15 December 2008

Review: House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler

The story of the Mondavi family and its wineries spans three generations and is the stuff of mini-series or novels: greed, jealousy, sibling rivalry, extra-marital affairs, male chauvinism . . . it's all here. Julia Flynn Siler's well-researched, well-documented history is a fascinating look at the Mondavi family and its lasting influence on the U.S. wine industry.

Cesare Mondavi, born in Italy, arrived at Ellis Island just after the turn of the last century. After a brief stint in Minnesota, he moved his family to California's Napa Valley. There Cesare started a small family-run winery, which he hoped to pass along to his sons, Robert and Peter. Unfortunately, the brothers' approaches to the business were incompatible. Peter never lost sight of economics, and Robert focused on quality and innovation.

The young men's differences eventually led to lawsuits and Robert's being ousted from the family and its winery. Once on his own, Robert was able to put his vision of American wine production into practice, gaining the respect of European vintners and famous restaurateurs.

Robert's sons, Michael and Timothy, followed in the footsteps of the older generation in their inability to find common ground. Their conflicts and quarrels ultimately caused the downfall of the entire Robert Mondavi empire. Only a hundred years after their grandfather landed on Ellis Island, they had lost the wineries to a hostile takeover.

If this book were a novel, then the main themes would be fathers vs. sons, brothers vs. brothers, and the subjugation of women. Readers follow the Mondavi men from Old World to New and back again, from courtroom to vineyard, and--in some cases--from wife to wife. The women, whether wives or sisters, were generally relegated to the kitchen or reception desk but were expected to be gracious and stylish hostesses when required.

Tucked between the drama of the family's business and personal lives is the history of how Robert Mondavi's foresight, innovations, and persistence built one of the country's most successful and well-respected wineries.

If you've ever tasted a California wine, then you've likely had a wine made by or influenced by the Mondavi wineries. Here are just a few brands made directly by the family or by one of its former employees: Woodbridge, Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Stags' Leap Wine Cellars, Grgich Hills, I'M, Charles Krug, and La Famiglia. I'm not sure there is a U.S. wine producer that doesn't owe its success, at least in part, to Robert Mondavi's lifelong love of the art of wine making. Robert died at the age of ninety-four in spring 2008, about a year after this book was published.

The unabridged audio production was read by Alan Skla, who held my attention from beginning to end. I'm sure his reading increased my enjoyment of this book.

For other reviews in the Books about Food challenge, click here.

Published by Gotham, 2007
Challenge: Books about Food
Rating: A


Anonymous,  12/15/08, 2:30 PM  

This looks quite interesting. We have the occasional bottle of Mondavi cabnernet sauvignon every now and then - I hadn't realized there is so much history behind the name!

Anonymous,  12/15/08, 3:01 PM  

Oh, wow! Great review. I think I'll get this book for my mother.

Eidin 12/15/08, 3:05 PM  

I live in one of California's wine regions. I should get this book.

Nely 12/15/08, 4:17 PM  

I've actually been to the Mondavi winery and this is on my TBR pile. I think you just knocked it up a slot or two. Thanks for the review.

Beth F 12/15/08, 4:26 PM  

This is definitely worth the read.

Nely: How cool that you've been to the winery. Siler describes the tasting rooms and vineyards -- you'll be able to relate.

Michele 12/15/08, 10:02 PM  

I love family-saga-history type books. I'm definitely going hunting for this one!

(I think we must have the same tastes in books, Beth). :)

Anonymous,  12/15/08, 11:02 PM  

Ohh, this sounds like a fascinating read! Thanks for the great review! Let me ask you, was it hard NOT to have a glass of wine in your hand the entire time you were reading? I want a glass just reading your review!


Anonymous,  12/16/08, 5:32 AM  

Wine... never tried it ... i confess :(

Sounds like an interesting book :)

Beth F 12/16/08, 5:41 AM  

Michele: I've noticed the overlapping book taste!

Smash: Er, um. Was there a hidden camera in the house?

Veens: no need to have tasted or even like wine to enjoy the book.

Anonymous,  12/16/08, 1:27 PM  

What an excellent review. We are visiting our son in Sonoma County so we will need to drive over to Napa and find one of the wineries you mentioned. You've also made me want to read the book. Thanks for the great review.

Toni 12/18/08, 7:50 PM  

I really really want to read this book! I have been to the Mondavi Winery and it is fantastic. I am really interested in getting this book.

Sandy Nawrot 12/22/08, 6:58 AM  

I was referred here by Maw Books Blog and her "carnival" that she is having! I couldn't resist resonding to this review...I too am an avid cook and reader. Those are my two passions. In my mind, "wine" falls under the cook category. My husband and I are whinos, wine snobs, wine freaks, etc. and a fellow freak recommended this book. I purchased it and it is high on my TBR list. I have visited the Mondavi winery, and frankly, even though I know they have great high end wines, I shrink away from them in general because they have such bad low end ones. Either way, I could not resist the book, and very much look forward to reading it. I like your blog...I am adding it to my follow list!

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