Friday, January 17, 2014

Pulling cork: Mondavi, the longest voyage

     Tasting through some releases recently from The Robert Mondavi Winery was a nostalgic reminder of just how much things have changed in the Napa Valley:                         
    I remember meeting Robert at the winery in the mid-eighties for one of those omnium gatherum lunches where visiting winemakers, jobbers, tourists and journalists were flung together in the on-going party beyond Oakville's famous stucco archway. I was struck by Robert's friendliness and his assumption that the style of life the winery represented, including an enduring family business, would forever rise on the shoulders of this powerful little man with a face off a Roman coin and real, irrepressible enthusiasm.
     Robert was already touting the "sculpting" of wines and equating the whole process to art. He was determined to build a monument to this notion at the south end of Napa Valley, to celebrate a glorious equation of wine and art. It would eventually culminate in the impossibly ambitious museum cum gallery cum eatery called Copia, a living and extravagant extension of the founder's inherent belief that anything could be made to work if you thought and talked about it enough. (Copia didn't work, was in fact a disaster from the beginning, another story connected to what finally happened to most of Robert's dreams.)
     What I remember tasting that day at lunch was a Mondavi pinot noir,  although I don't remember the vintage or much else about it except that the wine seemed heavily-extracted even to my unskilled palate. Robert talked not about the wine itself but where it pointed: toward experimentation, an ever-ascending star of quality, a pushing of the envelope in search of a sublime expression of human endeavor. Whatever excesses he might have committed along the way, he believed that his family's wine would flow forever upward and outward both in quality and reputation.
     Well, it sure did, but everything else changed at Mondavi. Napa Valley's greatest success story became over a relatively short period of time its greatest calamity. Over-arching ambition, however well meant, and a too-willing embrace of the public incorporating process, wrecks most dreams except for the money. They enslave the former visionary to ascendant quarterly profits and the big sell-out. It's a story everybody knows and yet somehow its valuable lesson's never learned.
     So what of the wines today? I tasted four of the mid-rangers, starting with the 2012 fume blanc ($20), one of Robert's early emulations of the French style of sauvignon blanc. Devoid now of the grassy character of blanc-fume on which it was originally modeled, this wine has moved solidly into the tropics - and into the Bordeaux-shaped bottle instead of the old slope-shouldered one - with plenty of citrus and acid.
    The 2011 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($28), taken from various vineyards that include a bit from the famous To Kalon next door, is still young and bright, with hints of cassis but unfortunately also of bell pepper. Both these wines, and the slight 2011 Napa Valley pinot noir (below),  are well-made but with a built-in Mondavi price bump, safe corporate strolls along the continuum of middle-brow appeal.
     What's not is the 2010 Mondavi Oakville cabernet sauvignon ($45), probably because the winemakers wiggled out of the grip of the bean-counters for which conglomerates are famous, in this case Constellation's.  Made mostly with fruit fromTo Kalon vineyard, it's very young and tight but with a big nose and great mouth feel and finish. Underneath 15 per cent alcohol lies the power of Napa's reigning varietal, with lots of black fruit and hints of chocolate and tobacco.
    The signature Mondavi Reserve cabernet sauvignon, by the way, isn't included in this bunch. Made almost entirely from To Kalon grapes, true distinction may lie in that particular bottle, so another Mondavi evaluation's in order.
    The pinot noir bore no resemblance to the one I tasted way back. But this time I recalled the sibilant words of the legendary eminence gris of Napa Valley wine, Russian emigre Andre Tchelistcheff: "Pinot noir invites you to dreeenk it." This pinot does that: bright in the glass, with a sprightly nose straight out of the bottle and enticing red fruit in the first sip. But too quickly it vanishes, like the founder himself.
     Sometimes wine does indeed imitate life, as all art must.                                              
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