A Very Unusual Wine Book

"The House of Mondavi"
, a new book by Julia Flynn Siler, is a very unusual wine book. As an indication of just how unusual take a look at what  the "Customers who bought this item also bought" at Amazon.com:

Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich

The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of the Lazard Freres & Company.

Not many books are ever released that focus on the business of wine. Most are "how to drink" and "how to know what you are drinking". But then Siler is taking on a very unusual wine business in "House of Mondavi". Despite the ubiquitousness of Mondavi-branded wines in America, it remains one of only a handful of wineries to ever be traded publicly and to ever reach the heights of general public recognition.

On the other hand, Julia Siler is a very unusual reporter. You can count the number of folks who cover wine as a business outside the trade publications on one hand. This unusual position puts Ms. Siler in the position of getting the middle finger on that hand since unlike most writers on wine she actually doesn’t write about the "glamor" and tastiness of wine, but rather the character of its underbelly.

The book itself is part history, part wine book, part business expose with a dollop of gossip thrown in. That’s about the right combination to attract a pretty wide audience. And all in all it seems to me the author has done a pretty good job of combining all those perspectives, delivering a page-turning event, and opening up the other side of wine to folks who probably only know that Napa Valley makes damn good wine and is a pretty cool place to visit. There’s also intrigue in them thar vineyards.

Robert Mondavi, the focus of the book, comes off pretty as I see it. This man was a force of nature, a seer, and someone with a remarkably generous disposition. This all comes through in "House" despite the occasional implication that Mr. Mondavi could have known better at times, perhaps treated some folks close to him better or taken different directions that would have made for a happier outcome for many people. But I don’t think the delivering the kindly and farseeing side of Mr. Mondavi was the author’s intent. Why should it be? She wasn’t writing, "Mondavi: Great Man of Wine". That story has been written over and over. But the fact that his greatness does come through loud and clear in a book that is a business expose is testament not only to him but those who know him and provide background and information to the author and despite the implications of the book that Mr. Mondavi’s charitable inclinations had something to do with the course of the company’s stock price and viability.

As I was reading the book, I started wondering just how man such stories could be written about the wine industry. How many compelling business-related books on the wine industry actually deserve to be written and would resonate with enough readers to justify their publication by a company in the business of making money through book publication?

I can think of two or three that have already been written, but those focused more on the business of wine or of Napa Valley, rather than a person or company. Those books will surely be written again as more and more folks become interested in wine and want a peak behind the curtain. Then of course there was the recent book on Robert Parker that was both personal profile and part business profile.

I’m not sure another "House of Mondavi" will be written anytime soon as something similar would take finding a character such as Robert Mondavi, someone nearly larger than life in the business who personally changed the business and became known most American households.

There are a number of folks around Napa Valley who are upset with the tone and substance of Julia Flynn Siler’s book and by extension with her. Napa Valley and the wine business is a pretty small place and folks can be understandably protective of their home and friends. They’ll probably get over it. In the end, Robert Mondavi is far more than what are between the pages of this book for these folks, for Napa and for the wine industry. However, "House of Mondavi" is a pretty darn interesting look into the wine industry, particularly for those not living here, not FOM and who enjoy a good read.

8 Responses

  1. Jeff - June 28, 2007

    Unless there’s an incredible coincidence of other people with the same interests, I was the guy that bought The House of Mondavi” with the “Sushi Economy” on Amazon.com– another good book that takes a look at global commerce through the filter of tuna and sushi.

  2. Andre - June 28, 2007

    For those that are interested Julia Siler will be at Cody’s Books on Fourth St. in Berkeley tonight at 7pm.

