Napa Wine Giant Michael Mondavi on His Favorite Role in the Business

Jun. 24, 2019

Meet Michael Mondavi

Michael Mondavi’s unofficial start to wine began around his junior high years, where he grew up 100 yards from the Charles Krug Winery that his family owned. This winery was essentially his jungle gym and his very memorable first job was cleaning underneath the tall Redwood tanks. He’d crawl under, flip on his back and scrape and scrub underneath the wood tanks to ensure they were clean. 

“What I learned that summer was that in winemaking, sanitation is very, very important,” Mondavi said. “My father and uncle were so focused that they wanted to make sure that the winery was immaculate and clean, but they also wanted to make sure that they kind of drilled into my head the importance of sanitation in winemaking because we look at wine as food. The winery, although much larger, has to be cleaner than a normal kitchen.”

Looking back on his career in wine, which spans an impressive five decades, Mondavi has been in many roles and can easily choose a favorite: a teacher, of sorts. 

When we spoke to him about this role, his smile got bigger and his eyes got brighter talking about witnessing customers and consumers making the connection when tasting different grapes, the fermented juice and the finished product. 

“To watch people as they learn about the importance of the soil, the climate, the maturity level of the grapes which give you additional layers of flavor in the wine, it’s just really fun to see,” Mondavi said. “As you’re describing this and they’re experiencing it at the same time, to me, it’s just a lot of fun teaching people about the wonderful aspects of wine.”

Michael Mondavi

There’s a unique personal touch Mondavi brings to the wine industry, and that’s his effort to connect with sellers one-on-one. When asked about what may have been a little-known fact about him directly reaching out and calling customers and consumers, he pulled out a spreadsheet of this month’s chosen few. Each month, employees at Folio Fine Wine Partners will share standout customers or consumers for Michael to call and thank them for their business.

An example from the most recent spreadsheet: Michael reached out to thank a customer who recently ordered BenMarco Malbec (Argentina), Fillaboa Albariño (Spain) and Ricasoli Chianti (Italy) by the glass for his very busy Irish pub. The call was nice and short and the customer was very appreciative to receive a call from Michael Mondavi himself, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes the person on the receiving end believes they’ve been pranked. 

Mondavi recalls a particularly funny conversation he had recently: “I called a customer and said, ‘Hi, this is Michael Mondavi from Folio Fine Wine Partners,’ and he said ‘Yeah right,’ and hung up on me. I laughed, hit redial, and when he answered, I very quickly said, ‘Write this phone number down! It’s a Napa area code! This is Michael Mondavi, call me back,’ and I hung up on him! He calls me back and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I thought it was a sales rep messing with me!’ I said, ‘That is the greatest compliment I could get.’”

It’s clear that Mondavi’s passion is for meaningful connections and family. Mondavi’s mother taught him to not go out and simply make sales, that you must take time to thank the people who have helped you along the way. That’s why he makes those calls now, to thank customers and consumers for what they did for his wine business.

When it comes to family, not only does he exclusively work with family wineries, he co-founded Michael Mondavi Family Estate with his wife Isabel and two children Rob Jr. and Dina in 1999. Both Rob and Dina bring their own set of skills to the family business. Rob loves the vineyards and has been responsible for winemaking since the beginning. And Dina focuses on sales, marketing and the family’s philanthropic efforts.

“Women have better palates than most men,” Mondavi said. “And so even though Rob is the main winemaker, in the final blending as we're tasting, let’s say three different cabernets, Rob and I will agree ‘Well, wine two and three are almost identical, so either one of those is fine,’ and Dina will stop us. ‘No, they’re not. Wine two has just a little more elegance and a little more finesse.’ Rob and I will concede, ‘Wine two it is!’

“The whole objective was to make wonderful wines that are an expression of the soil but also enhance the lifestyle,” Mondavi said. “If the wine doesn't taste good and invite you back to the glass, as my grandmother said, ‘Go back to work.’"

After the family sold Robert Mondavi in 2004, Michael, Isabel, Rob and Dina established Folio Fine Wine Partners in the same year. The idea for this second business was to bring outstanding wines to American consumers.

“I'm convinced that the best wines in the world will be produced by family-owned, family-managed wine companies,” Mondavi said. “We have developed a reputation among the families that we represent for not just moving boxes, but for trying to build their family image and brand image in the United States market while meeting the sales and marketing objectives.”

Having been a grape grower and winemaker for decades provides Mondavi the credibility when it comes to engaging with other winemakers within his portfolio because they, essentially, speak the same language. 

He recalled a tour through a producer’s cellar where he saw some practices that he felt were obsolete. He mentioned his own experience to the producer in updating that technique and how it helped increase the liveliness and the character of the wines. 

The producer made the change and according to Mondavi, “Their wine quality just went up another level.”

His favorite role, teacher, is always at play, but he admits he’s still a student in wine at times. 

“One minute a student, the next minute a teacher, and that idea exchange allows each of us to grow in knowledge and in quality,” Mondavi said. “It's fun. And if we don't learn something, at least one thing a day, we've wasted that day.”
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