To Kalon, Moonstruck and Mondavi
The Final Blend
by Anthony Gismondi
For all you youngsters out there who live and die by your cell phones, iPads and touch-screen computers have you ever wondered how all that technology came about? The answer is in the race to the moon. On February 20, 1962 astronaut John Glen piloted the “Friendship 7” spacecraft on the first, US-manned mission completing a successful three-orbit tour around the earth and the race to miniaturise computer components was on.
Some four years later in a seemingly unrelated event, the Robert Mondavi Winery at Oakville opened for business in bucolic Oakville about an hour north of San Francisco. In those days, Napa Valley was about as far away from France and the centre of the wine world, as the moon must have appeared to NASA scientists working at Cape Canaveral. Yet both were on a mission: NASA to get to the moon, and Robert Mondavi to reach for the moon. Oddly some twenty years down the road their paths would cross in a vineyard.
For Mondavi it began with the phylloxera scourge of the late 1990s in his beloved To Kalon Vineyard. Always looking to improve and always looking for an edge Robert turned to the scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California to explore the use of high altitude photography developed from space to further study vineyards.
The project was cutting edge in the day. NASA supplied the winery with high spatial resolution airborne imagery acquired in California’s Napa Valley in 1993 and 1994 as part of the Grapevine Remote sensing Analysis of Phylloxera Early Stress (GRAPES) project. Investigators from NASA, the University of California, the California State University, and Robert Mondavi Winery examined the application of airborne digital imaging technology to vineyard management, with emphasis on detecting the phylloxera infestation in California vineyards.
As time has gone on the technology has spread to every corner of the wine world to help viticulturalists and winemakers better understand their vineyards as a whole. Knowing what’s going on in the vineyard has been at the heart of winemaking since grapes were first planted although obtaining such information required a lifetime of harvests not to mention uncountable forays into the vineyard by winemakers and viticulturalists walking the rows one-by-one. You might say Robert was on his own mission and anything that could be done to satisfy a better ending was done. Over the years Robert was often heard to say. “If you think you have a really good idea (and it doesn’t cost too much) then do something about.”
To be sure, everyone still walks the vineyards at Mondavi, but now when they enter a specific block, (before, during and after every growing season), they do so with a wealth of computer-analysed information that leaves no stone unturned, or is it that they leave every stone exactly where it should be?
As early as 2002, director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens was not just walking the rows and tasting the grapes in preparation for harvest; she was using a hand-held, wireless device to select which sides of the rows were to be picked by the crews. The notion of not picking everything at once, or the thought that To Kalon is a series of very different blocks that should be handled individually, was another Mondavi tenet that helped them to grow the quality of their now famous Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Over time, now across five decades, the attention to detail at Mondavi has served the wines and To Kalon Vineyard well. Certainly there is a much greater understanding of the terroir and all its minute changes in soil, microclimate, slope and drainage and how they define each block and the distinct characteristics and flavours in the grapes. Today, not only are the grapes planted in specific soils with clones and rootstocks now known to be the most simpatico, but they are spaced, watered, pruned, shoot-thinned, green-harvested, leaf plucked and generally babied until harvest all with the aid of the latest in overhead photography that can chart every inch of the vineyard’s health.
A recent three-day visit revealed that while Robert Mondavi is no longer with us his spirit still dominates the winery, the team and To Kalon Vineyard. We began our visit by tasting some of the great wines of the world made by Mondavi’s competitors. As unusual as it is to serve the opposition’s wine at your winery, the folks at Mondavi have always embraced the competition, believing fine wine producers are all part of a bigger extended family. Early on Mondavi challenged the great wines of Bordeaux, often getting tasters to try his wines blind alongside some of the best in the world. Win or lose, just being in the same row was enough to grab some recognition and more often than not his generous, well-made reds would top the tastings.
Meeting the competition head on is no longer an earth-shaking business practice but in its day, in the wine business, it was almost unheard of among marketers. The real news is nothing much has changed at the winery. In fact, under chief winemaker Genevieve Janssens and wine educator Mark de Vere with no shortage of support from the ageless Margrit Mondavi, the Robert Mondavi Winery may be more fanatical today about the To Kalon project then when it began back in 1966.
In his book Harvests of Joy, Robert Mondavi talks about his decision to build his reputation on To Kalon. The “vineyard stood head and shoulders above those around it. It was a vineyard with a distinguished history and a magical nature. Ideal soils, sunlight and rain—to my eye, the vineyard was a treasure. Walking through To Kalon, admiring its contours and vines, smelling the richness of its soil, I knew this was a very special place.”
