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Robert Mondavi: RIP

The great man died today. His most lasting achievement will be, for better or worse, the elevation of the Napa--and therefore the California--wine industry from small-time regional curiosity to international juggernaut. More than as a maker of phenomenal wines, he has come to be known as a great marketer, for both his own winery and for wine in general.

The last time I saw him was at the place where he died today--his home. I was there for a dinner and was in fact seated next to him. Unfortunately, he was incapacitated to the point of not being able to interact. He was merely wheeled up to the table in a completely paralyzed state, and he sat through the meal like that. His eyes were open, though, and directed forward (I have no idea whether he could see from them or not) and he could swallow when his wife, Margrit, would put food or wine into his mouth. He was alive, but not particularly functional or "himself"--a mirror of what had happened to the company bearing his name, which after years of infighting amongst his children and the turbulence of the global wine market was bought out by New York-based Constellation brands for $1.3 million in 2004.

I believe that he was a good man and an earnest believer in the value of wine, food and community. I think it's regrettable that over the last 20 years his company had to balloon to an outrageous size, exploiting the name Mondavi by incorporating brands and countries of such diverse geography and quality that it served to undermine the very basic message of the simple, good life through gastronomy and agriculture about which he had always reputedly evangelized about.

Nevertheless, it's hard to find anyone in Napa who wasn't in some way touched by his generosity--in time, advice, and money for charitable projects--and his belief in the spirit of wine and friendship. And over the years I have enjoyed many of his wines, from his splendid Reserves to his Oakville Cabernets and his astonishing To Kalon Sauvignon Blancs. He will be missed.