Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reading 'The House of Mondavi' by Julia Flynn Siler Enhances My California Wine-Country Vacation

I’ve written before about how I try to match my vacation reads to the setting I am visiting. So when a friend recommended I read Julia Flynn Siler’s book The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty for my upcoming trip to California’s wine country, I quickly put this book at the top of my vacation reading list.

Book Synopsis:
A scandal-plagued story of the immigrant family that built—and then lost—a global wine empire Set in California’s lush Napa Valley and spanning four generations of a talented and visionary family, The House of Mondavi is a tale of genius, sibling rivalry, and betrayal. From 1906, when Italian immigrant Cesare Mondavi passed through Ellis Island, to the Robert Mondavi Corp.’s twenty-first-century battle over a billion-dollar fortune, award-winning journalist Julia Flynn Siler brings to life both the place and the people in this riveting family drama. A meticulously reported narrative based on more than five hundred hours of interviews, The House of Mondavi is a modern classic.

Though the Mondavi family business is wine, the focus of this book isn’t wine or wine making, it is the Mondavi family, their family business and the business of wine. Since I work as an accountant for a family-owned business, I found much in this book I could relate to. I especially enjoyed reading about what works and more importantly what doesn’t work in a family-run business. In addition to office politics, family politics are also at play. Here is what Alan Ferguson, Rainier Brewing Company’s chief executive, had to say after meeting with Robert about Rainer’s backing of the Robert Mondavi Winery:
Was sibling rivalry fueling Robert’s drive to build a bigger operation? Or did he simply need a deep-pocketed investor if the winery was to keep its creditors at bay? As the head of a family enterprise himself, Ferguson was no stranger to the emotional undercurrents that influence so many business decisions. (Pg. 88)
This is what Dr. Grundland, a psychiatrist hired to advise the Mondavi family and employees on how to improve their relationships with one another, observed:
What became evident through the sessions was that a destructive triangle had arisen among Robert and his two sons. Just as Rosa had intervened to protect Peter, Robert often stepped in to try to defend Timothy in dealing with his older brother, Michael. Yet at the same time, as long as Michael and Timothy continued to fight with each other, Robert could remain the key decision-maker. It was a pattern that other entrepreneurs also struggled with, consciously or unconsciously, as the time came for them to pass control to the next generation: Were they sabotaging their successors in an effort to hold on to the reins a little longer themselves. (Pg. 196)
I enjoyed all of the business aspects of this book; from Cesar Mondavi’s building of the business, to Rosa Mondavi’s estate planning, Robert Mondavi’s succession planning, the implications of the Robert Mondavi Winery becoming a publicly traded company and the economic impact decisions such as building a Chilean winery, a deal to promote fine wine at Disneyland and Robert Mondavi’s large charitable commitments had on the business.

Reading this book prompted several interesting discussions while on vacation:

With a Sonoma County business owner:
After reading about Robert and Margarit Mondavi’s five million dollar home in Napa Valley I mentioned to a Sonoma business owner that the homes and wineries I had seen in Sonoma County were much smaller than I had anticipated. Upon hearing the Mondavi name this person went into a rant about how Robert Mondavi and his family had ruined Napa, their family feuds were shameful, and their excess spending including their large homes and lavish parties were deplorable. In her opinion, Sonoma County was fortunate Napa’s excesses had stayed in Napa.

With a winery owner’s niece:
When I mentioned my conversation with the Sonoma business owner to a winery owner’s niece, the niece adamantly disagreed. She had met Robert Mondavi at one of his lavish parties when she was a young girl. She remembered him as a kind, funny, little man. She felt he had done more to promote “wine education” than any other winery owner and that the American wine industry would not be what it is today if it hadn’t been for Robert Mondavi. She thinks The Robert Mondavi Winery still provides the best wine education in Napa. See: Robert Mondavi Winery is the place to go for your Napa Valley Wine education

With a former Opus One employee:
At an Alexander Valley Wine tasting, our wine host mentioned he had started his career as a distributor for Opus One. Opus One, the Napa Cabernet blend Robert Mondavi made in partnership with the Rothschild family of Bordeaux, France, my ears perked up. I had to tell him I was reading The House of Mondavi. He then relayed a story about the time he had met Robert Mondavi. It was a hot summer day, he had purchased a sandwich at a gas station and not wanting to eat in his car had moved to a private picnic table on the Mondavi property.  While enjoying his sandwich, he saw Robert and his wife Margarit walking towards him. He was sure he was going to be fired when Robert bellowed out, “What do you think you are doing?” The employee stood up, offered his hand and said, “Mr. Mondavi it is so nice to meet you, you’ve paid my electric bill for the past 20 years.” Robert and Margarit then sat down and the three of them were engaged in conversation for the next two hours.

Conversations about the craft of wine-making:
Even conversations where I didn’t bring up the Mondavi name benefited from having read this book.   I understood the small wine-maker's frustration when he talked of creating premium wines for famous big-name wineries without receiving credit. And the wine-maker whose family winery was purchased by the Silicon Valley millionaire who was more interested in profits than making quality wine.

Bottom Line:
The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty may not be a book for everyone. The boardroom and family back-stabbing along with the corporate takeover may be a bit too boring for some reader’s taste.  This is a book for someone interested in the wine industry or in business, especially family-run businesses. For me, I enjoyed The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty because it was the perfect read to enhance my vacation experience.

If you enjoyed this book you may also like Sweet and Low: A Family Story another book I've read about a family-owned business, although this book is written by Rick Cohen, the disinherited grandson instead of an unbiased author, who at times he is clearly bitter.

If you liked this post you may also like:
The Accidental Billionaires
The Risks of Conducting Business in China
Can Reading a Book Transform You or Your Business From Good to Great?


  1. We travel a lot. A really lot and I have never once thought about reading a book about or somehow connected with the places I go but I love this idea. Clearly, it makes so much sense and I am even intrigued by this book in particular and don't have specific plans to visit Napa this year. Thanks!

  2. What a fun idea, to match your book with your destination. I'm going to have to give that a try. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Sharefest. I hope you have a lovely weekend.

  3. Anonymous1:24 AM

    What a great idea! It really does seem to be a great conversation starter as you can find out what's accurate, what's not, have knowledgeable conversations with people in the area. So cool!

  4. Christy,
    It all started when I read A Trip to the Beach: Living on Island Time in the Caribbean by Melinda Blanchard and Robert Blanchard on my way to Anguilla. The book touched on the islands history while familiarizing me with the current economic system and culture. It really enhanced my vacation. Now I always try to match at least one of my vacation books with my destination.

    If you read the Mondavi book be sure to let me know your thoughts.

  5. Miss Robin,
    I started paying more attention to the subject matter of the books I take on vacation after I spent my honeymoon with Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue - not the most appropriate choice.

  6. Carli,
    So true. Thanks for the comment.