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by Jonathon Alsop
November 2000


I don't care what anyone says: Robert Mondavi is a wine god.

In a nutshell, right after World War II while the rest of California was saying, "Let's just sell easy-to-make jug wine," Robert Mondavi was saying, "California can be as good or better than the best," which made him only a prophet.

What made him a god was going on to prove it.

Mondavi's Fume Blanc, made from sauvignon blanc, fermented in steel and aged in oak, is a wine other winemakers have been reacting to stylistically for decades without ever duplicating or even matching. His winemaking relationship with the French, especially the Rothschild family in California remains a tremendous coup, also unmatched, in international wine relations. And although others have made great wine both before and since, only Mondavi's 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon put California on the world wine map and proved Napa to be the equal of French Bordeaux.

So how does a wine god spend the free time leading up to his ninetieth birthday, other than by expressing himself in new art forms? He and his wife Magrit brought big paintings, the portrait artiste, and guest chefs to Radius, Boston's hippest restaurant, to celebrate Mondavi's 2000 Award of Excellence.

Painter Rise Delmar Ochsner rendered a handful of chefs on gigantic canvases for the award, and displayed Michael Schlow of Radius, and guest chefs James Laird and Robert Sulatycky. Schlow in repose is Brando-like in his painting, his head and shoulders calm against a dark green background while his feet hover above the hot red floor. Sulatycky sits in a high-backed chair cocking his head to one side and looking at you like you were a bug and he was a carnivorous bird. It seemed like Laird badly needed a shave the day he sat for his portrait, but when I met him in person, it was obvious he looks like that all the time.

"My wife taught me the importance of art," Mondavi said, not exactly the first man ever to have said that, "and it wasn't until I tasted the cooking of three-star chefs that I realized how good a cook my mother was." Thanks to Magrit Mondavi's work, they are launching the American Center for Wine, Food and The Arts, a giant performance and production facility in Napa.

All of which is to say that Mondavi and his wine continue to persist and inspire. His winery is invariably ahead of the power curve, defining and redefining what is American wine. Mondavi himself expands our definition of what it means to be a winemaker as he fuses the art of wine, food, painting, music, theatre, and all Muses.

He deserved the standing ovation.

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