Family Business Is Still a Business

Wine is an agricultural product, and agriculture, as the wine business loves to remind us, is often a family affair. When I was a kid listening to recordings of old-time radio shows from the '40s, I learned that even then, the image was already being pitched. The commercials told of generations of Petri family winemakers, handing down their proud winemaking tradition "from father to son, from father to son," so that "the name Petri" had become "the proudest name in American wine."

Already, things were getting complicated, family and business intertwining -- the family didn't just run the business, the family helped sell the business. The family became the brand. Today, the Petris are long gone, but in their place we still have the Mondavis, perhaps the greatest family-brand ever in American wine.

Patrick Nossiter's treatment of the Mondavis, and of the relations between family and wine in general, is one of my favorite things about his wine-biz documentary Mondovino. It seems clear that Nossiter's heart lies with family, with local small businesses as opposed to multinational corporations. It's easy to imagine him snickering as he films a sharp-suited Young Turk, sitting in a boardroom and talking about how family plays an important role in the business of a huge French negotiant like Boisset. You can almost hear him think, "Important to the marketing department, maybe."

One of Boisset's winemakers is Alix, the daughter of Burgundian wine producer Hubert de Montille. "Wine is the antidote to barbarism," says Hubert. But when you hear him go off on the imperialism of American taste and the deleterious branding of even French wine (as opposed to the celebration of terroir, the French sense of place), you have to wonder if he still believes the gates are holding. Even within his own family, complications are creeping in. Hubert's heart is clearly with Alix, who tells him that she's quitting her job at Boisset because they've asked her to sign off on some wines she didn't make and because they plan to sell her wine under different labels. She's fighting the branding. But it's Hubert's son Etienne who has taken over the family operation, and we get a telling shot of him making nice to the photographer from Wine Spectator, followed by a full-page photograph in the magazine's story on Burgundy. The branding has begun.

Over in California, Nossiter goes to visit another winemaking family -- the Staglins. It must have delighted his documentarian heart to find people so completely other from Hubert de Montille. (Consulting winemaker Michel Rolland works with the Staglins and talks up their emphasis on family, but he can't remember their first names.) Montille trumpets the supremacy of place over producer; he is part of a winemaking tradition. Bob Staglin says of his paradisical estate, "We created, in effect out of nothing, the best of what Italy could bring and California could marry in creating this wonderful space to showcase our wines, our lifestyle, our commitment to charity." It's difficult to imagine Montille using the word "lifestyle," and impossible to imagine him explaining, as Shari Staglin does, that the outdoor dining table is modeled after one from The Godfather Part II.

Bob Staglin is happy to admit that the marketing plan came first -- wine is the family business, but still very much a business. Staglin recalls that he was present at the SALT talks, in which, he says, the US was "showing the Soviets that capitalism was people trying to make a better quality of life." He made his fortune elsewhere; Staglin winery is his attempt to "make a better quality of life" for himself and his family.

At the time the film takes place, at least, the Mondavis fall somewhere in between. Robert Mondavi came from winemakers, and his sons are part of the family business, with Tim Mondavi currently making the wines. Robert even goes so far as to say that part of the reason he got into the wine business was that it was so family-oriented. (Hard not to do a spit-take with your Merlot after that one -- no mention is made of the acrimonious split that led Robert to leave Charles Krug and start up his own concern.)

But even before the winery became an empire -- with ventures in Italy, South America, and Australia -- Robert Mondavi became a brand. Why do folks pick up 1.5-liter bottles of Woodbridge instead of some other basic California quaffer? Hard to believe it's not at least in part because of the Mondavi name. For decades, he was a tireless promoter, a champion -- the very face of American wine. And the family isn't about to bow down to tradition, not for itself and not even for the venerable Bordelaise. "Bordeaux is upgrading," says Michael Mondavi. "Tradition is great, but it needs to be complemented with modern technologies."

Still, as big and as modern as Mondavi got, there remained some sense that this was a family venture -- in their view, perhaps too much so. Michael says, of the days before Mondavi went public in 1993, "We mixed up business decisions with family decisions, and neither one worked as well. After we went public, I got my father back." Family is a complicated business, even without the entanglements of business.

Entanglements are what the Mondavis got when they went to Italy. After they were rebuffed in the Languedoc, they decided to work with local partners in their international ventures. They scouted around and chose the Frescobaldis. They did not choose the Antinoris. Nossiter gives us a fine shot of two chapels in a Florentine church -- one bearing the name Frescobaldi, one Antinori. This might not have come to anything, except that, when Lodovico Antinori got into a tight spot financially and went public with his celebrated Ornellaia winery, Mondavi bought a controlling interest. Then Mondavi sold 50 percent to Frescobaldi. "We think the Mondavis planned this," says Lodovico. "I never would have sold if they had told me."

And suddenly, consulting winemaker to the stars Michel Rolland was facing a conflict. He had worked with Lodovico, helped to make Ornellaia what it was. (What was it? A wine that broke the traditional code, using Cabernet in a region formerly reserved for Sangiovese.) But now there was tension between Lodovico and Mondavi, and Mondavi was a big client. Now, Lodovico was off to beg Rolland to help him on a new project. "It would be a big betrayal if he doesn't accept," says Lodovico. Then again, Rolland isn't family.

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