Copia, the Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts, was his and Margrit’s dream. Possibly ahead of its time, it failed for a number of reasons.
Through the 80s and 90s, Bob would select a dozen or more employees each year – all devout, loyal champions of the winery – and show them many of Europe’s culinary and winery shrines through his eyes. France and Italy carried the days, and many of the lucky employees who boarded those planes and buses saw Bob in his raw element: leading the charge, enjoying the “good life” with his soldiers.
One of the winery’s well known tour guides (some were celebrities in their own right) once told me that few of the youngest in his group could keep up with him and they had to devise ways to slow him down. One strategy was to privately tip a waiter at each lunch stop to keep Bob’s glass filled throughout the long meals. Even then, he left those half or one-third his age gasping for breath. I once heard a writer ask him how much he drank each day, and he replied, a bit unsure, “a bottle?” I sensed he thought this a safe answer on the low side. He liked his wine. Great wines and meals fueled the tank that ran his unstoppable engine.
Copia, the Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts, was his and Margrit’s dream. Possibly ahead of its time, it failed for a number of reasons. Art was on equal display with wine and food, some argued that it was even more prominent. Its downtown Napa location was hard for most tourists to get to during its startup years. And, perhaps more importantly, it just did not appeal to most tourists coming to the Napa Valley. They wanted what had driven tourism in the Napa Valley the last two decades – tasting experiences – emphasis on “experiences,” and memorable dining experiences. This includes wine and food pairings, themed wineries (castles, palaces, architectural monuments, etc) and Michelin-starred restaurants. Tourists did not want to spend their day at an art museum.
Julia Child knew the Copia vision was a hard sell, and we often talked about this, but she asked me to join the Copia board and I did. As I’ve previously mentioned, saying no to Julia was not in my vocabulary. We watched them build the Center for 70 million, name the restaurant after Julia (she was very reluctant on this), and struggle from the beginning to make it work. It plunged into debt, a few board members rescued it briefly with a bond issue, but its fate seemed sealed from the beginning.
That said, Bob asked me to join him on the Mondavi jet one day to fly up to Seattle with him for a lunch with Howard Schultz, founder and President of Starbucks. Bob and I were the only passengers, so I had a lot of private time with him that day. Most of our time previously had been in a full rooms or board meetings, lunches at Copia and the Mondavi winery, AIWF dinners, dinners with Julia and others, etc. Sadly, our conversations that day were not very revealing. They did not stray to family matters, or the world outside the wine business. We mostly stayed on the subject of our meeting – how could we get Howard Schultz on board to contribute a serious donation to Copia.
We had our lunch at the Starbucks headquarters in southern Seattle. Sandwiches in a private room, cookies for dessert. No wine, no multiple courses of food each paired to a different wine, very unlike Bob’s normal working lunch. Howard, I learned, was a huge Robert Mondavi fan. He started the meeting setting that point in stone. He had closely observed Bob’s brilliant marketing of the Mondavi brand from the beginning – especially the font and illustration of the winery entrance that still adorns the label today. He said it inspired the Starbucks label/logo and the use of it on all marketing material. He was not a big fan of the wines, but he was a fan of the man, and of the brand he had built. He did not contribute to Copia, but that might have been because I am not a very good salesman. Bob certainly was. As was Howard Schultz, I might add. I bought stock in Starbucks after our lunch that day and it has since turned out to be one of my most profitable stock picks. Thank you, Howard.
Early on, Bob Mondavi introduced the world to so much of what is the map of Napa Valley we almost take for granted today. He unveiled our first emblems of the good life – cooking schools, barrel tastings, experimental wine tastings, extensive wine education programing, live winery concert series, Fume Blanc, weird packaging, blind wine tastings with the First Growths… The list goes on. There were mistakes (some weird bottle shapes and closures that came and went) and grand slam out-of-the-park successes along the way. I, like the world, remember those successes, and have forgotten the rest, except possibly Copia.
Copia proved to be a fatal Achilles heel for Bob and the Mondavi winery. Millions had been pledged to Copia in the way of stock in the Mondavi public company, and when the stock and the market plunged, Bob’s pledges put him in a dangerous financial position. Copia was still bleeding money, and needed his pledges to keep the doors open. Bob was in a way forced to take Constellation’s 400 million dollar offer for the winery, the name Mondavi on a wine, and 50% of Opus One, his joint venture with the Mouton Rothschilds. His winery, with his name on it, was now irrevocably in another’s hands. The General was asked be a symbol – beloved, but no longer the man leading the charge, giving daily instructions to the troops.
The last time I saw Bob alive, the years, the battles, the wins, and the defeats had taken their toll. He was in a wheelchair, not speaking much, not in full charge of his mind, and hard of hearing. He had what Julia once called “the dwindles”, something her beloved husband suffered from at the end of his life. Bob was in his 90s and still Napa’s Icon, recognizable to most everyone whose path crossed his. The location was of one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants – Ad Hoc – and Bob was with Margrit, some family, and close friends. I saw Bob and Margrit out to dinner a lot in the last years, even though Bob did not really seem to know where he was some of the time.
That last day we saw them together, Susan and I went over to say hi; we knew most of the group. When we were re-introduced, Bob looked at me very intently. I have no idea what he was thinking, but it was one of Bob’s forceful, focused stares. I was the only person in the room for that long moment. He never did say hi, or utter a word, but just stared. Finally, all but Bob smiled and he was wheeled to the large table awaiting them.
Everyone in the restaurant that day knew that Robert Mondavi was in the restaurant. He was the man, the legend, their man. He will probably be thought of in my lifetime, maybe for all time, as America’s greatest winemaker/vintner. He earned the laurels, his place in our history. A lot of us were lucky to know him and work with him.