Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review 382: The House of Mondavi

THE HOUSE OF MONDAVI: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, by Julia Flynn Siler. 452 pages, illustrated. Gotham, $28

Despite being written in broken English, the outlines of the story are moderately interesting:

Young immigrants, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, scrap around and end up in Lodi, California, dealing in fruit. Prohibition presents opportunity, since each household was permitted to make 200 gallons of wine a year.

The Mondavis do well shipping grapes East, and in 1943, they buy a formerly well known but decrepit winery, Charles Krug, in Napa Valley for $75,000.

It was the parents’ desire that their sons (but not their daughters) establish a wine business that would endure through generations.

The sons were superficially well-matched, Michael the impulsive salesman, committed to teaching Americans to drink good wine; Peter, the quiet tinkerer devoted to making better and better wine. In the event, though, they could not work in tandem and in the mid-‘60s Peter tried to squeeze Robert out of his inheritance. He failed, or did he?

Robert started the Robert Mondavi Winery, where he was credited with leading the revolution in America’s taste for boozing. And he had sons who seemed well suited to carrying on but were as antagonistic as their father and uncle.

For Julia Siler, this is strictly a family quarrel story and the rise of the Robert Mondavi Winery to become nearly a billion-dollar business is mostly an irritation. There isn’t a graph in the book, and statistics on production, income, sales volume, employment and acres controlled are scarce and scattered haphazardly throughout the chapters. There are precisely two uninformative sentences on labor, although the expansion of Mondavi coincided with the farm workers movement. We learn (in an endnote) that Krug, which remained under the control of Peter and his family, was unionized, which implies that Mondavi was not, but Siler never says.

Even after Robert Mondavi Corp. went public in 1994 and information becomes more easily available, Siler barely uses it. She is not indifferent to facts; she just has no idea about which are significant. We learn the street addresses of several law firms that advised various Mondavis, for example, and what fabrics Mondavian brides wore.

Within 10 years of tapping Wall Street’s keg of dollars, Robert and his family are out, their departure not sweetened by douceurs of  $60 million and up each, since the hopes of Rosa and Cesare are thwarted — except over at  Krug where Peter and his family have kept the family interest intact. But Siler has little interest in that side of the family.

“The House of Mondavi” is so badly organized and badly written that it is not worth anyone’s time.

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