“See, this pisses me off…”
Rob Mondavi, Jr. is upset. Moderately. It’s almost difficult to imagine why, given the sunny day, and the subsequently stunning Napa Valley view from his family’s Animo vineyard on Atlas Peak. But moderately upset he is.
The trigger for Mondavi’s small bit of angst? The spacing of the pruning cuts on some of the vines isn’t uniform. One is reminded of the scene in The Aviator, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes is running his hand down the side of an airplane hull, testing to see if all of the rivets are totally smooth.
Rob Mondavi, Jr. is, it seems, a bit of a perfectionist, particularly when it comes to viticulture (as he remarked to me during our vineyard lunch, “the biggest challenge in Napa is that we’ve become complacent in farming”). An amiable perfectionist, with the Mondavi flair for gab and working the crowd, but a perfectionist nonetheless.
As it turns out, Rob’s excellent high-end wines can almost be too perfect, polished smooth to a such an glistening, art deco metallic sheen that one might start to pine for a blemish of any kind; not that the wines lack soul, it’s just that you want to see and feel more of that soul.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? Back to the vineyard, where the view is lovely and the scenery, apart from vines, is of liberally strewn about rocks, rocks, and more rocks on this volcanic soil…
For Rob’s amicable, gabby perfectionism, there is the counterweight of his laidback father, Michael. A man who, when I first met him in New Hampshire, was putting ice cubes into a glass of his family’s rosé release to give it a better chill (I’m not sure what was more fun; seeing that, or watching the rest of the event guests follow his lead in doing the same). Michael has that almost Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons quality about him, the one that convinces you that everything is just going to turn out swell.
Which makes it all the more interesting when he quips, “Mother Nature doesn’t take any prisoners here. You farm the way she wants, or she spanks you.” (Other gems from Michael: “In CA we made soda pop, we didn’t make rose wine for food!” and “women have a better palate than men;” bold statements, and ones with which I mostly agree).
Planting on Atlas Peak is not without its challenges. Those rocks don’t make farming (or pruning!) easy. As Michael remarked, planting in Animo caused people to “look at us like we were nuts; and they were probably right.” But munching on sandwiches up on the hill in the sun, it’s awfully difficult to argue with the results.
2010 Michael Mondavi Animo Vineyard Red (Napa Valley, $85)
The Animo-designate bottling will be available soon, and it’s a good example of why well-made, well-grown Cabernet Sauvignon (with a splash of Petit Verdot in this case) can be so lip-smackingly, crowd-pleasingly, juicy-licious. It’s lush, full of blue fruits to start, growing floral on the nose and broad in the mouth. The spice overtones are excellent, maybe the most exciting part of the wine, and while it’s polished, it’s polished without seeming like it had a forced rub-down.
2009 M by Michael Mondavi (Napa Valley, $200)
The high-end red from the Mondavi clan is tighter than a tourniquet to start, and then hits with a dollop of sweet oak. That tentative start opens up to a spicy liveliness, though, once things really get going. It’s ripe, make no mistake about that, but it’s also minerally, long, and, at turns, gorgeous. Dried herbs play the part of pick-up hitters in the lineup (and do it well).
2010 M. by Michael Mondavi (Napa Valley, $200)
There’s a bit more happening aromatically in the 2010 M; oak, tobacco, coffee, spices. It’s a damn sight more brooding (but a touch less earthy) than the friendlier 2009. The mouthfeel is fresh, though. The issue is that it’s too perfect of a Napa red; you almost want to find a fault in there, a crack in the sheen, something to attach your imperfect humanity to so you can feel more connected to this wine. It’s the Angelina Jolie problem; she’s got oodles of acting talent, but all of her roles are unbelievable because she looks too other-worldly beautiful. But hey, I’m weird like that.
Look, I understand that, at the price range we’re talking about here, people want the art deco metallic sheen; a lot of them want the wine to feel perfect, to have those silky-smooth rivet seams. I get it, okay? And after lunch and tasting at Animo, the Mondavis and I set out for Michael’s home, where he makes good on a promise he made to me earlier in the year in New Hampshire to taste some older wines from his personal cellar.
And that experience culminates in tasting a wine that just might totally undercut my this-juice-is-great-but-it’s-almost-too-perfect stuff. That wine is the 1971 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon:
Stunning juice. Character out the wahzoo. And soul for daaaaays.
So maybe Michael and son know exactly what the heck they’re doing…