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Weekend Wine Read: Harvests of Joy

October 22, 2017

“At the age of 52, I should have been a happy man.”

And so begins Robert Mondavi’s engrossing memoir of a life spent in the California wine business. Highly engaging, and occasionally boastful (why not? The guy pretty much put Napa Valley on the map), this 350-page autobiography has it all: rags to riches drama, family feuds, roller coaster markets, nail biting business competition, courage, faith, and a modern day love story.

“Harvest of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business” was written when Mondavi was 85, nine years before his death. Remarkably candid, Mondavi recounts the fist fight between he and his brother that kicked him out of his family owned, California winery, Krug, and prompted him to start his own namesake winery.

Broken into three sections called, “The Roots,” The Flowering,” and “The Harvest,” Mondavi covers his entire life, from his early childhood in Minnesota, to moving to California where his father bought and sold grapes, to eventually getting into the wine business himself as a wine maker, and later convincing his father to outbid another prospect and purchase the dilapidated Krug winery in 1943.

“I figured if we bought Krug, we could … turn a handsome profit,” Mondavi states simply in the book.

The Pursuit of Excellence

Business, competition and an unquenchable thirst to win and to be “the best,” is a central theme this story, from Mondavi’s childhood sports, to starting his eponymous winery:

“Excellence, no matter what cost. No matter how hard the work. No matter how great the personal sacrifice. Yes, I was going to work like a fanatic…. But great artists are always fanatics. Nothing less would do.”

With no money and only a desire to be that elusive “best,” friends loaned Mondavi the majority of the considerable capital needed ($150-thousand in 1966!) and for the rest, he managed to secure a $50-thousand loan from the bank. He found leading designer Cliff May – one of the most expensive at the time – and managed to make a deal with him so he could afford the best to design the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Mondavi admits that this unrelenting desire would eventually end his 40-year marriage, strain his relationship with his children, and push the limits of his employees. There was one person, however, who managed to find the soft under-belly of the hard-driving entrepreneur.

Margrit Mondavi

“Margrit is amazing,” Mondavi writes about the late Margrit Mondavi. “And she’s been a godsend for me…. She knows all my faults – better than I do! – and yet she’s always very generous and supportive in her love for me….I want to satisfy her, and I’ll bend over backward to do so.”

Margrit joined the winery in 1967 to help with the daily tours, but quickly took on a larger role. She is credited with incorporating the famous art program at the winery, as well seasonal music festivals, and chefs’ showcases.

“Margrit grew up in a culture and household that held fine food and wine in the same esteem that they held art, music and literature,” Mondavi gushes in the book. “When I was around Margrit I realized how limited my horizons were. She pushed me; she opened me; she inspired me.”

Food and Wine

An interesting confession, being that Mondavi also credits his passion for his winery having started in his passion for good food and wine. His cherished memories of his “Mama Rosa’s” cooking – hearty, healthy, delicious meals for full tables of visitors, boarders, family and friends are constant through out the book. His dad’s early, rustic, homemade wine, kept in barrels under the stairs and enjoyed with these exceptional meals – including breakfast where the red wine would accompany a shot of rich, dark espresso.

“While Italian families like ours ate and drank as our parents and ancestors had for centuries, we were the exception,” Mondavi writes in the first chapter. “We didn’t grow up eating Velveeta; we ate parmigano, pecorino, and Gorgonzola. When I was a boy, everyone who came to my house loved my mother’s cooking; I dreamed of inviting all of America into her kitchen to cook, taste her food, and sample some fine Italian wines. With one Sunday at her house, I felt sure we could convert the entire country to the joys of fine food and wine!”

It would be hard to read this book and not want to get into kitchen to whip up a pasta carbonara from scratch or head to the market for fresh ingredients for your homemade minestrone. And bursting with solid-gold inspirational quotes, an entrepreneur could use this as a blue print for the next start up.

No matter your interest: wine, food, business, success stories, Harvests of Joy has it.