Monday, November 3, 2008

Book Review: Robert Mondavi – Harvests of Joy (Harcourt, 1998)

We were first exposed to Mondavi wines in the 1970s, when the winery was new and cutting edge. Robert Mondavi was probably the best known “name” in California wine, and certainly in Napa. (OK, so maybe more Americans actually knew Gallo better as a name, but we’re thinking real wine drinkers here.)

Robert Mondavi’s personal story is interesting, and the book is a good look into the wine industry before it became big business. But, sadly, this book is so poorly written that you want to rush through it to get to the meat of the story instead of savoring the nuances as you go along.

Robert Mondavi alludes just once to a writer who assisted him in this work – one wishes that either that writer or the book’s editor at Harcourt would have made a stronger effort to bring the quality of the writing to the level of the quality of the wines Mondavi was producing.

Mondavi Winery was a true innovator in Napa, championing Cabernet Sauvignon, and creating what would turn into one of today’s success stories – Sauvignon Blanc. Mondavi had the marketing wisdom to call it Fume Blanc, and the wine’s distinctive differences from the French white Bordeaux style made it one of Mondavi’s signature wines.

Today, the winery with its Mission architecture and surrounding vineyards still stands as a Napa Valley icon, but the winery is now owned by Constellation Brands, and many of the “Robert Mondavi” wines at the lower end of the spectrum taste like industrial stuff from a factory. (True, the Mondavi Private Reserve Cabernet is still highly sought, and of estimable quality.) Harvests of Joy ends before Mondavi lost the company to a big conglomerate, but reveals the lead-up to that event.

Robert Mondavi died less than a year ago, and it pains us that such an incredible winemaker and inspiration could have produced such a pedestrian work. We never met Robert, so maybe his words in Harvests of Joy truly reflect his personality. But if the intent of a writer is to entertain, illuminate, entrance, and inform his or her reader, this book only serves well in the last sense. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in the history of the Napa wine culture (and how it became the Disneyland tourism dynamic it is today), this is well worth a quick read.