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The House of Mondavi  - Julia Flynn Siler
Gotham Books, June 2007
Review by David Farmer

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.


Ten Company Histories and Biographies of Our Wine Pioneers  - *(see note for details)

Review by David Farmer

In the wine business 50 years is too short for reflection while one hundred years spans several generations and covers a wide variety of trading conditions. Companies that are still family owned and trading after 100 years are the rare survivors and it was at this point that most of them commissioned a company history. Many great contributors to the Australian wine history, and to single out one, Alexander Kelly's Tintara, did not survive for long and we know little about them. more...


Bouquet  - G. B. Stern
Alfred A Knoff, New York, Second printing, 1928 (First published June, 1927)
Review by David Farmer

I cannot recall how I got to know about Bouquet. I purchased a copy from a dealer on Amazon for $30.00. I read books like this to gain a better idea of how wine was thought about prior to say 1950-1960, before it exploded in popularity in the English speaking countries and turned perhaps a simpler pleasure into the scientifically studied beverage of today. more...


The House of Mondavi  - Julia Flynn Siler
Gotham Books, June 2007
Review by David Farmer

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. more...


What Can You Learn from Seven Centuries of Trade.
Sherry
 - Julian Jeffs
Faber and Faber Limited, London. First Edition, 1961. A revised second edition was published in 1970.
Review by David Farmer

Why would you want to read a book on an unfashionable drink like sherry? What would I find coming back to a book I first read in the mid 1970's? At the time of release it was much praised and subsequent editions came out in 1970 and 1978. more...


Notes on a Cellar Book  - George Saintsbury
Published in 1920 with numerous reprints. Reissued 1978 (Macmillan)
Review by David Farmer

This short book had an enormous impact on wine writing after publication in 1920 and was quoted extensively for the next two decades and was still referred to by wine writers in the 1960's. It may be seen as a forerunner of later books that taught you how to enjoy wine by personal reminiscing about wines and in this way guided readers through the maze of wine types and wine lore. more...


The Heartbreak Grape, A Journey in Search of the Perfect Pinot Noir  - Marq de Villiers
Harper Collins, 1993, Toronto, Canada
Review by David Farmer

Pinotphiles is the name given to consumers who are dedicated to the mysteries and flavour of pinot noir. No other grape variety has such a band of promoters and to satisfy their needs a dozen or so ‘pinot celebrations’ are held every few years in the old and newly emerging pinot regions. more...


The Romance of Wine  - H. Warner Allen
Ernest Benn Limited, London, 1931
Review by David Farmer

'When the Portuguese are really enjoying themselves, they sing and dance to a noise resembling that of a heavy bombardment, and in a festival in the mountains at Amarante I was completely deafened by the unceasing roar of about sixty sheepskin drums beaten furiously, broken by violent dynamite explosions.'

This is Warner Allen’s picture of the locals in the Douro region who enjoy letting off rockets with sticks of dynamite attached when celebrating. Any book that discovered a tradition like that has something interesting to say. more...


In Search of Wine, A tour of the Vineyards of France  - Charles Walter Berry
Constable and Company, 1935. Republished in 1987 by Sidgwick and Jackson
Review by David Farmer

In late 1934 Charles Walter Berry undertook an eight week tour through the vineyards of France and In Search of Wine is the record of what is considered a ‘famous’ journey. In the introduction to the 1987 reprint by Jancis Robinson, she notes that, ‘Walter made wine trade history by venturing into the cellars of those who supplied him,…in order to understand better the product he was selling and to survey, in unparalleled depth for the time, the French vignoble.’ more...


Ancient Wine, The Search for the Origins of Viniculture  - Patrick E. McGovern
Princeton University Press, 2003
Review by David Farmer

We do not know when humans first began to enjoy fermented wine beverages. Ancient Wine traces the origin of the deliberate making of alcohol back to the early Neolithic, about 7000 years ago. A seasonal or occasional drinking of alcoholic beverages probably goes back much further as many fruits collected in a container would ferment naturally. The current warm cycle of the ice age commenced about 10,000 years ago and this also marked a change, in a region of the Middle East, when humans turned from nomadic hunter gatherers to the first permanent settlements based around the cultivation of cereal crops. It is suggested that the earliest permanent settlements began in Eastern Turkey in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. more...


In Praise of Wine  - Alec Waugh
1959, (Cassel)
Review by David Farmer

In Praise of Wine is a book of personal reminiscences about wine and follows the style of the educated amateurs who wrote before and immediately after the Second World War. This book though was published in 1959 and has crossed into an era in which wine books were beginning to contain detailed descriptions of wine regions and technical aspects of wine making, the forerunners of today’s large wine publishing industry. This in turn heralded the end of the amateur commentator. more...


Stay Me with Flagons  - Maurice Healy
Michael Joseph, 1949
Review by David Farmer

The English wine trade has given us many things, such as wine and food societies, a great depth of literature covering the descriptive and technical aspects of wine and wine regions, notably on French wine, a sophisticated wine auction system and more recently teaching schools such as the Masters of Wine. more...


The New France
A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine
 - Andrew Jefford
Mitchell Beazley 2002
Review by David Farmer

How strange to divide wine writers into a wine left or right. It will help you to enjoy the early chapters of this book if you have a soft left interpretation of the world wine industry, and enjoy railing against the globalisation of wine, the sameness of taste, the industrialisation of wine and a future driven by world wide brands. This book takes the proposition that the true way to make wine comes from those who bond with the ground, who work the vineyard night and day, break their backs, and by so doing achieve in almost a religious sense a bonding with the earth, the place and the wine produced. more...


You Heard It Through The Grapevine - Shattering the myths about the wine business  - Stuart Walton
Aurum Press, London, 2001
Review by David Farmer

There are a great many wine books written each year. The problem is that it is hard to come up with a new perspective to make a book stand out. The wine industry evolves slowly which means most books are derivative. In this case it would seem that the publishers asked for a book that reveals the hidden secrets of a business that some may see as being full of mystery, hence the sub title of this book. more...


The Classic Book on Cocktails
The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks
 - David Embury
the first edition was in America in 1948 and Faber and Faber published the first British edition in 1953
Review by David Farmer

Some books give you such pleasure that you always want them nearby. And in my adventures into drinks no book has impressed me as much or given me more pleasure than this masterpiece on the art of making cocktails.

There are dozens of books about making cocktails, rather like there are about food, but few are worth the cover price. None approach the quality of this classic book. more...


Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines  - James Wilson
Mitchell Beazley 1998
Review by David Farmer

Any vineyard owner will tell you that certain areas of their vineyard make better tasting grapes than other areas. Why some areas of vineyards and vineyard districts deliver better grapes and hence better wine is the subject of terroir studies. The Europeans and particularly the French are very interested in this topic. They extend the meaning of the word which we can roughly say is the flavour effects that come from the vineyard location to include cultural ideas which unite man with the soil. more...


Penfolds-The Rewards of Patience  - Andrew Caillard M.W.
(Fifth Edition)
Review by David Farmer

In the simplest term this is a consumers guide to all the Penfolds red and white wines. The tasting notes cover wines made by Penfolds in the 1950's right through to the current releases. There are tasting notes for every wine, apart from the Rawsons Retreat wines, the Koonunga Hill whites and one or two others which I detect the winemakers wish they did not have to make under the Penfolds banner. Others wines such as the Penfolds Old Vine Semillon which were part of edition 4 have been dropped off. more...


Classification of Australian Wines  - Dan Murphy
Macmillan 1974
Review by David Farmer

I’m a bit of a collector of wine books and recently purchased a first edition signed by Dan Murphy and by the great Hunter vigneron Max Lake. It cost $20.00 from the Berkelouw bookstore on Oxford Street, Sydney, where I buy a lot of second-hand wine books. I first read this book in 1975. Back then it was seen as a bold attempt to classify Australian vineyards and wines in a hierarchical system similar to the French appellation classification. It was a very useful book. Thirty years on it acts as a timepiece and is worth reviewing to see how the wine industry has evolved. more...


Real Wine - The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking  - Patrick Matthews
Mitchell Beazley 2000
Review by David Farmer

This is one of a number of wine books published over the last few years, mostly by English authors, which take the view that there is a correct way to make wine and this is only known and followed by a small number of dedicated winemakers. The core of the argument is that big company winemaking produces ‘industrial’ wines and these lack character, while true wine is made by the artisanal wine maker using tools and methods, often ancient, which reflect the unique character of the site. more...


Ten Company Histories and Biographies of Our Wine Pioneers  - *(see note for details)

Review by David Farmer

In the wine business 50 years is too short for reflection while one hundred years spans several generations and covers a wide variety of trading conditions. Companies that are still family owned and trading after 100 years are the rare survivors and it was at this point that most of them commissioned a company history. Many great contributors to the Australian wine history, and to single out one, Alexander Kelly's Tintara, did not survive for long and we know little about them. more...



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