Robert Parker, Jr. and Robert Mondavi aren’t the only non-French members of
the wine trade to have received that country’s Legion of Honor medal in recognition of contributions to Gaul’s glorious culture — but their numbers are not, er, legion. And the two Bobs have much more in common than a massive medal. Both are basically self-made men, both have enormous egos, and both have made singular contributions to wine culture. To get the full, fascinating story, you will be obliged to read two books. The Mondavi missive contains certain soap-opera aspects while the Parker story has overtones of Horatio Alger.
Elin McCoy’s meticulous research and apparent objectivity inform every page of The Emperor of Wine, subtitled The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, to the extent that I often wondered how she could possibly have come upon so much information without having been a very long-lived fly on the wall. From Parker’s meatloaf and soda-pop upbringing to his elevation to the position of Most Powerful Wine Critic in the World, it’s all there — and none of it likely would have happened without a woman. Parker’s pursuit of Pat, the woman who’s still his wife of nearly 40 years, took him to France during her university year abroad in 1967, and from his first taste of vin ordinaire, we are led to believe, he was hooked. On both wine and France.
Back home, where he was to pursue a law degree at the University of Maryland with much less ardor than he had pursued Pat, Parker began to devote increasing amounts of time to his parallel passion by organizing tasting groups, reading and re-reading wine books, and buying entry-level wines that he would never deign to approach today. Fortunately for Parker, he had both an extraordinary sense of smell and taste and a mate who shared his passion and could speak fluent French; soon, all the couple’s vacations were spent tasting through the chais (cellars) of France.
Parker’s star rose slowly at first, but his focus was relentless. The halting, mimeographed beginnings of The Wine Advocate, the establishment of the 100-point rating system — radical at the time — his eventual abandonment of the practice of law in favor of a full-time wine focus, and his increasing ability to make or break markets are all chronicled. So, too, are the conflicts with other critics and publications (The Wine Spectator got its start at around the same time), the lawsuits (according to McCoy, Parker has always been scrupulous in paying his own way), and his transition to verb: to Parkerize.
Parkerization has to do with winemakers creating wines — through viticultural and other means — to please Parker, whose taste notoriously leans toward big, heavily extracted wines. Not everyone is pleased with this development, however, and one winemaker complains that, “Critics always talk natural wines, but it is often the fucked-with wines that are the 93- to 95-pointers.”
Not everyone was pleased with the trajectory of the Mondavi dynasty during its heyday, either. That the name didn’t also become a verb is probably due to family squabbles; the power to move Merriam-Webster was certainly there.
With its copious notes and sources, Julia Flynn Siler’s The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty is as densely detailed as McCoy’s tome, but it has one advantage: a larger and much more charismatic cast of characters. The Mondavis believe in blood (in both the familial and revenge sense), and it is the primacy of family that brings about and destroys their
Robert Mondavi is the eldest son of Italian immigrants Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, who eventually settled in California’s San Joaquin Valley where Cesare ran a grape and fruit wholesale business. Unlike Parker’s upbringing, wine was a part of the Mondavi family’s daily life, and while it was Cesare who first realized that a market for better wines would open up after Prohibition, it was Robert, while working in Napa Valley with a winery called Sunny St. Helena, who learned of the sale of the deteriorating Charles Krug winery, one of the valley’s oldest. In a sign of his future entrepreneurial spirit, he proposed to his father that the family buy it; in a sign of her behind-the-scenes power, it was Rosa who convinced the reluctant patriarch to pursue the idea.
In the breakup of later years (a fur coat famously figures in the fracas), and with Cesare now departed, Rosa sided with her younger son Peter, forcing Robert out of the now burgeoning business and leading to decades of animosity. But the split also led to Robert’s decision, at age 52, to build his own winery — not just for himself but for his eldest son, Michael. The Krug-Mondavi dynasty may have been sundered, but it would rise again in different form. That Robert’s younger son, Timothy, wasn’t part of Robert’s plans at the time was not without its portent.
Strapped for cash after the coup, Mondavi borrowed massively to buy the part of the famous To Kalon vineyard in Napa his family didn’t already own and to build an estate-style winery inspired by trips to France. Siler carefully covers the Robert Mondavi Winery’s struggling early years, its rise to prominence on the American wine scene, and its eventual alliance with France’s Rothschild family to produce Opus One. Along the way, she dissects the personalities of all the players: regal Robert with his fierce loyalty to family and to the charitable causes that finally helped lay low the empire; outgoing Michael with his expansionist ideas (which even extended to a Disneyland fiasco); and poetic Timothy, the idealistic winemaker with a wandering eye for women. And in producing this inspirational/cautionary tale, she’s another wall-fly in the witnessing of the epic struggles between family members that were responsible first for taking the company public, then for its inevitable sale.
After reading Siler’s more-mature rendition of Falcon Crest, you will inevitably think of Mondavi the next time you pick up a California wine under any label; for all its flaws, the family helped make the industry’s success possible. And even without reading McCoy’s compelling chronicle, though you should, it is impossible to escape Parker and his Wine Advocate scores; many shops and internet operations sell on this basis almost alone. Two names, a world of wine transformed. •