In a glass-enclosed structure akin to a giant greenhouse in the midst of the historic Château Mouton Rothschild vineyards, we dined on splendid cuisine accompanied by classified growths from historic Bordeaux vintages. When the meal was done, our hosts escorted us into the vineyards to view a spectacular laser light and water fountain show, culminating in dazzling fireworks that competed with the bolts of lightning in the sky over the vines. The charismatic Baroness Philippine de Rothschild had spared no expense as host of the Conseil des Grand Crus Classes en 1855 international press dinner this year, part of the festivities surrounding Vinexpo, the international wine exposition.
And, as is her nature, the Baroness pulled no punches when she stood at the podium and addressed the gathering of grand cru classé wine producers, journalists and international executives. In particular, she asked us to contemplate the role of the family winery in an age of corporate ownership, consolidation and globalization. A family business, she said, brings certain values, or benefits. “They include continuity of management, the force of a family spirit, strong links forged in the good times and the bad, [and] the personal involvement of the shareholders in important decisions.” She acknowledged the problems involved with family business. “But in the end,” she said, “how lucky we are. For our chateaux are embodied in their owners and our houses are like the vines that surround them. They are alive.”
But life, as we all know, can be messy. I was thinking about the difference between the idealized life of a family in the wine business as projected by the Baroness and the recent high-profile portrait of the Mondavi family in the recent book, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty. As we all know, Robert Mondavi was a visionary who helped form the California wine industry and put it on the international map. There were few precedents for many of the decisions he made, and he pushed the industry forward in terms of varietal selection, vineyard and winery practices, marketing and wine tourism. He was a maverick. But, inevitably, a man of his independent ways and fierce energy is going to make some bad decisions; in Mondavi’s case, they impacted the hold the family had on this public company.
Ironically, Mondavi’s charitable nature was instrumental in this loss of control. He pledged millions of dollars to non-profit entities such as the University of California at Davis and Copia, the American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts. When the Robert Mondavi Winery stock declined after these pledges had been committed, Mondavi became virtually insolvent and vulnerable to a takeover from a larger corporate entity. This was the impetus that drove infighting and splintering in the Mondavi family. Ultimately, it caused the Mondavi’s to lose control of their company.
Robert Mondavi had been an original member of an organization called Primum Familiae Vini, “first families of wine,” an international association of 12 wine families. You know many of these names, because they are wine world royalty: Mouton Rothschild, Antinori, Torres, Symington, Drouhin, Hugel, Muller and, prior to its change of hands, Mondavi, which no longer qualified as a family-owned winery.
I was sitting next to Albiera Antinori, the oldest daughter of the venerable Piero Antinori, at the dinner, and mentioned the book about the Mondavi family to her. Soon after, when the Baroness, speaking so eloquently about the virtues of family and the business of wine, said, “…there are no real chateaux without the families that occupy them,” I saw tears well up in Albiera’s eyes. It was apparent from her reaction that Robert and his family had been a vibrant part of Primum Familiae Vini and they were sorely missed.
It was a stunning and emotionally charged evening, but harsh realities are difficult to ignore. Some may extol the virtues of family wineries. I can certainly agree with many of their goals and principles. But it would be naïve, I think, to focus too obsessively on small and family wineries, casting the larger companies as villains. The quality of wine that is available to most people in the world has never been better, and much of the reason for that is the control and coordination that larger companies can provide. I wish life were simpler, but there’s no going back. We can simply raise a glass in honor of great wine families—and in gratitude for our own families.