― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Let's get the this straight first. Robert Mondavi did not make the best wine in Napa. He did not participate in the Judgment of Paris. His wines were not the darlings of the critics. Per se, he wasn't really a winemaker.
However, he did two very important things: He was among the most vocal of quality wine advocates in California at a time when California was known mostly for mass produced jug wine. He was also the self-appointed brand ambassador for California wine. As he himself wrote in his autobiography, his mission was “to do whatever it took to make great wines and to put the Napa Valley on the map right alongside the great winemaking centers of Europe.”
"Rivals occasionally resented his innate gift for public relations. Some complained that he took too much credit for shaping the industry and Napa Valley," wrote Shawn Hubler, in the Los Angeles Times. "Mondavi was viewed as a powerful ambassador for wine and California, and he was recognized worldwide...."
"Robert Mondavi had a vision for California, where it needed to go and what it would take to get there," James Laube, a senior editor with Wine Spectator magazine, said Friday. "It wasn't enough for Mondavi to succeed as a winemaker. Napa and California had to succeed as well."
Like Peter the Great, who revolutionized Russia almost against it's own will, Robert Mondavi gave a name, a face, a story to California wine. And it worked.
Some of the other wineries were making great wines in the region, but they didn't have his salesmanship, his ability to publicize and promote.
Recently, Keith Wallace mentioned to Mid-Atlantic wine writer Mike Madio that Pennsylvania was lacking a leader on the wine scene. With the withdrawal of Eric and Lee Miller, a vacuum had formed. And he was absolutely right. It is leaderless.
Now, let's get this straight. They are making better wine in Pennsylvania than ever before. VaLa Vineyards, Penns Woods Winery, Parydocx, Karamoor Estate, J. Maki, Black Walnut, Buckingham Valley, The Crossings, Vynecrest, Hauser Estate, Seven Mountains, Shade Mountain, and others are all making wonderful wines. Many of them have equaled or even begun to eclipse what Eric achieved at Chaddsford. But that is not what matters for the purposes of this conversation.
And Prof. Mark Chien is gone as well, but replaced on the landscape by Denise Gardner, who some might argue is the best thing the next generation of Pennsylvania deserves. Gardner is a great winemaking wine professor, who talks in layman's terms, and who has drawn many admirers. Where Chien had advised on plantings, Gardner now teaches about winemaking.
However, with the Millers having exited stage left, Pennsylvania lost it's vocal leader. And like it or not, there has not been one winemaker/owner who has emerged to lead the state industry since.
And that is the importance of being Robert Mondavi. Each state or region truly needs that ambassador. Or several. A front man of that kind of magnitude is what it's all about. Make to mistake, in the 20th century there were titans. Baron Philippe, Robert Mondavi, Francis Ford Coppola, and many, many others. Having a leader like that is invaluable. Not every region is so lucky to have a champion.
The east coast needs more of them. Pennsylvania needs one voice to start pulling it out of its own shell. I quite agree with Mr. Wallace. The exciting news on the other hand is that Pennsylvania is creating great wine. But it needs a voice to amplify it's successes.
on December 12, 2014 at 4:05 PM, updated December 12, 2014 at 4:11 PM
The guys at Pennsylvania Vine Company do a nice job offering news and perspective on topics related to wine, particularly in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Its creators are Mike Madaio, who produces Main Line Dine, and Jeff Alexander, known as the Philadelphia Wine Examiner. I've never personally met either individual but enjoy their work, and would recommend their site among others for those of you interested in regional wine.
Madaio published an interview with Wine School of Philadelphia's Keith Wallace last weekend, and I thought Wallace's take on local wine was worth sharing. Wallace was asked about the state of the state's wines and wineries that are on his radar. Here was his response.
"Well, with Eric Miller retiring from Chaddsford Winery, there seems to be a leadership vacuum in the local winery trade. When I first stepped into a winery in PA, it was 2001. As a winemaker, I saw a lot of potential, and I still do. That is the problem, though: it's still just potential. I would love for someone to start grafting Barbera over Chambourcin rootstock, especially in older vineyards in the Brandywine Valley. It could be the biggest thing here – I've tasted a few experimental carboys of the wine, and it's exceptional – but no one is willing to take the chance on replanting a few acres.
"However, there are some highlights of what can happen here. For instance, Galen Glen Winery produces a world-class Gruner Veltliner near Jim Thorpe. The folks at Karamoor Estate are producing very good Merlot in Fort Washington, just a couple miles from Philly."
In some ways, Wallace might be blind to what's happening across the central and eastern part of the state, where a number of grape growers are experimenting with different varietals that have the potential to produce outstanding dry wines. That includes the collection of Italian varietals and clones tucked into 7-plus acres at Va La Vineyards in southern Chester County.
At the same time, I would agree with his notion that the industry, particularly in that part of Pennsylvania, could use several individuals to fill the void that Eric and Lee Miller once occupied. They did a lot for local wine during the several decades they managed Chaddsford Winery, and both enjoyed talking about it with anyone who wanted to listen. As I've retold, Eric was one of my first interviews almost seven years ago when this blog started, pitching the idea of an Atlantic Uplands Wine Region that would encompass the multiple terroirs of southeastern Pennsylvania, central New Jersey and central Maryland.
Mark Chien, the longtime state viticulturist who left in May to take a job as program coordinator for the Oregon Wine Research Institute, talked at length during his exit interview about how valuable the Millers were as pioneers during their time at the Chester County icon.
"You just cannot underestimate how important it was for Eric and Lee to lay the groundwork for these guys," he said back in May. "and that's true for almost everywhere else, David Lett and David Adelsheim in Oregon or Chateau St. Michelle and a few other people like Kay Simon in Washington and . . . David Lake . . . you know, you had to have some of these people who were willing to do the heavy lifting early on when there was no clue on what would work and what wouldn't work. And so, Eric's wines were always very good. The quality of Chaddsford is going to be eclipsed, maybe it already has been. But the work that he did was just invaluable. We would never be anywhere near where we are, not only in the cellar but politically and socially. They really were important to this whole thing."