American wine as we know it doesn’t exist without the Mondavis. What two Italian immigrants, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, started in Prohibition-era Napa has become one of the greatest success stories in not just wine but American history. Today, the story—which has always been about family, for better or worse—continues, with a formal announcement that the fourth generation Mondavis have taken on a more prominent role at CK Mondavi and Family, as shareholders, board members, and brand ambassadors.
Last month, I met with Riana Mondavi, one of the so-called G4, at a coffee shop in the Philadelphia suburbs. She was making the rounds with local media (and probably also paying a visit to her alma mater, Villanova, where I also attended and where she earned her bachelor of arts in marketing and international business).
Riana is the great granddaughter of Cesare Mondavi (pronounced chez-a-ray), the granddaughter of Peter Mondavi, and the daughter of Marc Mondavi, current co-proprietor with his brother, Peter Jr., of Charles Krug Winery and the CK Mondavi and Family brand. Joining Riana to form the G4 are her three sisters, Angelina, Alycia, and Giovanna, and her cousins Lucio and Lia. (Family tree.)
When we hear the name Mondavi, we think Robert, not Peter. However, both brothers made significant contributions to winemaking—winemaking lore, too, famously brawling over a mink coat in the family vineyard, a fight that was less about a garment and more a clash of ideals.
For twenty-three years, Robert and Peter worked side by side at Charles Krug, Napa’s oldest winery, which their father Cesare, at Robert’s urging, had purchased in 1943. As Robert would later write, “For years I clashed with Peter over the quality of our wines.” Robert’s ideal was of continuous improvement. “I went throughout the world to find out what my competition was. And then I stopped at nothing to improve what we are doing, to excel.” Peter’s ideals, on the other hand, seemed to align more with those of his father and Italian immigrants like him who treated wine as less exotic and more household staple.
In Robert’s son Tim’s estimation, “Robert had a vision. Peter had a vision too, but went at a slower pace; he was more introspective and methodical.”
So, the brothers went their separate ways.
I asked Riana if Mondavi family relations have normalized in the more than fifty years since the notorious schism. I forget her exact words, but she indicated that they had, and that the Peter and Robert lineages do cordially cross paths these days.
Before our meeting, I had known the basics of the Mondavi story, but Riana added quite a bit of color, especially to Peter’s side of things, and brought the human aspect to what was already compelling history. She told me about working in the family winery at ten year’s old alongside her siblings, a family tradition that included such tasks as cleaning dishes and the lab, all for twenty-five cents an hour. Riana told me the story behind her great grandfather Cesare’s transition from wine-grape shipping to winemaking. It was pure happenstance, really: Cesare couldn’t in good conscience allow a shipment of unusually wet grapes, due to be sent east, succumb to mold en route. So he made wine, the logical and most profit-saving solution.
The tone of reverence and appreciation with which Riana spoke about her relatives, along with all the looking back at Mondavi history I’ve done since our time together in the coffee shop, have given me a greater appreciation for some of the low- and mid-shelf selections I tend to ignore.
In joining CK Mondavi and Family, the G4 are taking up the Mondavi mantle, but it’s more Peter’s than Robert’s. The CK Mondavi portfolio features exactly the type of inexpensive, massively produced table wine that was foundational to Cesare’s success, then Peter’s, after Robert left, and then Marc’s and Peter Jr.’s, in their time.
The current CK Mondavi lineup includes a Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a Red Blend (Cab, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, Malbec). Each has a vintage (unusual for wine in this price point) and retails in the seven dollar range. I’ve found them to be exactly as advertised: balanced wines for casual, everyday drinking.
Many serious wine drinkers will shy away from brands like CK Mondavi. But as I said before, having acquired more of the story behind these screw-capped bottles with marketing-friendly labels—understanding that they hearken back with care and fidelity to the staples of the Italian table—I now have a greater appreciation.
In a curious plot twist, Riana and her three sisters are actually making their own wine under a label called Dark Matter, which is of a considerably different caliber than CK Mondavi. “It’s kind of my side hustle,” said Riana. Fruit is sourced from two vineyards on Howell Mountain. The first, the sisters own together—appropriately called Four Sisters and planted entirely to Zinfandel. The other, called Rocky Ridge, owned by their parents, Marc and Janice, provides the Cabernet Sauvignon.
Allocations are extremely limited for Dark Matter (120 cases each of the current two offerings). As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get a sample.
I like to think the sisters’ dual allegiance to the high craft of Dark Matter and the quality-for-the-quantity of CK Mondavi is appropriate homage to pay the family legacy. Even though Robert and Peter had their own way of doing things, both discovered that there’s room at the America table for a broad spectrum of wine, from Woodbridge “Bob Red” and CK Mondavi White Zin, to Opus One and Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet.