Robert Mondavi, Pioneering Winemaker

Robert Mondavi almost single-handedly convinced the world that Napa Valleyand the U.S.could make world-class wines

Robert Mondavi, the son of Italian peasants who became the patriarch of the U.S. fine wine trade, died peacefully on May 16 at his home in California's Napa Valley. He was 94. His legacy as pioneering vintner, perhaps overly generous philanthropist, and member of a talented and fractious immigrant family is likely to be the subject of business school case studies for years to come.

He started as a lowly paid "cellar rat" in the 1930s and ended up founding a global wine empire that was sold for more than $1 billion after a bitter takeover battle in 2004—encompassing the changes that have engulfed the wine industry. His personal life rivaled the plot lines of Falcon Crest, the nighttime soap opera from the 1980s set in the Napa Valley.

Born in 1913, Mondavi spent the early years of his life in Minnesota's Iron Range, where his parents had settled at the turn of the century. His mother ran a boarding house where sometimes 15 or more immigrant miners lived. His father began taking trips to California to buy wine grapes so members of the local Italian-American Club could make their own wine at home during the early years of Prohibition.

Eventually, the Mondavi family moved to the central California town of Lodi, where Robert Mondavi's father built such a successful business as a grape and fruit wholesaler that he was able to send his two sons, Robert, and his younger brother Peter, to Stanford University.

Sons Must Work Together

Shortly before Mondavi graduated from college in 1936—the first member of his family to do so—his father asked him if he might be interested in entering the fine wine business. At that time, in large part because Prohibition had ended only a few years earlier, most U.S. wines were of poor quality and looked down upon as a beverage of southern European immigrants—dismissively called "dago red" and "dago white."

It was against that backdrop that Mondavi began working in the Napa Valley in 1936 and persuaded his family to purchase a derelict winery called Charles Krug in 1943. Robert's father imposed a single condition on his sons: that they work together to build the business.

The brothers worked hard, and by the 1950s the winery was attracting national attention. By resisting the urge to produce sweet wines, which were the top sellers in the 1940s and 1950s, and focusing instead on crisp, dry white wines, the "Mondavi boys"—as they came to be called—were on a roll.

Family Feud Leads to Split

Their father died in 1959, and Robert, the extrovert and more gifted marketer of the two brothers, began taking trips to Europe to study winemaking techniques. It was a time when the U.S. was falling in love with French food and, along with Julia Child, Mondavi became an evangelist for the idea that food and wine were at the heart of the good life.

Mondavi's ambitions for Charles Krug were not shared by his mother and brother, Peter, however. In 1965 a family feud erupted, leading Mondavi to start his own winery five miles down the road from Charles Krug the following year, and to a sensational court battle in 1976 that created a decades-long split between the brilliant pitchman, Robert, and his introverted younger brother, Peter.

Meanwhile, the Robert Mondavi Winery gained the nickname "Mondavi University" because it was producing some of the country's finest winemakers, including the two who created the winning wines in the famous "Judgment of Paris" tasting of 1976 when French judges chose California wines above their nation's Grand Cru.

California's Moment in the Sun

Two years later another watershed moment occurred in the world's perception of U.S. wines: The Baron Philippe de Rothschild suggested a joint venture between his wine company and the Robert Mondavi Winery. The result was Opus One, a super-premium priced wine that proved Napa Valley bottles could take their place alongside those from Bordeaux as the world's finest.

Robert Mondavi Winery led a new wine and food culture that leapfrogged from America's coastal cities to the heartland, emphasizing education and becoming a pioneer in lifestyle marketing. Mondavi staged concerts in the vineyards and, with his second wife, Margrit Biever, hosted a "Great Chefs" program that brought many of the world's culinary stars to California.

As his own father had before him, Mondavi wanted his two sons, Michael and Timothy, to work in the family business. But, in a repetition of the family pattern, the siblings did not always get along with each other or their demanding father. When the Mondavis took their company public on NASDAQ in 1993, problems in the family were evident even as it expanded to five continents.

Global competition intensified. As joint ventures in Chile and with Walt Disney (DIS) developed, fault lines in the family-controlled business deepened. Robert Mondavi publicly criticized his sons' leadership of the company and, in early 2004, his heir apparent, his eldest son Michael, was ousted from the business.

Making Good on His Pledges

Robert Mondavi did not want to sell Robert Mondavi Corp., but the falling price of the company's shares for a time put in jeopardy his ability to fulfill large philanthropic gifts he had promised. Ultimately, the forced sale of the company to Constellation Brands (STZ) in late 2004 netted him around $70 million, allowing him to make good on his pledges to the University of California at Davis, to Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, which he had founded, and to Stanford University.

The sale meant Mondavi was out of the wine business for the first time in more than half a century. But true to his and his family's tradition of resiliency, he, his wife, Margrit, his younger son, Timothy, and his daughter Marcia started a new wine, Continuum, which was released this spring to critical acclaim.

"It'll take another 10 or 15 years to determine his legacy," his eldest son, Michael, who has started his own business with his son and daughter, said last year. His father, he recalled, was always "very passionate that we [in California] have the soil, the climate, the grape varieties to make some of the best wines in the world. By God, somebody's going to do it, so we're going to do it."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.