Wine Director for Robert Mondavi Winery and Chairman of the 2017 Cincinnati International Wine Festival
Doesn’t every story about the heart-stopping beauty and allure of Napa Valley need to start with a picture of this sign? It announces, with pleasure, “you’ve arrived”! The original sign was installed on June 30, 1950, to welcome visitors to the Valley.
The top photo includes a young Robert Mondavi (far left, age 37), fifteen years before he was faced with what was surely among his most significant life inflection points.
In 1965, a seismic shift in the family’s CK Mondavi and Charles Krug business relationships propelled Robert Mondavi to search for a new future. In his 1998 autobiography Harvests of Joy, Mondavi says “…at the age of 52, I was at a decisive crossroads and I knew it.” Three years earlier, on the first of many trips to Europe, Robert Mondavi had been smitten by the differences in quality between European and American wines and winemaking practices – things like distinct methods and styles for each grape variety, treating wine as “high art” instead of a bulk beverage business, the joys of savoring a beautiful glass of wine with a wonderful meal. Mondavi wrote that he told his (then) wife Marge “I want to create (w)ines that have grace and style, harmony and balance.” And so he did. Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW) was born in 1966.
Robert Mondavi, Pacesetter and Maestro
The man who many called “Mr. Mondavi,” and who some call the industry superlative “Maestro,” became a legend in his own time long before his passing in 2008 at age 94. He carved a path of innovation for American wines that catapulted Napa Valley onto the world stage (notwithstanding the prescient message on the 1950 Napa Valley sign!). Mondavi’s vision, passion, persistent efforts, and strong leadership are an indelible part of brand Napa Valley.
“When creating Maestro (wine) for our 50th anniversary, we were inspired by memories of Robert Mondavi. To celebrate the 2000 opening of our To Kalon Cellar, Robert Mondavi commissioned a special piece of music. At the gala, when the orchestra began to play, he took the baton and began conducting. We realized that Robert Mondavi was the maestro of our lives. His vision and passion guides us. He will always be the maestro of this winery, and our inspiration.” (Source: Robert Mondavi Winery website)
The 50th anniversary Maestro wine, released in 2016, is vintage 2013, which was the year of Robert Mondavi’s 100th birthday. Winemaker’s notes: “Merlot leads the orchestra of aromas, flavors, and textures in this Bordeaux blend. Easy to enjoy, Maestro is smooth and rich with black fruit and mocha aromas and fresh, mouthfilling cherry flavors.”
You can hear the commissioned piece playing softly in the background as wine director Geneviève Janssens talks about the 50th anniversary and Maestro release.
Geneviève Janssens: RMW Concertmaster
Every maestro needs a strong, talented concertmaster in the “first chair” as the next most important person in an orchestra. Like a concertmaster, RMW’s wine director Geneviève Janssens executes on the maestro’s vision and passion with charm, finesse, and quiet humility. She leads a hand-picked team of winemakers to continue a tradition of winemaking and mentorship in the style that Mr. Mondavi defined for his new winery in 1966. She is an active member of the vineyard management team, helping to keep the RMW “orchestra” in tune and in time to the rhythms of the winery and the vineyard.
Geneviève’s journey to this important leadership position is a fascinating story, one that she considers to be gender-neutral. Recognizing that the statistics on women winemakers show that fewer than 10% of those posts are held by women, Geneviève rarely stops to consider her prominence in this rarified – if gradually changing – air.
Geneviève was in some ways destined to work in the wine industry. Her ancestors were part of a group of French nationalists who migrated in the 1870s to the French protectorate of Morocco in Algeria. While many family members were surgeons, jewelers, and other professions, the part of the family hailing from Burgundy grew grapes for bulk sale to wine merchants (nègociants). Geneviève’s father was a fourth generation winegrape farmer who in 1955 experienced personally the beginnings of the French/Algerian decolonization war. He wisely foresaw the end of French rule and resulting independence of Muslim Algeria (1962). Rather than wait to be expelled, her father moved the family to Nice and developed a new winegrowing business on the French island of Corsica when Geneviève was quite young.
With that move also came the family’s shift to winegrowers, making wine in bottles rather than in bulk, and her father’s encouragement to attend the University of Bordeaux where Geneviève earned a National Diploma of Enology in 1974. She returned home to work in the family vineyards, but with entrepreneurial ambition, she also launched an enology lab in Provence and worked as a consulting enologist at various French Chateaux.
Her father’s mentorship continued when he urged Geneviève to tour the United States, specifically Napa Valley, where he had visited Robert Mondavi Winery “because everybody knew who he was, even in the 1970s. My dad visited RMW with a group of winemakers, and ironically Margrit Bievers was the wine educator. (After that trip) he went on and on about Margrit because she was so fantastic.”
Geneviève headed off to Napa Valley in 1977, securing a meeting with Zelma Long, who was at that time RMW’s enologist. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so Geneviève pitched her interest in working at RMW if ever there was an opening. Two months later, Zelma offered her a position in the enology lab.
During the two years that Geneviève worked in the lab at RMW (1978-79), she met and married Luc Janssens, then a university professor. She left RMW to spend time with her husband and their two children, Gabrielle and Georges, working part-time as a wine consultant in California.
But she was destined to rejoin the Mondavi enterprises.
