Book Review: The House of Mondavi

by Matthew on October 24, 2011

For my birthday this summer, my wife bought me a couple of books on Robert Mondavi she thought I’d be interested in. One was The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler. I found it fascinating because it blends together two things I love: good wine and business. It’s also a great story as well, and takes you on a journey through the personal lives and local gossip of the Mondavi family.

Prior to reading “House of Mondavi,” I had known bits and pieces of the Mondavi story from the quarreling brothers to the ultimate demise of the business and sale to Constellation Brands. I’d also seen the documentary Mondovino but wasn’t quite sure what to make of the story it tried to tell. The House of Mondavi pretty much lays things out, taking you through the good, bad, and ugly that was the Mondavi empire.

As a background to Mondavi history, the story begins with the immigration of Robert’s parents from Italy in the early 20th century. Robert’s competitive streak was obvious early in his life, and I personally could relate to a few of the ways he approached challenges and his constant quest for efficiency. One story described a competition he had with his brother to see who could build the most wo0den crates  in a single day. Robert studied the crate-building process to figure out how to make it as efficient as possible, then he trained all summer in preparation for the big final competition. He ultimately won the competition.

Robert Mondavi’s constant quest to do things well in large quantities while constantly increasing efficiency is what led to the rise of the Mondavi wine dynasty. It’s not like wine didn’t exist before the Mondavis came along. There also wasn’t some secret invention which was the only reason they were successful. In fact, Robert Mondavi began learning French winemaking techniques, believing they would help him produce world-class wines.

At the same time, businesses are made up of people and the human element is an interesting variable. In the Mondavi business, employees also included family: siblings, children, parents, etc. Regardless of what business you’re in, personal life continues on simultaneously and will affect your business in some way. In the case of the Mondavis, nepotism, family  feuds, and the challenges of personal/work life all placed pressures on the business. There are lots of cautionary tales and lessons to be learned along the way. The book is packed with nuggets of family gossip and scandalous revelations about the behind-the-scenes in the Mondavi home while the business was moving along.

The Decline

As all empires eventually do, the business ultimately began to crumble and was finally sold off. Ultimately, financial pressures forced the company into a sale, and a good case can be made that Robert’s quest for bigger/better/more-efficient got a little carried away.

In conclusion, entrepreneurs should read this book.

First of all, it’s motivating. Robert Mondavi was a second-generation Italian immigrant who was one of the most influential people in bringing California wine into international respect. Fifty years ago, California wines were not considered world-class in fancy NYC restaurants and the quality was nowhere near what it is today.

Also, the Mondavi tale dispels the myth of the “great new idea” being the only way to build a business. This giant business was built around a common element found on nearly every Italian dinner table.

Secondly, it’s sobering. Instead of just theory, read some real-life cautionary tales about running an ongoing business.

Lastly, it’s proof that it’s never too late to start a business. Robert started his namesake winery when he was in his 50s. Sure, he had some family money to get started with, but his motivation and quest to do something great finally came to the forefront at a time when most people start thinking about when they’ll be able to retire.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Any thoughts to add?

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