Raise a Glass to the American Dream: Robert Mondavi Dies at 94

Raise a glass to the American dream today, in honor of the passing of a man who achieved it. Robert Mondavi, founder of California’s famous Robert Mondavi Vineyard, died last week at 94. I’m not an expert on the man or his wines, but the obituaries and biographies emerging in the days following his death describe a man of virtue, who selfishly pursued his values, challenged the foundations of an industry, and changed the world of wine.

Said Sarah Kemp, publishing director of Decanter Magazine: “Robert Mondavi holds a unique position in the history of wine. This extraordinary man, through his vision, relentless energy and gritty determination changed the way consumers thought about wine. By putting California wine on the map he ensured the world knew that some of the worlds great wines could be made outside Europe, at the time a revolutionary concept. He was deservedly one of the wine legends of our time.”

America-born to Italian immigrants, Mondavi joined the family winery upon graduating from Stanford in 1936, and would co-manage a second family winery with his brother until 1965, when clashes over the direction of the business came to a head. Rather than sacrifice his vision of what California wines could be to his brother’s conservative mindset, Mondavi left the family business to found the vineyard that bears his name.

Prior to the founding of the Robert Mondavi Vineyard, California was predominately the home of cheap wines sold by the jug. Mondavi alone believed the Californian climate was capable of producing wines far superior to the second-rate sweet stuff that it was known for. Against the advice of friends, family, fellow businessmen, and wine experts, Mondavi set out to realize his vision. On borrowed money and self-confidence, and at an age when many men start thinking of retirement, the 53 year-old Robert Mondavi opened his vineyard in 1966. Pioneering new winemaking techniques that would become industry standards, it took Mondavi ten years to prove his critics wrong. In 1976, at a blind tasting known as The Judgment of Paris, Mondavi’s wines beat out a number of eminent French vintages, and California wines entered the international stage.

Today, California is home to over 1200 wineries and a $20 billion per year wine industry, and is renowned the world over for producing wines on par with those of the traditional European powerhouses. This incredible growth is rooted in the vision and dedication of Robert Mondavi, a prime example of the kind of visionary that Ayn Rand espoused: men with foresight and the strength to follow it, who selfishly refuse to compromise their ideals in the pursuit of their values. Though Ayn Rand’s novels are fiction, her kind of hero is not. They exist throughout history and in every industry, though they will only continue to prosper, and the world will only continue to benefit, if they are left free to operate unchained.

I leave you with some quotes from the man himself, which capture his spirit and may serve to inspire (from www.mondavi.com):

“To succeed and have a happy life, you need common sense, a commitment to hard work and the courage to go your own way. Interest is not enough – you must be passionate about what you do. Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

“Establish a goal just beyond what you think you can do. When you achieve that, establish another and another. This will teach you to embrace risk.”

“Out of all the rigidities and mistakes of my past, I’ve learned a lesson that I’d like to see engraved on the desk of every business leader, teacher, and parent in America: The greatest leaders don’t rule. They inspire.”

“Drink what you like, and like what you drink.”

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