Tim Mondavi, who had taken on the mantle of winemaker in 1974 from brother Michael, was executing his father’s vision of a French/American joint venture with Baron Phillippe de Rothschild. We know that venture today as Opus One. Geneviève remembers fondly that moment in 1989 when Tim asked her to become director of operations at Opus One so that he and Mouton Rothschild winemaker Patrick Leon could focus on integrating the styles of two wineries. It was time to get back in the game, and the position was perfect for a person with her sensibilities for both French and American cultures!
During the nearly ten years that Geneviève kept the trains running on time at Opus One, Robert Mondavi Winery experienced a number of changes, including a public offering of the company in 1993. In Harvests of Joy, Robert Mondavi called it “the gamble. We didn’t see it coming.” Between an outbreak of phylloxera, the heavy cost of acquisitions, and the growing intensity of competition from premium wines, “we weighed all the issues—and the risks—and decided (to) give it a go.”
As the structure and scale of the company continued to evolve, Tim asked Geneviève in 1998 to join RMW as wine director. During her long career in that capacity, Geneviève has been named the Croix de Chevaliere dans l’Ordre National du Merite Agricole (2009) and Winemaker of the Year (2010) by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
Always the multi-tasker, Geneviève insists that wine is her passion, her job, and her only hobby. When their children were headed off to university, she and Luc started a boutique winery called The Portfolio, making one wine that is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc. Production is purposely small enough at 200 cases that the couple can do everything themselves, and by hand – no pumps, only gravity, for example. Their wines are available only through a direct mailing list, a few retailers in California, and in Tokyo from a young woman who only imports Portfolio wines!
As she approaches her 20th anniversary in that role, with characteristic humility, Geneviève says “life is good, the future is brilliant.”
A Walk Down Memory Lane: RMW Winemakers and Mentors Through the Years (1966-2016)
The list of winemakers who have shaped Robert Mondovi Winery is an illustrious slice of “who’s who” in Napa Valley, starting in 1966 with Warren Winiarski. He joined Robert’s son Michael Mondavi in the inaugural winemaking positions. Winiarski is perhaps better known as the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, winner of the red wine (Bordeaux-style) competition in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Like Mondavi, Winiarski had fallen in love with wine in Europe and caught the bug to make it. He spent two years as a winemaker at Souverain Winery before signing on to help Robert Mondavi jumpstart RMW.
When Winiarski moved on in 1968 to start an entrepreneurial venture making wine in Denver using California grapes, RMW engaged Mike Grgich as chief enologist. Grgich had also spent time working at Souverain Winery, plus several years at Beaulieu Vineyard under the tutelage of another “Maestro,” winemaker André Tchelistcheff. In 1972, Grgich left RMW to join Chateau Montalena, also later distinguished in the Judgment of Paris by winning the white wine (Chardonnay) competition. His eponymous winery, Grgich Hills Estate, was launched in 1977.
At a time when there were many fewer women in leading industry roles than even today, Zelma Long started breaking that glass ceiling when she was tapped in 1972 to succeed Mike Grgich as chief enologist. In 1979, Long moved to SIMI as winemaker, and in 1989 was named CEO, the first woman in Napa Valley to hold a senior management role. Long worked with Geneviève Janssens for two years while Geneviève absorbed the mindset and style of RMW and Mr. Mondavi himself.
By 1974, son Tim Mondavi was ready to step into the winemaker and director of winemaking roles. RMW interests were beginning to expand to international and other pursuits, so Michael’s role shifted initially to sales and marketing, and later to winery executive. Along with his brother Michael, who managed sales and marketing, Tim weathered the financial crisis in 1993 that resulted in a public offering of the company and ultimately led to the 2004 sale of RMW to Constellation Brands. Today Tim Mondavi runs Continuum Winery (with sister Marcia) which is perched high atop Pritchard Hill.
“Who I am is mainly my father, but now Mr. Mondavi and Tim. I was lucky to have Tim as a mentor. Mr. Mondavi always asked ‘and what is next.’ The present was finished; he always wanted to see the future. Mr. Mondavi was so demanding, he always wanted the best, so Tim worked very hard to push himself and his employees to excellence.”
One of the concertmaster’s most important tasks is to hire talent. The current winemaking team is led by Megan Schofield and Joe Hardin.
Megan graduated (with honors) in the first enology and viticulture degree program offered by Brock University in Ontario. Before joining RMW in 2015, Megan gained nearly 15 years of experience at Beringer, Buena Vista and SIMI wineries. Megan is the winemaker for RMW’s Fumé Blanc and cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir programs.
Joe is a viticulture and oenology graduate of UC Davis. Equally passionate about sports, the 6’7” adventurer tried his hand at professional basketball in California and Australia before turning his attention back to wine. He became winemaker for the red wine program at RMW in 2014 after two years of learning the ropes there as an intern and enologist.
Postscript: Farewell to Margrit Bievers Mondavi
In a recent interview, conducted the year Robert Mondavi would have celebrated his 100th birthday, Mr. Mondavi’s widow Margrit described herself as the “keeper of the flame” of his passion for wine, food, and art. She passed away at age 91 on September 2, 2016. Enjoy a tribute to Mrs. Mondavi, and to their loving relationship, here.
2 thoughts on “Making Sweet Music in the (To Kalon) Vineyard”
Beautiful article! We live in Napa and love the pioneer stories that define this Valley. Thanks for sharing. We write a wine country blog that you might enjoy: http://www.topochinesvino.com