To build two large businesses in a lifetime is quite a feat but to do it in the wine business where it can take generations to become established requires outstanding talent.
While achieving this to also juggle the turmoil of constant family bickering including having your mother, brother and sisters cheat you, yet survive and indeed thrive requires exceptional strength of character. Robert Mondavi was a promotional and sales genius and could handle emotional turmoil at a level that would destroy most of us. He was a very tough man.
Robert Mondavi persuaded his father Cesare to buy the Napa winery, Charles Krug in 1943, a property Robert identified as having great potential. At the time Robert was 30 years old. He was joined by his younger brother Peter, 29, in the venture. Robert was expansive, energetic, optimistic and perhaps impatient while Peter was cautious, technical, and much quieter. These personality types are an excellent fit if they can be managed over the long term but after decades the most trivial things can begin to grate and can lead to misjudgements that can have calamitous outcomes. Not unusually sibling rivalry grew in intensity and particularly galling to Peter seems to have been Roberts life style and expenditures. Building a consumer business requires constant promotion and born promoters have a relaxed, confident style. Of necessity salesmen are constantly travelling and entertaining and this can readily be seen as overly lavish and indeed can all too easily get out of hand.
Extravagant gestures are what you would expect from a great salesman but anyone who has tried to build a business knows that for decades money is very tight and resentment is easy to build in those who do not understand the art of selling and promotion. We should all note that brilliant salesmen, those with a flair that attracts attention are very rare while reserved, technical, cautious types are more like the rest of us-common. Reference is made to one specific incident, the purchase of a fur coat for Roberts's wife, Marjorie in 1963, from company funds. The need for Marjorie to look special and the event where it was to be worn are of no consequence but this is just the sort of error of judgement that can ignite hidden resentment and touch off an explosion. It was not long in coming and by 1965 Peter was in rebellion and had convinced his mother and sisters to remove Robert from the Charles Krug business.
Family squabbles are not uncommon but what is unusual is that Robert's mother Rosa, Peter and two sisters thought it was O.K. to ban Robert from the business and in effect connive against him to forfeit his shares. The ensuing court case was not settled till August, 1976. Now this is an exciting saga yet we are only at page 56 of a 393 page epic and the best is yet to come.
After 22 years building a business and being voted out with no money, aged 53 and with a household that was used to having ample what would you do? Start again of course and Robert Mondavi Wines crushed its first vintage in 1966. The detail provided from this point on is vivid and rich as most of the key personalities who built this famous firm are still alive.
The author also knows that this is a wine and business drama and while it is absorbing does not warrant the deeper psychological issues that for example a biographer of a famous political statesman may wish to explore. The story is told very well and by midway the pace from a now happy septuagenarian Robert moves into top gear. Incidentally those with a family business and now spending time on succession plans may be inclined not to bother after reading this saga. The detail of Robert's family and business dealings is excellent and at times it's like looking into a celebrity gossip show.
One of the strengths of this book is the detail of building the new business, Robert Mondavi Wines. It moves from an impressive account of the one man brand building style of Robert to the wonderful people Robert later employed. Woven into this is the slow unfolding of Robert's personal drama leading to divorce, a new wife while revolving around are the endless issues, often tussles, with his children who in turn play out their own business disagreements.
Of particular interest are several themes that have wider relevance as they crop up time and again in the wine business.
Building a wine business and many other types of businesses for that matter is a balancing act between marketing and selling costs and production costs. As the sales grow this in turn needs investment back at the production end and this is a hard balance to get right. In turn this can lead to another dilemma. To constantly grow is the natural tendency of all owners and managers, indeed to not grow can risk the business, but how do you maintain the quality and prestige that tend to go with small wine operations as volumes increase significantly? This was an important issue for Robert Mondavi Wines. What was the brand to stand for? Hovering behind these issues is the other great curse of an expanding brand; how is it to be funded. Should it remain with the family or be expanded to include outside investors who may take a far more critical eye over capital allocation. There is no business like the wine business for absorbing capital.
Roberts's sons, Michael the General Manager and Timothy the winemaker split on many of these basic issues. Michael had a vision of a much larger company while Timothy was more cautious and worried about wine quality and maintaining the image required to sell fine and expensive wine. While the financials of the Robert Mondavi business are touched upon they are not exhaustively treated but enough is revealed to show that while a prestigious image had been built money was always tight. As with Robert and his brother at Charles Krug so it became with Michael and Timothy, with Timothy feeling that Michael was enjoying a better lifestyle. The unfolding drama of Roberts's two sons is a desperate battle and an unsettling one
The Mondavi group was pulled between the idea of making the greatest possible wines and the lofty images that go with this and whether they could leverage off the prestigious brand that had been built to sell the higher volumes which would be more financially rewarding. Quality at all costs versus quantity hovers in the background of most wine companies. While the Robert Mondavi brand brought fame to the family and a good lifestyle it is apparent that at times it was only marginally profitable and this will come as no surprise to those who understand the wine business.
Was it right for Michael to do the misguided deal with Walt Disney, mid 1998, to promote the family brand in Disneyland's, in a go for growth strategy, at the risk of destabilising the prestigious nature of the brand? And doesn't that growth approach sit oddly with the Baron Philippe de Rothschild partnership that dated back to 1978? This was a union that brought much prestige to the Robert Mondavi brand and was a personal relationship much loved by Robert.
Once the decision was made to expand and seek outside equity a financial drama slowly unfolds that leads to a listed company and finally the loss of the company.
Robert was also a visionary not only for his own business, the wines of the Napa and California but on a much larger scale as a proselytiser of wine and the pleasures it brings to enjoying a happier and better life. And perhaps under the influence of what he saw as the best of the European wine ideals he wrestled with the view of how much wine should be seen as a business and how much as a form of art.
The author brings to life a great wine and business story, including sibling rivalry over two generations, lots of quarrelling among a vengeful family, hovering investors sharks, the life of the rich and famous, board room intrigue, and all the while the aristocratic Robert tries to remain composed as his building slowly turns to dust.
You have to ask why one man would go through such anguish just to bring us a decent bottle?
The great man was born on June 18th 1913 and died on May 16th 2008.