Even the name the original founder, Hamilton Crabb, had given to this vineyard a century ago, resonated with Mondavi. “It perfectly captured my guiding ambition and spirit. In Greek, To Kalon means ‘highest quality’ or ‘highest good.’ To me that meant, simply, ‘The Best.’
Robert’s dream to build a boutique winery on the edge of Napa Valley’s Highway 29, visible to travellers passing by, changed everything about how wineries would interact with their customers for the next 50 years. Despite the current inroads being made by social media, the Mondavi roadside boutique winery with a tasting room and the ability to sell direct to its customers remains vital to the bottom line of wineries worldwide.
Robert’s fixation with varietal wine (give the consumer some information that they can latch onto) was another monumental block in the foundation of a North American wine culture. Despite his role in catapulting varietal wine to prime time world-wide Mondavi was obsessed with appellation and place long before the rest of America would come to know that all great wines come from somewhere, and for that he had To Kalon.
Parts of the 450-acre To Kalon Vineyard were originally planted by Hamilton Walker Crabb, a noted Napa Valley winegrowing pioneer in the 1860s, although the bulk of the property has been replanted several times. The ‘Region Two’ site on the Winkler Scale spreads from the gravelly/alluvial loams of the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains east to Highway 29 where the profile is deeper and contains more clay. To Kalon is a huge contributor to the Mondavi Napa Valley, Oakville District, and Reserve wine programs. At the moment two wines are vineyard designated: Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc Reserve and To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 2004, 100 acres were sold to Opus One. Beckstoffer owns 89 acres of the To Kalon Vineyard leaving total planted acres under Robert Mondavi Winery at 439 including a staggering 90 vineyard blocks with an average size of 5 acres. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the site followed by Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Semillon, and a single block of Syrah.
Over the years Mondavi would also engage in several joint ventures with international producers of great stature: Bordeaux’s famed Baron Philippe Rothschild (Opus), with Eduardo Chadwick (Seña) in Chile and with the Frescobaldi family (Luce) in Italy. While many consider these business machinations a distraction and perhaps an indulgence that took some lustre away from the Napa operation, Mondavi’s insistence on working with other cultures and exchanging wine making information was all based on reaching for the stars.
Still my tastings (which date back to the late 1970s) do not lead me to think the wines are anything but Californian. On this issue Tim Mondavi has written, “at home in California, we have always pursued wines that reflect the richness and ripeness of our climate while adding dimensions of elegance and finesse that we associate with the great wines of the world.”
The current guardian of the style at Mondavi is chief winemaker Genevieve Janssens who launched her career in 1974, coincidentally a significant vintage at Mondavi. In those days she was working in her family’s vineyards in Corsica and France. By the mid-seventies, she ran an enology lab in Provence and served as consulting enologist to many French chateaux, eventually working in the lab at Mondavi in 1978/79. After a decade of work around California, Janssens returned to the Mondavi family in 1989 to become Director of Production at Opus One Winery. In 1997, when an opening came up at Robert Mondavi she jumped at the chance to get back and in 2000, she helped implement the To Kalon Project, the winery’s first major renovation since it was founded in 1966.
The three most prominent post phylloxera developments at Mondavi are high-density planting (the Mondavis now boast the largest collection of high-density vineyards in California), an all-oak fermentation process to complement the gentle handling from harvest through the cellar, and bottling wines without filtration. The multi-level To Kalon Fermentation Cellar features 56, large oak vat fermenters.
I well remember tasting the 2000 vintage reds and noting the almost overnight changes. In a vineyard tasting of two 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon (one grown at the highest density 4’x4’ or 2700 vines per acre; the other the more normal 8’x12’ spacing or 450 vines per acres) the difference in flavour and texture were dramatic.
The high density wine was darker in colour and richer in soft tannins and fruit compared with the almost watered down flavours of the sample made from vineyards planted to a lesser density. Still reeling from that experiment I tasted another pair of 2000 Cabernet Sauvignons, this time one fermented in stainless steel and the other made in the latest oak vats at To Kalon. The results mirrored the differences noted during the high-density tasting. This time the cabernet fermented in the all-oak vats was plusher, rounder and more sensuous in the mouth, not to mention well-stuffed and surprisingly easy to sip.
Combining the two techniques over the last 13 years has yielded some impressive results. About that time Mondavi also cut production of its top end wines to further increase quality, and by default, improve all of the wines below the top end via the trickle down technique.
With nearly three decades of experiments behind it there is nothing to suggest the folks at Mondavi will change. The plan is just as Mr. Mondavi charted it back in 1966 – make the best wine you possibly can and challenge that wine every vintage to be better. After all, if you have a good idea your duty is to do something about it. Reach for the stars.
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