The Minnesota Connection to the Mondavi Wine Family

MNMO food critic Jason DeRusha sits down with Carlo Mondavi to talk wine and the (Italian by way of Minnesota) family legacy

When I think of great California wine, it’s hard not to think of the name Mondavi. The family history is fascinating: full of internal battles over quality versus quantity, marriages, divorces, lawsuits, drama. Robert Mondavi was born in Virginia, Minnesota, on the Iron Range, in 1913. His parents came to Minnesota from Italy. Today, Robert’s grandson Carlo Mondavi continues the family tradition, and we had a chance to chat when Carlo was in Minnesota for the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital WineFest fundraiser.

Photo courtesy of WCCO-TV

Robert moved from the range during prohibition, and his dad Cesare became a grape distributor. Robert grew up with a vision for California wine—as a world-class wine, not just a cute product for locals. This has helped create the culture we have today of cult, boutique California cabs selling for $400 a bottle and up. Robert Mondavi Winery, Opus One, Continuum Estate, Charles Krug—all legendary wine labels the family has been involved with.

Photo courtesy of RAEN Winery

Today, Carlo and his brother Dante are fourth-generation winemakers and farmers. They have their own pinot noir brand called Raen. “It’s a pinot noir project on the true Sonoma coast, where it’s very cold and an ideal climate for pinot noir,” Carlo says. Through the drama of family disputes, he says his dad ended up making better and better wine. “I think it was the best thing my grandfather Robert was around to start Continuum with my father, Tim,” he says.

Being a Mondavi comes with pressure and expectations, he acknowledges, but: “The pressure comes from within. It’s not pressure to be better than or even try to be as great as my grandfather. The pressure is to listen to Mother Nature and every year to farm our vineyards to as high of a level as we can.” As far as his technique goes, Carlo says he works like his dad in that he picks grapes based on flavor. But, he says, the science keeps getting better. “To ignore the science is a misstep. You have to know the chemistry. We appreciate the science; it confirms a lot of our intuition,” he says.

Photo Courtesy of University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital

Raen is producing three pinots right now, and they’re in very limited production. I tried the 2015 Sonoma Coast Royal St. Robert Cuvee, named, of course, in honor of Carlo’s grandpa. “He taught me to be committed to excellence,” Carlo says. It is excellent. Beautiful strawberry aroma, nice balance of fruit and earthiness, no filtration. Raen and Continuum are on the list at the St. Paul Grill: “My dad always said, ‘Wine is meant to enhance a meal, and a meal is meant to enhance the wine,'” Carlo says. “It’s special to be in Minnesota, and it’s an honor to be on this wine list.”

Photo Courtesy of Raen Winery

I love this family’s story—they get knocked down, get up and, get better. Knocked down again, get up, and get better. Constant improvement, constant seeking of excellence. I highly recommend The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler. It’s an incredible book. But even more, I recommend going out there and finding yourself a bottle of Raen.

Minnesota has only 180 bottles of Raen. The price will be around $70. You can find it on wine lists at Bellecour, Gianni’s, Tria, Radisson Blu at the Mall of America, the St. Paul Grill, Spoon and Stable, and Murray’s, as well as retail locations at Lunds & Byerlys in Minnetonka, Eagan, and St. Louis Park, plus the Haskell’s in Minnetonka.

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