Tim Mondavi is the winegrower and partner of Continuum Estate, founded in 2005 with his sister Marcia Mondavi Borger and late father Robert. After graduating in 1974 with a degree from U.C. Davis in viticulture and enology, Tim joined the winemaking team at Robert Mondavi Winery, becoming its director of winemaking until 2004. During that time, Tim developed, or was an integral part of, multiple international joint ventures forged while at Robert Mondavi Winery. They include Opus One in Napa Valley, Seña in Chile, Luce della Vite and Ornellaia in Italy, and Kirralaa in Australia.
We interviewed Tim Mondavi for WineSpeed in September 2019.
Asked what it was like growing up in the Mondavi family, Tim has said:
Tim Mondavi: “I was fortunate to have grown up on the grounds of Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, CA where the vineyards and the winery were my playground. The biggest thing going in St. Helena at the time was the high school football team that was undefeated for 80 games. I was born in 1951, and back then nobody had heard of Napa Valley, and wine in America was thought of very differently. The only good food around was made at home since the restaurant scene was extremely limited. My mother, Marjorie, was a great cook and my grandmother, Rosa, was famous for her Italian cuisine. Our home served as a hospitality center, and all the conversations at my father’s table were always about wine.”
Tim spent his early years on the Mondavi crushpad in the formidable company of his father, as well as the now iconic winemakers Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich (who would go on to make the two wines that bested a slew of famous French wines in the legendary Paris Tasting of 1976).
Tim Mondavi: “I worked at Robert Mondavi every year since it began. I put the first valves on the first tanks as a 15-year-old kid. That first harvest in 1966 was before there was a roof on the cellar, but dad was hell-bent for election to have it happen, and it did. The following year, the Chappellet’s had their first crush, and it was at Robert Mondavi winery; and I worked on their wines with Warren.”
On the cusp of his taking over direction of production and vineyard management, Tim recalls a formative family trip in 1973:
Tim Mondavi: “My dad took us on a tour of some of Europe’s main wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Germany and Italy. After we’d toured in Italy, he said to us: ‘One day we’ll make wine here’.”
Twenty years later, after successful joint ventures with Opus One in Napa and Seña in Chile, Mondavi started looking for opportunities in Italy, and was drawn to Tuscany. The concept was always the same: to create a great wine that reflected its origin. Tim would ultimately gain a wide breadth of wine knowledge from his international endeavors, which also included Australia.
Tim Mondavi: “We grew wine in Lodi, California, and farther afield in Tuscany, raising Luce della Vite Montalcino as well as Ornellaia in Bolgheri. In Chile I was a part of developing Seña in the Aconcagua Valley, and Arboleda and Caliterra in Colchagua Valley. This hands-on experience in these areas reinforced in me a great appreciation for site.”
Mondavi winery’s rapid expansion, and the need to replant vineyards after phylloxera hit the Valley in the late 1980s, led Robert Mondavi winery to go public in 1993 to raise cash. By 2004, the family had lost their voting majority, and the Board of Directors sold the winery to Constellation Brands, who bought out the family’s shares.
Tim Mondavi: “My dad started the winery in 1966 and over the years it expanded all around the world. To make a long story short, we went public in 1993 but our board grew enthusiastic about leveraging my father’s good name and lost sight of the vision and the clarity of focus that my grandfather and my father had. I was against it, but they (the board of directors) decided they knew better, and that I was just a silver-tongued artiste.”
“It is clear now that the best wines are grown, not made. And the very best are grown in the best of sites. As they say, the best wines bear the footprints of the winegrower.”
Tim Mondavi was 53 when he started over with Continuum, the same age as his father was when he split from his family and Charles Krug Winery to found Robert Mondavi Winery. Tim’s sister, Marcia Mondavi Borger, who lives in New York, and his late father Robert (then 93), joined Tim in the Continuum partnership, followed soon after by the fourth generation. Three of Tim’s five children, Dante, Carissa, and Chiara, (an artist who designed the Continuum label), and Marcia’s son, Brian Mondavi Borger, are now actively involved in the estate.
Tim Mondavi: “My purpose is to make Continuum recognized among the best wines in the world. Simply put, great wine requires two things, a great site and a team committed to respecting it and realizing its full potential. I’ve got a fabulous team led by Steve Nelson, our associate winemaker who works with me. I call all the picks, and I am involved in all the blends, and I listen, and defer occasionally when it makes sense to me.”
At first, the single wine – a Bordeaux blend – was made with grapes sourced from two vineyards in Oakville, Marjorie’s Vineyard (named after Tim’s mother) and the famous To Kalon vineyard, the source of Robert Mondavi’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Later, Tim purchased a vineyard on Pritchard Hill, a hillside site on the eastern slopes of Napa Valley.
Tim Mondavi: “I believe the great wines of the world faithfully reflect their sites. The first three vintages from Continuum emphasize our family’s historic roots in Oakville. Since 2008 we have sourced grapes predominantly from our Pritchard Hill vineyards and as of 2012, Continuum is 100% estate grown.”
Early on in his career, Tim preferred the term “winegrower” to “winemaker.” When asked why, he said:
Tim Mondavi: “I believe the term ‘winemaker’ was popularized in America post-prohibition. The New World is the only place where the term ‘winemaker’ is used. Lab-coated scientists, trained as winemakers were able to weave through the post-prohibition challenges, focusing their magic on cellar activities where wine was made. It is clear now that the best wines are grown, not made. And the very best are grown in the best of sites. As they say, the best wines bear the footprints of the winegrower.”
Tim purchased the property on Pritchard Hill for its 41 acres of primarily cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, and a bit of petit verdot and merlot, planted in 1990. The vineyard ranges from 1325 to 1600 feet of elevation, and counts Bryant Family, Colgin, Chappellet, and Dalla Valle vineyards as neighbors.
Tim Mondavi: “There are boulders as big as truck wheels dotted around – Ann Colgin, whose vineyards are a stone’s throw away, had to dynamite her land to plant.”
To design the estate’s winery, Mondavi tapped celebrated architect Howard Backen, who is responsible for the Harlan winery as well as buildings for Apple and Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.
Tim Mondavi: “If you draw a line from the tower of Robert Mondavi Winery, east southeast through the crown of Opus One and go up the eastern side of the valley, you’ll end up right here at the Continuum vineyard and winery on Pritchard Hill.”
When asked if he’d ever thought about a life outside of wine, Tim has said:
Tim Mondavi: “Before wine, I considered marine biology. I love the ocean and diving. I find it fascinating – the intricacy of nature. When you’re below, everything is brand new and filled with wonder. We take it for granted. I was also fascinated by architecture. It’s a way of interacting with people and doing something functional and beneficial in an efficient, effective way.”
Robert Mondavi died in 2008 at the age of 94. His legacy is far-reaching and still resonates. Tim’s brother, Michael, has spoken of the need to escape their father’s ‘shadow.’ Was that Tim’s experience?
Tim Mondavi: “For me it wasn’t a shadow, it was a light. His passion for discovery and his passion for excellence was something I was always close to, and I’m still doing that. But you have to figure out what’s appropriate for the day, and what gets your own juices going.”