Believe it or not, when Michael Mondavi first traveled the country promoting Robert Mondavi Winery in the 1960s, he was commonly asked, “Robert who?” followed by “Is that a Chinese restaurant?” I had to chuckle – even big names like this start somewhere.
I’ve always been in awe of entrepreneurs, no matter what the line of business. But in wine, it doesn’t get much more impressive than Michael Mondavi. Recently I had the chance to talk to Michael about how it all started.
Today the Mondavi name speaks volumes in the U.S., having become virtually synonymous with American wine. But surprisingly, in 2004, Michael founded his own international wine importing company, Folio Fine Wine Partners. So I had to ask him: Why not just focus on California wine rather than importing? As it turns out, it all started with a trip he took 37 years ago.
“After my younger brother Tim graduated in 1974, Dad decided to take us to Europe. Day after day for two weeks, we traveled from winery to winery – three to five a day. I had been to Europe several times before that trip, but this time was different. This time, we met with the families, the winemakers, walked through the vineyards and tasted the wines.
“That trip was a real turning point. When we got back, Dad asked me about the most important thing I had learned. And I told him, ‘Everyone talks about how great French wines are, but I think the Italian wines are more pleasing and go better with food.’ I’d fallen in love with Italy, and realized that if people knew about these great wines in America, they would love them too.”
Over time he built relationships with wine families in Europe, and had to make a major decision after he was approached by Vittorio Frescobaldi to import his wines. Frescobaldi belongs to one of the oldest wine families in Tuscany, one that has made wine for over 30 generations and 700 years. Michael realized he couldn’t import just one wine – he needed to create a portfolio. But that wouldn’t come easy.
“In 2004, I sat with my son Rob and started with maps of Italy and Spain. I went down the list of people whom he would be proud to represent in the U.S. Then we traveled to each of the family estates two to three times with our winemaker, Tony Coltrin, who has worked with us for more than 35 years. Together we met the people, saw the vineyards, watched how they respected the soil and checked how clean the cellars were. With each family it took about five meetings before we started to talk about importing the wines into the US. And not everyone said yes. But it’s like relationships – you have to date a lot of people to find the right ones.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Michael is absolutely passionate about what he does, and he is driven by a deeper purpose. His passion is ignited by the thrill of discovery. And for him, the reward is the look on a person’s face when he or she really likes the wine. “Our ultimate goal is keeping our customers happy,” he says, “because if they’re happy once, they’ll come back.”