Robert Mondavi and the New World order

Oeneology has a long, illustrious past. Water, it seems, has been changed into wine, after all, but not by a miracle. Innovation is pivotal for winemakers to be relevant in a very fluid industry. So which specific innovations have really impacted the industry? My husband, Kim Crawford, and I came up with a few examples not long ago. There have been the technological innovations of machine harvesting, refrigeration and bird scarers. There are variations on old varietals, such as sparkling sauvignon blanc and novel blends (viognier shiraz, for one). 

New World producers are seen as particularly innovative. Two key events cracked open the possibilities for all New World producers. At the centre of each was Californian Robert Mondavi.

The first was the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, organised by Steven Spurrier, an English lad running a shop called Les Caves de la Madeleine. Spurrier pitted Californian wines against French wines, all in brown paper bags, labels and identities concealed: a blind tasting. The lone journalist in attendance, George Taber, noticed that the highly regarded French judges were confusing Californian wines for French, and vice versa. Much to the chagrin of the Old World, two wines from California topped the tasting, which became known as the Judgment of Paris.  

These winners were produced by Mondavi’s first and second winemakers. He had been driven, from the start of his career, to improve wine quality, introducing to California cold fermentation and the use of French oak barrels. His innovations may have indirectly contributed to the outcome of the tasting. In any case, he reportedly took the glory as well, despite the fact the wines came from two different, unrelated wine companies. What is not in doubt is Mondavi’s responsibility for the second game changer, which happened years before the Judgment of Paris. 

Decoding French wine requires knowledge of the Appellation d’Origine system, and micro-geography. For instance, a bottle of red wine from Bordeaux could contain cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot or carménère varietals, alone or in any number of blends. Unless one knows what grapes are permitted to be grown in that particular Appellation, one would need a reasonable palate. 

Mondavi simplified everything by putting out sauvignon blanc and calling it just that. In 1968, this varietal was unfashionable, unpopular, and generally of poor quality in California. Mondavi and his winemakers crafted a dry sauvingnon blanc based on the wines of the Loire, aged it in oak and called it fume blanc (versus the French blanc fume).  ‘Fume’  became synonomous with sauvignon blanc and a new category was established. 

These events eased the way for New Zealand, somewhat. New World wine was being recognised for its quality. More importantly to New Zealand producers, sauvignon was being called sauvignon. 

When the Spence brothers, Villa Maria, Babich and other smaller producers exported New Zealand sauvignon blanc for the first time in the early 1980s, markets were already exposed to wines marked by their varietals and people came to expect specific flavours and quality. What they did not expect was the explosion of flavours — fresh, zingy, balanced — that took the world by storm. That is a story. In the meantime, there is much we can learn from Mondavi's innovations, which largely changed the course of the New World. 

Erica Crawford is the marketing guru behind Kim Crawford Wines, a member of NZTE’s Beachheads Advisory Board and a member of the investment committee of the University of Auckland Business School's Entrepreneurs’ Challenge.