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KAI RYSSDAL: Think of the last bottle of wine you had. Chances are, it came from California. The Golden State produces 90 percent of American wine. And one man gets a lot of the credit for that, and for bringing California to prominence in the global wine industry. Robert Mondavi spent his life building up Calfornia's wineries. But his business didn't always see healthy returns. Julia Flynn Siler has written a new biography of Mondavi. Julia, thanks for coming in.
JULIA FLYNN SILER: Thank you.
RYSSDAL: We have some wine here in the studio. Why don't you tell us what we're going to taste and why, sort of, this one is a good example of what you'll find in the supermarket?
FLYNN SILER: OK. This is a Robert Mondavi Private Selection Cabernet Savignon. The label says it's from California. And all you see in this label is the tower, the famous oak-filled tower from the Robert Mondavi winery, sort of peaking through the clouds. You'll find this bottle at supermarkets for about $10. At the same time, the very finest brands that were the embodiment of Robert Mondavi quality, have the same elements on their label. They also have Robert Mondavi. They also have the tower. People got confused. And that's why there've been at least five Harvard Business School case studies about what happened at the Robert Mondavi Corporation.
RYSSDAL: Pour me a splash.
FLYNN SILER: OK. . . . There we go!
RYSSDAL: So, cheers.
FLYNN SILER: Cheers.
RYSSDAL: Oh, you know, that's funny. This is radio so nobody can see that. But she gave it a thumbs down. Didn't much like it.
FLYNN SILER: Didn't like it. Sorry about that.
RYSSDAL: How come?
FLYNN SILER: It tastes thin to me.
RYSSDAL: All right. Fair enough. But let's talk about the company for a second. What was the debate over whether to sell sort of high-minded, snobby wines or stuff that's going to sell to the average consumer?
FLYNN SILER: Robert Mondavi and his brother, Peter, began the business with their father Cesare back in the '30s. And at that point they were producing tank wines. In the early '60s they started improving the quality of these wines. And a huge family rift developed. In fact, it came to blows at one point.
RYSSDAL: Actual blows.
FLYNN SILER: Actual blows. One of the most famous fist-fights in the wine industry.
RYSSDAL: And not very wine-like, though . . .
FLYNN SILER: No. No. There was a family gathering in late 1965. By one account, these two brothers ended up rolling around in the dust. Robert throttles Peter. When Peter goes back to Mama Mondavi, she says, "What did you do to my babe?" and banished Robert from the family company.
RYSSDAL: So he goes about his business through the late '60s and early '70s, building this winery and then in the late '70s starts something called Opus One — a bottle of which, sadly, we cannot afford to bring into the studio.
FLYNN SILER: That was a watershed moment in the American wine industry. It was almost a coming of age for American wine. The noble Rothschild family of France had chosen Robert Mondavi, an immigrant's son, to partner with. And that was the first joint venture between a French grand croix producer and an American winemaker.
RYSSDAL: The company, though, suffers a great deal. What happened?
FLYNN SILER: I think what happened was they tried to do too many things at once. And there was great pressure on a quarterly basis to increase sales and profits. And that's very hard in the wine business.
RYSSDAL: There is another bottle over there. I think it's a fume blanc. Pour us that one and let's see how that one goes. . . . Just for the record we're only taking tiny sips, tiny little sips. . . . Oh, see now that's so much better than that first one we tried. That's actually really good.
FLYNN SILER: This is from Napa Valley. This is from probably the most famous vineyard in America called Tocalon, which is Greek for "most beautiful." And, still, when you visit the Robert Mondavi winery you understand what it was that was magical back then.
RYSSDAL: The book by Julia Flynn Siler is called "The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty." Julia, thanks a lot for coming in.
FLYNN SILER: Thank you, Kai.