Michael Mondavi on Family Values and Chianti Classico

For Michael Mondavi, third generation winemaker and founder of Folio Fine Wine Partners, there’s an ingredient just as crucial as grapes, weather, and a trained palate in creating fine wine: Family Values. “We want to be proud of every bottle we produce,” Mondavi states, since a family company like Folio represents both its forebears and the generations that come after.

“In the wine business,” Mondavi admits, “Mother Nature is the boss. She can give us an excellent year or she can give us wildfires, which hit our flagship vineyard last year.” While Mondavi feels a less personal company might try to salvage some grapes to maximize profits, he chose to declassify the entire harvest. “Not one bottle of wine was produced from that vineyard,” Mondavi declares, “which was our family’s decision.”

Mondavi sees similar ethics in the newest Folio Italian partner, the Ricasoli family, a noble clan credited with creating the first Chianti Classico, whose regional roots reach back 32 generations. After spending several days with Baron Ricasoli immersed in the vineyards flanking their captivating 11th Century Brolio Castle, the Baron shared thoughts on his legacy: His skills as a winemaker, he felt, were less important than being remembered with respect by future generations.

The Women

For Mondavi, the most powerful source of these family values is women. “People talk about the father of a company, and once it was almost always a male. In our family, the men may have contributed the drive, the experience, the energy,” Mondavi allows, “but the values that we hold sacred, I think those came from the mothers, the grandmothers, the aunts.”

One of Mondavi’s most important business lessons was imparted by his mother decades ago. “After hearing my accomplishments from a business trip, she said: ‘Michael, you need to make time to tell people thank you. Don’t always be asking for the order.’ That made me realize the importance of showing respect for your associates,” which seems to happen so rarely that once, on telling a store owner it was Michael Mondavi phoning simply to say thanks, the shopkeeper replied, “Yeah, right!” and hung up, certain it was a prank.

In his multigenerational family, Mondavi also learns from his children and grandchildren, most recently the importance of traditionally female skills. “When I was a child, boys played with their Tonka trucks and girls learned about delicate things like fragrance,” Mondavi recalls, “and because of that, I think women develop better palates than men. Now my son takes his little boys into the vineyard to teach them the finer points of these beautiful aromas and textures such as the scent of grape juice, which gives them the opportunity to be far better winemakers than my generation.”

The Roots of Entrepreneurship

Mondavi feels family values are vital to entrepreneurship, which sometimes arises from adversity. “My family got into the wine business during Prohibition. When my grandfather saw that households were permitted to make 200 gallons of wine per year, he moved his family from Minnesota to California to sell grapes and winemaking supplies. But we’ve been spoiled in the United States,” Mondavi acknowledges. “We’ve had phylloxera, Prohibition, and the Depression, but we’ve never had a World War coming through our vineyards like our partner families in Europe. The Ricasolis had to rebuild from bare threads after the devastation of war, and I think that family bond, striving to give the next generation a slightly better opportunity, is what drives creativity.”

Chianti Classico of Tomorrow

Expectations for the evolution of Chianti Classico are bright, for both the Mondavis and the Ricasolis. “I think wines and foods have natural cycles,” Mondavi observes, “and some of the wonderful cuisine we paired with Chianti in the 60s and 70s is becoming popular again, but with a modern twist.” Now that ingredients are fresher, the dishes are lighter, which means the wines can be more refined, Mondavi maintains; full bodied but without the intensity needed to cut through heavy foods. “I think Ricasoli’s elegant style of Chianti Classico is going to be a fast growing segment in today’s wine market because there’s so much diversity, from the high end Gran Selezione to simpler wines you’ll want to have Thursday night with pizza because they’re so darn good. Baron Ricasoli might have to add a warning label,” Mondavi jests: “Be careful, you may not be able to stop at one glass.”

Nonna’s Edict

The notion of wines that call for a second or third serving brings Mondavi back to the dinner table of his youth. “My grandmother once advised: ‘Michael, make wine that tastes good.’ When I asked, what do you mean, Nonna? She replied: ‘If people want a second or third or fourth glass, that wine tastes good.’ Then she looked me in the eye and said, ‘But if they only drink one glass, you go back to work!’ Which means the wine that invites you back to the glass is a great wine, and Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico does that.”

Published on November 27, 2018