March 10, 2007
The Spirit of Robert Mondavi

IMGP0882_edited.jpgPhotographs/Mike Dunne

Put three Napa Valley vintners in a room and before you know it an auction breaks out. One will be the auctioneer, and the other two will spend the rest of the night trying to outbid each other.

This could explain why just four lots were on the block last night when the Culinary Institute of America celebrated the inauguration of the nation's first Vintners Hall of Fame at the school's Napa Valley campus in St. Helena.

There were many other things to attend, mainly the induction of the hall's first nine principals, most notably Robert Mondavi, the only one in the group to be recognized as a "pioneer," the narrowest of the three tiers by which the school is acknowledging contributions to the development of the nation's wine trade.

Some 160 persons occupied the old cask room of the former Christian Brothers winery, where they sat down to a dinner that included a salad of poached lobster and an entree of roast filet of beef topped with seared foie gras, interspersed with tributes to the inductees, who included two former faculty members of the department of viticultre and enology at UC Davis, Maynard Amerine and Harold Olmo.

The bidding on the four lots was brisk, with the last one drawing the most interest, a dinner for 12 to be overseen by Robert Mondavi and his wife Margrit, (above) at his eponymous Napa Valley winery. When bidding got to $16,000, spurred in part by the jovial participation of Robert Mondavi's spry 92-year-old brother, Peter Mondavi Sr. (below, right), auctioneer Fritz Hatton startled the audience by shouting, "Peter wants to have dinner with his brother. Do you believe it? It's about time." But Peter's attention got diverted, and in the end the Mondavis' fellow Napa Valley vintner, Koerner Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards, bought the Mondavi dinner with a high bid of $20,000.

IMGP0878_edited.jpgActually, after years of estrangement stemming from a falling out over the family's Charles Krug Winery, the brothers reconciled years ago, and sat side by side throughout last night's festivities. Robert Mondavi, who is to be 94 in June, today is the old vine of the valley, revered but no longer the frisky guy in a sport jacket made of corks, constantly extolling the strengths of Napa Valley wines, rushing to embrace and kiss virtually every woman he ever met. Friday night, pushed about in his wheelchair by Margrit and his son Tim, largely motionless and mute, he was hugged by woman after woman who remember his affection and zest. They teased his thinning hair, caressed his back, straightened his tie, kissed his cheeks.

Looking a bit perplexed but with the old gleam back in his eyes, he got a standing ovation as Aaron Copland's "Fanfare tor the Common Man" boomed through the cavernous hall as he was wheeled to the stage for the unveiling of a bronze plaque with his noble profile about to taste from a wine glass.

"Bob is very aware. He knows what is going on," said Margrit. "His spirit is in every glass of wine."

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