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Book Review: The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler

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Julia Flynn Siler's fascinating new book, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, begins and ends with sibling rivalry. Two brothers — Robert and Peter — vie for decision-making control of the family business, which is none other than the Charles Krug Winery, the first winery in Napa Valley, which dates back to 1861.

There's Robert: aggressive, innovative, market-savvy, a judgmental perfectionist. And then there's Peter: technically astute, methodical, cautious, perennially jealous of his older brother.

Peter whines about Robert's house on the vineyard, about Robert's recognition in the papers, the credit that goes to Robert for Charles Krug's success instead of to him. He whines in particular about a mink coat, accusing Robert of stealing money from the business to pay for it, without intent to repay. The accusation leads to blows.

Their father, Cesare Mondavi, who dusted off the derelict Charles Krug and renewed its reputation, wished that his sons would combine their talents and always work together. However, though they shared blood and wine, the two brothers' basic philosophies were diametrically opposed, and they engaged in a decades-long feud that led to Robert's ouster from the family business and rent the family forever.

Cesare had passed away by the time Robert was ousted, but their mother Rosa supported the move, in effect, choosing one brother over the other. Robert's response: "If that's the case, Mother, what I will do, I'm going to build a winery."

And build, he did: Robert Mondavi's name is of course synonymous with wine. Noted wine historian Paul Lukacs once said, "The construction of the Robert Mondavi Winery marks the effective beginning of American wine's rise in both quality and prestige."

Don't read this exposé on the infamous Mondavi wine family for the beauty of the sentences, which are rather workmanlike. Flynn Siler is a Wall Street Journal reporter who sticks to the unadorned facts. In this case, the facts need no adornment — they're far more entertaining than the average soap opera, with all the attendant themes of family betrayal, corporate maneuvering and long-standing personal grudges, but with more authenticity.

Readers will find some of the drama amusing. Third-generation Michael Mondavi enters into an ill-conceived partnership with Disney, for instance, despite the obvious foolishness of mixing Mickey with merlot. Walt Disney himself was a teetotaler when it came to his theme park: "I like a drink, but if people want one, they can get it elsewhere." The people, in this case, agreed. California Adventure regulations mandated that wine be served in acrylic instead of glass, so Mondavi had them custom-made. They outfitted the working winery-cum-amusement park exhibit with granite wine bars and hand-forged, wrought iron doors, which closed to the public when the experiment failed after just eight months.

The failed venture presaged the hostile takeover to come. While Flynn Siler overdoes it on the details at times (do we really need to know what Isabel's bridesmaids wore at her wedding to Michael Mondavi?), there's a redeeming lesson for a capitalist society at work in this tome: You can be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, or in this case, a silver wine cork, and still lose it all. Nothing is ever guaranteed, not even wealth and power. Not that you should cry a river for the Mondavis; it's unlikely any of them will be taking on minimum wage jobs anytime soon, or worrying over health care.

And it stands to reason that what fueled Robert Mondavi's aggressive promotion of Napa Valley wine for four decades was the choice his mother made. Perhaps he wanted to prove to her that she had backed the wrong son.

"There are clues that he wanted to learn from the French, go globally even while he was still with Charles Krug," says Flynn Siler, "but I have a hunch that those ambitions were fueled by a sense of proving his mother wrong."

He certainly built his own winery in a big way. Robert Mondavi hired celebrated architect Clifford May to design it, and the image of the Mission-style tower and graceful winged arch adorn wines like Fumé Blanc to this day. Then he set out to change attitudes toward California wine, beginning with the French, who thought that wine from the U.S. was for cooking, not drinking. The pejorative "wino" came about during Prohibition, when rot-gut wines, some from Napa Valley, were the norm.

The next generation gave rise to another case of sibling rivalry, this time, Robert's two sons: Timothy and Michael. Echoing the relationship of the generation before, these two could not agree. Long-haired Timothy sees winemaking as fine artisanship and was frequently late to meetings. Clean-cut Michael wants more wine for the masses; he launched a partnership with Disney, which failed.

Michael even whined about his father's philanthropy because it would dilute his own family's inheritance, to which his father replied, "You children have enough."

Where one brotherly split gave rise to the Robert Mondavi Corporation, the other results in the family losing the same, for the Mondavis no longer own the company.

"One thing I see as a recurring pattern that wreaked havoc in the Mondavi family is this condition that people with very different personalities have to work together," says Flynn Siler. First it was Cesare, telling his sons to cooperate and telling Rosa to make sure that the winery was never sold. "It was inevitable that they would collide," she says. "Likewise, Robert's dream was that his boys would work together, and you can't find two radically different people than Tim and Michael. Trying to force two people to work together who are radically different is a recipe for disaster."

Ironically, the new owners of the business are two brothers. But the differences between these and the Mondavi brothers are profound. Where the Mondavis made many mistakes — positioning one brother as the subordinate of another, failing to draft a workable succession plan, confusing business expenses with personal expenses — Richard and Robert Sands demonstrate a single-minded dedication to the bottom line. Perhaps most importantly, they focus on wine instead of whining.

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About Lisa Albers

  • Gail Mullon

    Hi, I read your brief history about the ‘Mondavi’ wine family with interest. My husband and I toured the Mondavi winery in 1996 and just loved their red wines. We are presently living in the Czech republic and have purchased a bottle of their 2005 Sav. Blanc. How do we comment our views about this wine to the wine maker? We are from New Zealand.

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!