  3. Anonymous - June 28, 2007

    As a former Mondavi employee who was still working for the company at the time of the “fall”, I can state unequivocably that Siler did not even bother (or was turned down)to interview the very people who were truly in the middle of the war when the company was going through its turbulent final months. The people that were willing to speak with her were fairly removed from the whole process excepting board members (many who were there only at the very end)and Michael Mondavi. She reports heavily based on articles or books that have already been written and really does not remotely explain why people “would lay down in front of a train” for Robert Mondavi. She fails to convey his passion and why those that worked for him loved him so. She also completely fails to really convey how the events of 9/11 started the downfall of Robert Mondavi Corporation. When the Platinum AMEX card users stopped with their steakhouse purchases of fancy dinners and expensive wines and curtailed their travel, the business took a big hit. Siler also references two buck chuck as part of the problem, but the fact is, that wine had little or no impact on Mondavi sales, as Woodbridge, the lowest priced wine in the RM portfolio was not even remotely considered to be the same customer or even close to the same price category. She would have been much better advised to detail the rise of Yellow Tail, as that was the brand that started to erode heavily the growth of Woodbridge sales. She also truly fails to explain how Mondavi felt the pressure from like publicly traded companies, especially when Beringer Blass took massive write-downs. The book is also extremely flawed in Siler’s understanding of wine marketing. She completely got the Mondavi/Coastal Private Selection dispute incorrect. As a side note, most amusing was when she referred to the sixth Bordeaux varietal grown in Chile as “Carmenet” Fact checker, please? As a read, it is paced well enough and certainly it is an intriguing chapter of Napa Valley history. Siler’s true lack of knowledge of wine or the wine industry really is apparent however.

  4. tom merle - June 28, 2007

    I talked with someone in the last few days who was pretty high up in the Monadavi hierarchy. He noted that he was one of only two senior managers who chose not to talk to Siler. So which is it…?

  5. St. Vini - June 28, 2007

    That’s the best you got? Sheesh. That’s a pretty minor error in a pretty complex industry. Seems like you’re acutally LOOKING to get your panties in a bunch. By all accounts, Siler ended up getting the majority of senior people to talk to her, particularly family members, senior VPs and the board. If she skipped a low-level marketing manager at Woodbridge, she probably did so because he/she had nothing significant to add to the story.

  6. Fredric Koeppel - June 29, 2007

    It’s a fascinating history of a complicated family deeply flawed by hubris and arrogance and uplifted by passion and confidence. Just like the Old Testament or Greek drama. Or television. The point where Rosa, the mother, slaps Robert Mondavi, her grown son, in the face, brought a chill.

  7. Anonymous - June 29, 2007

    to Tom Merle regarding your comments above:
    Are you this Tom Merle? I know that you are and really, what credibility do you have, dor goodness sakes?
    Wanted to keep you up to date on Tom Merle’s Wine Tasting meetup.
    As the experience during the first two meetups did not mesh our
    expectations for respectful use of the space, I have made it clear to
    Tom that he has worn out his welcome and will not be invited back to
    host his meetups at Citizen Space.
    This was a challenge for me personally, but one that was important in
    maintaining the integrity and caliber of individuals and events in our
    space. As we have no written guidelines about such matters, I want to
    be as open and forthcoming about this and about our reasoning as
    possible without going into unnecessary detail.
    Suffice it to say, after consulting with many of you after Tom’s
    previous event, we determined that his use constituted an abuse of
    privileges, primarily relating to the cleanliness of the space after
    the first event and owing to Tom’s attitude, expectations and demeanor
    for the second. Lastly, for an event that billed itself as a
    ‘tasting’, there was too much resultant inebriation to allow the
    events to go on without a formal arrangement with insurance and other
    such security provisions, overhead which goes beyond what we are
    willing to offer for community events.
    In any case, I want you all to know what actions I have taken and what
    my reasoning is. Should Tom Merle come by, please know that he is not
    welcome and that I have communicated this to him.
    If you have any thoughts, concerns or questions, please let me know.
    Chris ”

  8. David Vergari - July 1, 2007

    I had to re-read the second post by Anonymous. Was this supposed to be a public flogging of Mr. Merle? Strange stuff, but written with such passion!

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