It wasn’t until the obituaries were noted and carefully read that some fascinating parallels were revealed in the careers of winemakers Peter Mondavi and Giacomo Tachis.
Two men separated by nearly two continents and 6,000 miles yet whose impacts on wine and winemaking will last far longer than many of the current winemakers.
Plus, the fact both were of Italian lineage cements a long-held belief that the world of wine owes much to its Italian heritage.
Mondavi died Feb. 19 at 101 and in early partnership with brother Robert, a remarkable winemaker in his own right who died in 2008, made their family-owned Charles Krug winery one of the early leaders in Napa Valley wine history.
According to several articles, Peter Mondavi adopted ideas he had learned while doing graduate at the University of California, Berkeley, to turn California from a general source for unremarkable wines into one of the world’s premier wine regions.
He’s said to have been the first Napa Valley winemaker to use cold fermentation and sterile filtration to produce crisp, fruity whites.
Also, his winery was the first in Napa Valley to use new French oak casks for aging and to adopt the uncommon (for then) practice of vintage-dating its varietal wines.
Such was his passion for winemaking, and even more his passion for protecting his family business, that he still going into the office at the age of 100.
The Charles Krug Winery, during this Golden Age of California cabernet, became famed for its well-structured and elegant Vintage Selection cabernets.
Tachis, meanwhile, who died Feb. 5 at the age of 82 at his home in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Tuscany, equally was known for his pioneering use of temperature-controlled fermentation and aging in oak barrels.
It once was said that there are two eras in the history of winemaking in Tuscany: before Giacomo Tachis and after Tachis.
One of Tachis’ most notable accomplishments was his role in using French grape varietals (notably cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc) in developing what became known as “Super Tuscan” wines. There had been a few earlier experiments with using non-Italian grape varieties but it wasn’t until 1961, with the state of Chianti in sorry shape, when Tachis helped develop the Bordeaux-influenced, sangiovese-based Sassicaia (with Marchesi Incisi della Rocchetta), Tignanello (with Marchese Piero Antinori, whose family had been experimenting with cabernet blends since the 1920s) and Solaia, among them the first of the so-called Super Tuscan wines.
These wines with their French-grape components didn’t fit the restrictive Italian regulations and rather than be lumped with common and less-distinctive vino da tavola, the term Super Tuscan was developed.
“They opened the door to a new market — as well as the road to a better-quality wine — at a time when, especially in Tuscany, Chianti was a weak, cheap wine,” Giacomo Tachis told Decanter Magazine in 2003.
The wines lifted the reputation of all Italian wines, and while now some of the polish has worn off this so-called “international style,” it paved the way to success and worldwide markets for many Italian winemakers.
After Tachis was named Decanter magazine’s Man of the Year in 2011, wine expert Jancis Robinson wrote “Giacomo Tachis changed the style of Italian wine, dragging it – kicking and screaming – into the 20th century.
“And by changing the style of the wines, he changed the way in which they are perceived,” wrote Robinson. “Without him, Italian wine would not be as successful as it is today.”
Tachis, in his post-Antinori career, developed highly acclaimed and sought-after red wines in Sicily, Sardinia, and the Marches region of central Italy.
There was one notable difference between these two innovative winemakers, separated as they were by miles if not temperament and passion. While they almost simultaneously pioneered similar techniques (cold fermentation, oak aging) to improve what went into the bottle, they differed in what they put on the bottle.
Mondavi introduced the use of varietal labeling on wine while Tachis adopted less-descriptive labeling, thus perhaps starting the trend to fanciful labels on wines.
Two men, two imprints, and the world of wine made better.
A recent note from Giovanni Mantovani, General Director for Veronafiere, the site of the annual VinItaly wine exposition, said this year’s VinItaly, the 50th anniversary, will be dedicated to the legacy of Giacomo Tachis.
“Giacomo Tachis represented the renaissance of Italian wines and will remain forever in the history of Italian winemaking and in the hearts of those who knew him,” said Montovani in the announcement.
As we head into Italian Wine Week Feb. 3-9, with special events held in New York City, it’s fitting to remember the roles of five men key to the wine connection between Italy and the U.S.
With the Jan. 5 passing of winemaker Harry F. Mariani of Banfi Wines, another chapter in that American wine history could be written.
Mariani, 78, and his brother John, who survives, made their fortunes introducing
Americans to Italian wines. They were working for Banfi, founded in 1919 by their father and his three brothers, when in 1967 the brothers began importing Riunite, a chilled, sparkling sweet red wine that by 1973 was the nation’s largest-selling imported brand.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember Riunite Lambrusco’s promotional slogan, “Riunite on ice, that’s nice,” which was updated in 2002 to the trendier “Just chill.”
Imports of Riunite peaked at 11.2 million cases in 1984 and accounted for 27 percent of all foreign wines sold in the United States, according to Banfi Wines.
That success as importers allowed the brothers to branch out, purchase their own vineyards in Italy and on Long Island and by the mid-1990s Banfi was the nation’s leading wine importer, according to the New York Times.
Today, Italian varieties are the leading imported wine in the U.S. and Americans now are drinking more Italian wines than Italian themselves, said the Italian Wine and Food Institute.
Which brings us to three other major players in the Italo-American wine connection.
At one time the company owned nearly half the vineyard acreage in California with annual revenues estimated at $1 billion.
Ernest was in charge of marketing and his desire, according to his biography, was to see the company become the “Campbell Soup Company of the wine industry.”
The Gallos marketed their cheap White Port and Thunderbird wines in inner city markets along with a catchy jingle that in part went, “What’s the word? /Thunderbird/ How’s it sold?/ Good and cold/…”
The company gradually shed its low-rent image to become the largest winemaker in the country and today is the largest privately held wine company in the world.
Ernest Gallo died at the age of 97 on March 6, 2007, less than a month after his brother Joseph. Julio Gallo died in 1993.
The third of our Italian triumvirate is Robert Mondavi, who, dismissed in 1952 from
Charles Krug, the Mondavi family winery, went on to build his own eponymous winery and his great fortunes.
As Mondavi noted in his 1998 memoir, “Harvests of Joy,” he found his mission doing “whatever it took to make great wines and to put the Napa Valley on the map right alongside the great winemaking centers of Europe.”
In 1968, he took Sauvignon Blanc, at the time an unpopular variety, and rebranded it as “Fumé Blanc,” figuring it was something Americans could pronounce. The wine was so successful that Fumé Blanc became an accepted synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.
By the time Mondavi sold his winery in 2004, it was sixth-largest winery in the U.S. with annual sales of 9.7 million cases, according to Wine Business Monthly.
Mondavi remained as chairman emeritus until his death on May 16, 2008 at the age of 94.
In 1993, Mariani told the New York Times that wine was always a part of his life, “it was never taboo.”
And at every meal, Harry Mariani would toast: “A tavola non s’invecchia,” which can be translated to “At the table with family and friends, one does not grow old.”