Robert Mondavi, Vintner Who Put California on the Wine Map, Dead at 94

Robert Mondavi, the pioneering vintner who put California wine country on the global map, has died. He was 94.

Mondavi died peacefully at his home in Yountville on Friday, said Mia Malm, spokeswoman for the Robert Mondavi Winery.

An enthusiastic ambassador for the health benefits of moderate consumption of wine, and of California wine in particular, Mondavi had traveled the world into his 90s, promoting the cultural and social benefits of wine.

Born in Virginia, Minn., Mondavi got an economics degree from Stanford University in the 1930s and went to work at the Charles Krug Winery, which his Italian-born parents had bought after moving to California from Minnesota.

He married his high school sweetheart, Marjorie Declusin in 1937 and they had three children, Michael, Marcia and Tim.

For 20 years, the winery was a family business. But Robert and Peter, the younger brother by 14 months, clashed frequently. Robert Mondavi had ambitious plans for the winery; Peter Mondavi had a more conservative style. According to Robert Mondavi's autobiography "Harvests of Joy," matters came to a head in November 1965 when the brothers got into a fist fight.

"When it was all over, there were no apologies and no handshake," wrote Robert Mondavi.

A long and bitter legal fight ensued.

In 1966, at the age of 52 and using borrowed money, Mondavi started over, opening his own winery.

There, he championed the use of cold fermentation, stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. He introduced blind tastings in Napa Valley. His winery was also among the first to go public.

Always convinced that California wines could compete with the European greats, Mondavi engaged in the first French-American wine venture when he formed a limited partnership with the legendary French vintner Baron Philippe de Rothschild to grow and make the ultra-premium Opus One at Oakville. The venture's first vintage was in 1979.

In the late 1970s, Mondavi's first marriage ended; in his autobiography "Harvests of Joy," he wrote that his single-minded pursuit of the wine business was partly to blame. In 1980, he married a second time, to Margrit Biever, a native of Switzerland who had worked at the Mondavi winery since the late '60s.