Napa Valley is just up the road from my Mill Valley home, but in many respects it is light years away. California’s wine country is one of the most idyllic places anywhere in the world, and if my new Nor Cal life is TF 2.0, then retiring to Napa is probably TF 3.0 . . . or maybe 3.5.
Much like the city of San Francisco, her neighbor just an hour’s drive to the north, the Napa Valley has a history that is often overlooked and underappreciated. Called Napa, meaning “land of plenty,” by the native Wappo Indians, the valley was once a wild frontier with an abundance of grizzly bears, salmon, elk, and mountain lions. But while the region changed over time, the modern era arguably began with the first homesteader, George Calvert Yount, who put down roots in 1836 in what is now know as Yountville, home to Thomas Keller’s venerable French Laundry and Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, among other important dining institutions.
Charles Krug is widely acknowleged as having founded the very first commercial winery in Napa in 1861, spawning several hundred imitators in the following decades. But in the latter part of the nineteenth century, an aphid-like pest called phylloxera wiped out most of the valley’s vines and effectively reset the region’s winemaking capabilities. In 1919, Prohibition dealt an even greater blow to the wineries, and only a few survived by continuing to grow grapes for wine under religious auspices. While the business of wine may have been crippled, the spirit of the Napa Valley lived on; and upon the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, winemakers regrouped with a deep sense of camaraderie, a commitment to the noble virtues of the grape, and, of course, a shared love of great food. California was back on the map and on its way to becoming a world-class winemaking destination.
In 1936, an Italian immigrant and enterprising fruit wholesaler named Cesare Mondavi purchased a stake in the Sunny St. Helena winery, where his first son, Robert, would become involved in the daily operations. In 1943, Cesare, with sons Robert and Peter, purchased the Charles Krug winery to further the family’s stake in the wine game, and since then the Mondavi family name has been virtually synonymous with the Napa Valley. In truth, without Robert Mondavi’s entrepreneurial spirit, passion for the promotion of California as one of the world’s great winemaking regions, and undying love of both the business and art of wine-making, one of California’s greatest exports may never have been.
Of course, it’s no secret that the symbiotic relationship between food and wine has inspired generations of chefs and diners the world over. I’ve been capitivated by wine from my first sips at the dinner table on through my sojourns to the historic grape-growing regions of France and Italy, and for me, winemaking has always been on the agenda. Living in California has made that possibility a reality.
There’s something about the process of making wine that is mysterious in a really sexy way, and I’ll admit, I’m hooked. For the past three years, I’ve been making single-barrel vintages of zinfandel and pinot noir and a bit to my own pleasant surprise, my first vintage, TF Zin 06, received a score of 92 from Wine Spectator; it was beyond my wildest dreams to hit the cover off of the ball on my first try. Recently, my friend Dina Mondavi, granddaughter of the late Robert, suggested getting together with her family to see if there was a way to work together. That first friendly meeting has changed the game for me. I am both humbled and proud to be welcomed into the Mondavi’s winemaking family.
Together, this year the Mondavis and I will launch a new line of wines to be selectively distributed around the world. In partnership with Michael (son of Robert) and his children Rob and Dina, my personal winemaking style is being further refined as we move from limited-scale production to working with the vast resources of the Mondavi family, adding gorgeous sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignons to my zinfandels and pinot noirs.
As a team, we spend a lot of time together tasting wines, and oftentimes it really just feels right to enjoy the pleasures of our business over a meal. Recently, I shared my new winemaking family with my father, Winston, and it was a very memorable experience to discuss wine and lay out multiple generations of knowledge and opinions.
Yes, I realize how fortunate I am to be able to combine my business with pleasure . . . time and time again. Great food, like great wine, is simultaneously subjective and universal. Both generate spirited discussion and, in the right company, a convivial spirit that literally breathes life into those lucky enough to share the table with one another.
© 2010 All rights reserved. Published by Rodale Books.