(Reuters) - There are few names in America as iconic as Mondavi, one of the original families who put California’s Napa Valley on the winemaking map decades ago.
The legacy of Mondavi, whose patriarch Robert died in 2008, is now in the hands of son Michael, 73.
When the original business was sold to beverage giant Constellation Brands back in 2004, Michael Mondavi started again, building Folio Fine Wine Partners with his wife, son and daughter.
For the latest installment in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, we talked to the legendary winemaker about how growing a fruitful vineyard is very similar to cultivating a successful life.
Q: It was your grandfather who first came over from Italy in 1906. What life advice did he give you?
A: When I was 11 or 12, we were walking through the family vineyard, and he bent over to pick up a handful of soil. He said, “What is the most important job you will ever have?’ I said, ”To make money!’ He said, “The most important job you will ever have is to leave this soil in healthier condition for your children than when you received it from your parents.”
Q: What kind of relationship did your father have with money?
A: Certain people can't sleep if they have a lot of debt. He couldn't sleep if he didn't have a lot of debt. He was an eternal optimist, willing to bet the ranch on a business he believed in. He essentially had no other investments during his lifetime, except our vineyards and wine companies.
Q: When Mondavi was eventually sold to Constellation Brands, against your wishes, what difficult money lessons did you take away from that?
A: I had resigned from the board and as chairman six months prior to the sale. I learned that if you have a family business with outside partners, you should have a family holding company with a family voting bloc. That way if you have one or two family members who want to sell, they can’t unilaterally cause that to happen. The ideal is the Frescobaldi family in Italy: They are now on their 31st generation in the business, having started back in the 1300s.
Q: Did you make any money mistakes along the way?
A: I was one of the early investors in WineShopper.com. This was just at the beginning of the direct-to-consumer wine business, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was an investor as well. But at that time, it was only legal to sell wine direct to consumers in about 20 states, and every one had their own regulations. It was taking more money to set up than founders expected, and when Amazon decided not to continue funding it, my investment went to zero.
Q: When you relaunched your own wine business, Folio, what goals did you have in mind?
A: I wanted to create a business that my son and daughter could continue long after I‘m gone. So they are actually the majority of the business, with 38 percent each. The employees have around 12 percent, and my wife and I only have around 10 percent. My role is founder and coach, and my job is to stimulate the whole team to excel. My father and grandfather created a lot of competition between their kids, and my wife and I didn’t want to imprint that on our own children.
Q: How do you decide where to devote your philanthropic dollars?
A: My wife, son, daughter and I decided to make it our objective to help kids and women and the elderly in need in the greater Napa Valley. It is a small enough area that you feel like you are making a real difference.
Q: What money lessons did you pass along to your own kids?
A: We were always happy to cover their basic needs, but if they wanted something beyond that, our philosophy was that they should earn half the money. So when my son turned 16 and his friend got a new Chevrolet, he asked us for a new car. I said, ”If you earn half, then I will match that dollar-for-dollar.’ He said, “That’s not fair!” I said, “That’s life. And that’s the way it is going to be.”
Q: What have you learned about life from winemaking?
A: Back in the late 1970s, about 70 percent of the vines in Napa Valley were wiped out. We had to replant most of our vineyards, and lost about five years of revenues. We thought we were so smart and in charge, but we learned it is Mother Nature who is really in charge.
Q: Different grapes have different characteristics - so what grape are you?
A: Cabernet is very much like my father - very determined, stubborn, singularly focused. I would probably have a little more balance in my blend, perhaps with some Petit Verdot and a little Zinfandel.
Editing by Lauren Young and Cynthia Osterman