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A story of sour grapes

BOOK REVIEW: THE HOUSE OF MONDAVI

Christine Harland is a director of Camden Writers.

The House of Mondavi – The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
By Julia Flynn Siler. Published by Gotham, 2007

This book – which is masterfully written – reads like the script for a television series. Unfortunately, it was all very real.

Landing at Ellis Island in 1908, Cesare Mondavi and his wife Rosa moved to Minnesota, where he worked in the mines. In 1923, they settled in California, where, along with the Gallos and the Franzias, the Mondavis shipped grapes to small winemakers in the east. In 1943, they bought the 147-acre Charles Krug vineyard in the Napa Valley and began to build a respectable business. As the years passed, the differences between Cesare's two sons – Robert, charismatic and dominant, and Peter, quiet, methodical and sometimes indecisive – began to create problems.
 
Cesare arbitrated between his two college-educated sons, but it was not in his reach to establish a plan of succession, nor did he hammer out a uniform vision for the vineyard. When Cesare died in 1959, his wife symbolically moved to the chair at the head of the table and, as major shareholder, she became president of the company. Uneducated, emotional, but tough and prone to favour her younger son, Peter, Rosa ultimately fuelled the petty jealousies that raged between the brothers. In 1965, she backed a plan that cut not only Robert but his son, Michael, out of the Charles Krug Winery. Stung by his mother's betrayal, Robert watched as his brother moved into the corner office.
 
Robert, who had no job and virtually no savings, decided to start his own winery. They broke ground for the new building in 1966, just five miles from the Charles Krug Ranch. Almost immediately, Robert received a letter from the family lawyer, formalising his departure from Charles Krug and insisting that the new winery could not bear the Mondavi name. At a more heartrending level, Robert and his family were no longer invited to break bread at Rosa's dining room table.
 
As Robert's success grew, so also did bad feelings. With the restructuring of the Charles Krug Winery, a move that effectively cut Robert out of the estate, he sued, naming his mother in the lawsuit. Rosa, in her unalloyed fury, disinherited her eldest son and the sister who had sided with him.

Cut to the quick by his family's rejection, Robert did not stop to examine the part he had played in the debacle and, as a result, brought to his new enterprise the qualities that had caused trouble earlier. Robert chose good men, but failed to give them the credit they deserved; he castigated his sons in public and diminished their accomplishments and self-confidence. The robust spirit that drove Robert in business also translated into excessive spending. Divorce and remarriage alienated Robert's children. At some point in the Mondavi story, the moral compass was relegated to the shelf and the heady atmosphere of success created a culture of entitlement.
 
In a stunning repetition of history, Robert's two sons quarreled in a serious way. Robert remained very much in charge of the winery but his eldest son, Michael, came to believe that his father maintained control by keeping his sons in competition with one another. Later, Robert would take responsibility for the unhappy environment he created, but it was too late.  It is here that Siler suggests that Robert, like some other entrepreneurs before him, might have unconsciously sabotaged his successors in order to hold onto the reins a little longer.  By the time he did hand over control, the situation was untenable.
 
In 1993, the Robert Mondavi Winery went public, and for the first time the family could access their assets. Ironically, the newfound wealth heightened tensions, in particular Robert's decision to establish a philanthropic foundation through which he planned to give away a large portion of his holdings. Michael saw it as a negation of the idea of a family business, an entity that he felt should be passed from one generation to the next. His father, felt that he had provided his family with more than enough opportunity.
 
The downward spiral came to a head. As stock prices dropped, Robert's millions of dollars in philanthropic pledges mounted to more than he had available. Wall Street's demands overpowered the family dynasty, the company was put into play and, in 1994, the board of directors, which included no family members, agreed to a $1.35 billion dollar buyout.
 
It did not go unnoticed that Charles Krug, operated by Peter Mondavi and his family, had succeeded where Robert had failed, albeit with difficulties of their own.
At the annual wine auction in June 2005, the two brothers, both nonagenerians, sat on the stage, holding hands.
 
When a reporter asked Robert what had changed to bring the brothers together, he answered with a single word: "Time."

brothers, feud, mondavi, wine
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