Mondavi heads Class of 2012 into Vintners Hall of Fame

By David Stoneberg February 21, 2012
St. Helena Star
There was history in the bottle Monday night in the barrel room at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, and history honored on the floor as seven men were inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame.

Of the seven, Peter Mondavi Sr., at 97, was the oldest living inductee, although Mendocino County's John Parducci at 94 came in a close second. Parducci, however, sent his regrets for not attending.

Mondavi, whose family has owned the Napa Valley's oldest winery, St. Helena's Charles Krug Winery, since 1943, was humble as he received his award in the second-floor barrel room. "I thank you for the wonderful award," he said, adding, "I share this with my mother and father, who made it possible when they bought Krug in 1943."

Mondavi, who has worked at the winery for 68 years, was honored for establishing new standards for the wine trade, including the use of cold fermentation and sterile filtration that transformed white wines. He noted his sons, Peter and Marc, now run the winery, and Marc's daughters are also involved at Krug.

Margrit Biever Mondavi, the widow of the late Robert Mondavi and Peter's sister-in-law, introduced Peter Mondavi Sr. to the crowd, saying, "I congratulate you on this honor because you highly deserve it." Mondavi, who said she joined the family in 1963 when she went to work for Robert Mondavi, added, "Somehow I think that Robert's spirit is here to congratulate you." Robert Mondavi was a member of the first class inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.

Others who were honored included Parducci, who was the first to label varietals in Mendocino County, including zinfandel in 1944; Richard Sanford, who was the first to plant pinot noir vineyards in Santa Barbara County; the late Joe Heitz, who started a successful Napa Valley wine business in 1961 and first created a legendary single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon from grapes grown by Tom and Martha May; the late Myron Nightingale, who was well-known for his botrytized Semillon wine that he and his wife Alice produced in the 1960s and resurrected Beringer Winery when Nestle bought it in 1971; the late Albert Winkler, who joined the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis in 1921 and served as department chairman from 1933 to 1957; and pioneer Eugene Hilgard (1833-1916), who joined the College of Agriculture at UC Berkeley and created the nation's first unit devoted to viticulture and enology.

Accepting the award for Joe Heitz, who died in 2000, was his daughter, Kathleen Heitz Myers. "It is a great honor and pleasure to be here. Joe was one of the pioneers for the Napa Valley and when he started there were maybe 10 or 12 wineries," she said. "A lot has changed since then and he always believed passionately in the California wine industry." Myers said her father had an inherent gift for winemaking that led to his wines being recognized around the world.

Heitz started his Napa Valley winery in 1961 and Myers said, "It is amazing to see how the valley has changed but kept its sense of community at the same time." She added her father first bought grapes from Tom and Martha May from "Martha's Vineyard" in 1965, and it took the family a year to recognize how good the wine was. From 1966, the cabernet sauvignon was kept separate and became an iconic brand.

Winemaker Tor Kenward said he spent many evenings in the company of Joe and Alice Heitz. "I never bought their grapes," he said in response to a question, but "I bought their wines." Except one. "I wanted to buy a certain wine of Joe's and he looked me in the eye and he said, 'No, Tor, I'm not going to sell that to you this year. I think I can get a lot more for it next year.'" Kenward said with a laugh, "I've never forgiven Joe for that." The wine, of course, was an early Heitz Cellars cabernet sauvignon made with Martha's Vineyard grapes.

Myers said her father pushed for improved wine quality and "the friendship between Joe and Alice and Tom and Martha May led to wine that was honored all over the world." The friendship, she added, spans three generations.

Kenward said he was glad to be a part of the celebration. "Every valley, every industry should have these occasions to bring people together and then to obviously acknowledge these giants," he said.

Karen MacNeil, master of ceremonies and chair of the CIA's Professional Wine Studies program, said this is an important moment in history for California wine. It is fitting to honor those who created wines that have achieved worldwide stature, she added, but noted "that nothing on that scale happens without a lifetime of work by many individuals."

With the induction of Monday's class of 2012, there are 42 members in the Vintners Hall of Fame.