning visitors off Highway 29 has disappeared and been replaced by a new one with water streaming over it. In recent years, the Peter Mondavi family has replanted many of its 850 acres of prime Napa vineyards in Bordeaux varietals.
“It’s been a long road…with its up and downs,” said Peter Sr., holding a glass of wine in the mid-day sun on August 7th. “But it’s been great.” (For a sweet and humorous glimpse of the patriarch of his branch of the family, watch this video of 97-year-old patriarch still climbing the steps to work every day.)
Peter Sr. raised a glass to his parents, Cesare and Rosa, who started the family business. “You have to give them the credit,” Peter said. Immigrants without the benefit of a formal education, both Cesare and Rosa were hard workers. After profiling Howard Backen last fall in the Wall Street Journal, I’d bet he’ll be working just as hard as he always has thing when he reaches Peter Sr.’s age. Backen has designed projects for the late Steve Jobs and the vintner Bill Harlan, as well as three branches of the Mondavi family.
There are still deep rifts in the the Mondavi family. At today’s groundbreaking, for instance, none of the members of Robert’s side of the family attended (as might have been expected, since the event was as much a business function as a celebration.) Despite their decades-long history of family feuding, the Mondavis have continued to make good wine and celebrate the good life.
And one member of the family has just come out with a tender look back at that life. On August 26 Robert Mondavi’s widow Margrit will be signing copies of her new book, “Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance and Life.” She’s donating the proceeds to one of the many non-profits that she and her husband supported over the years, the Oxbow School. Howard Backen is working with Margrit to design her new home. (The Wappo Hill home where she and Robert lived recently sold at auction.)
Timothy Mondavi, meanwhile, was the subject of a cover story in Wine Spectator magazine last November by senior writer James Laube, who’s been one of the most astute chroniclers of the Mondavi family’s fortunes over the years. With his sister Marcia and other family members, he’s making Continuum, a $150 a bottle red blend that has won high praise from Laube, Robert Parker, and other wine critics. Howard designed the Continuum winery, which is now being built.
And what about Michael? He’s still running Folio Fine Wine Partners with his son Rob and his daughter Dina, which imports such well-known Italian brands as Marchesi de Frescobaldi as well as produces its own wine under its own label, such as M by Michael Mondavi. His branch of the family is the only one not to use Howard or his firm as its architect
Backen and his wife and daughter have started their own new family business recently: a restaurant in St. Helena called French Blue. My son and I stopped there for lunch after the groundbreaking. I loved the Parker House rolls and the Grilled Chicken Paillard salad with peppery greens, crispy shallots, and soft-boiled farm eggs.
But the most memorable part of the meal was the starter that my adventurous 14-year-old convinced us to try: Fried Pig’s Ears with a chili lime and garlic dip. As we waited for them to arrive, I asked him whether he thought they’d taste like potato chips, thinking they might be a bit like pork chitterlings. “They’re meat, Mom!” he told me.