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:
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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.