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A walk in the vineyard at Robert Mondavi Winery

The Cliff May-designed winery building with its archway in the center.
The Cliff May-designed winery building with its archway in the center.
Photo by Kevin Nelson

There is no secret: great wine begins in the vineyard.—Robert Mondavi

A few years after the Civil War a man named Hamilton W. Crabb planted vineyards in Oakville in the Napa Valley, vineyards that he later named “To Kalon.” To Kalon, in Greek, means “the highest good,” and the cabernet sauvignon that Crabb made in the 1870s—he was a viticulturist who had imported vines from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley—was among the finest in America.

The other day I walked along this hallowed vineyard and even tasted a cabernet grape from it. Those who love wine and who love the land of Napa Valley will not be surprised when I say: It was a thrill. It was like tasting a sip of a future glass of wine with a seed in it.

To Kalon is one of the most famous vineyards in all of wine country, in part because of the quality of the grapes it produces, in part because of its history, and in part because of its intimate association with one of America’s most famous wine men: Robert Mondavi.

On a recent morning I did something I rarely do. I got up very early, as always, and I went for a walk in the vineyards. The air was fresh, the sky was a stunning blue, and as the sun peeked up over the mountains the To Kalon Vineyard was spread before me in a blaze of majesty and color.—Robert Mondavi

After Hamilton Crabb passed on, To Kalon Vineyard passed through various hands yet always maintained a reputation for quality grapes and wine. It was this reputation that drew the interest of Mondavi, who, in the mid-1960s, a century after Crabb’s first plantings, acquired To Kalon and made it the focal point of his winemaking dreams and empire. The Robert Mondavi Winery, on Highway 29 in Oakville, attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year, and one reason they come is the beauty of the setting.

To Kalon’s physical beauty fit perfectly into another key element of my strategy: tourists. I wanted my showcase winery to be so lovely and welcoming that it would attract hundreds of tourists daily and entice them to drive in and taste our unique style of wines. My real aim, though, was to spread the word about our wines and about our larger dreams for the Napa Valley and California wines.—Robert Mondavi

Mondavi got a big assist in that department from Cliff May, one of the creators of the California ranch house style who designed Sunset House in Menlo Park. He designed Mondavi’s eponymous winery in a way that fits into, and yet also exalts, its surroundings. Creamy in color, with a low, gently peaked roofline and a campanile or bell tower on one side, the building evokes an ancient Spanish mission and yet it is entirely original and fresh, even today. It’s extraordinary. Olive trees line the driveway leading up to it. There is a Bufano statue of St. Francis in the middle of a roundabout and a fountain on the plaza in front.

The winery’s main architectural element—such a clunky term, compared to the grace of May’s inspired design—is its central archway. St. Francis, the fountain and the driveway are all aligned in relationship to it. When you stand on the plaza, or even when you’re driving in, you see rows of grapevines through the archway in back. That is the To Kalon Vineyard.

Pass through the archway and walk along a walkway and you will shortly come right up to it. It’s part of the tour. If you take a tour of Robert Mondavi Winery—and some 60,000 people a year do—your guide will lead you around a path and you will stand or sit on the edge of To Kalon where you will learn a little about Old Man Crabb and all the generations of men and women who have worked this land and are still working this land with hard-nosed commercial instincts but also with reverence and awe for it.

Walking through To Kalon, admiring its contours and vines, smelling the richness of its soil, I knew this was a very special place. It exuded an indefinable quality I could not describe, a feeling that was almost mystical. The place just seemed to radiate a sense of calm and harmony, of peace and serenity.—Robert Mondavi

Led by our guide, senior wine educator Inger Shiffler, we headed up a walkway to see the vineyard from a balcony. “This is a Bordeaux vineyard,” she said, meaning that only grape varieties found in that French region—such as cabernet sauvignon—are in To Kalon. She talked about the many variables involved in growing wine grapes and how after all these years, the land was still teaching them lessons.

“We’re still learning,” she said. “As we replant and grow, every year we discover how good it is.”

One thing we noticed was the different planting patterns in the vineyard. Closer to us, the rows of vines ran in a generally east-west direction towards the Mayacamas Mountains (and Sonoma County). Whereas, in the distance, we could see rows of vines that trended north-south, almost perpendicular to the other. Shiffler explained that while Robert Mondavi Winery owned most of To Kalon, the winery next door controlled a piece of it as well. Thus there were different stitching patterns in the vineyard’s fabric.

The highlight of the day for me came after lunch, after the formal end of our tour, when we stepped out past the winery garden and walked onto the dirt along the edge of the vineyard. We looked down a long row with vines on either side of it. Closer at hand was a thick, gnarly vine with green leaves and clusters of grapes (and a black irrigation tube) hanging from it.

Some of the grapes were a rich purple, others green, still others evolving from green to purple. Each of us tasted one or two of the purples and although they were still young and not quite ready for harvest yet, they were sweet enough and delicious enough to leave me with a feeling of optimism, and even joy, for what was to come.

I’ve lived and worked among the vineyards of the Napa Valley for sixty years, and yet every single day I remain awed by the beauty of this landscape and by the power and rhythms of nature, by the way vines that are bare in February will bring forth grapes that we can harvest in September and turn into fine wine—wine that I know will mature with age and for years to come brighten our meals, nourish our health and enliven our spirits.—Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi Winery, 7801 St. Helena Highway, Oakville. 888-766-6328. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The 90-minute signature tour and tasting is $30 for adults and heartily recommended; the barrel room with another Bufano statue of St. Francis is a true “Wow” moment not to be missed. Family-friendly tours (also with a tasting) are $20 per person and last 30 minutes. Additionally the winery offers a multitude of tastings, tours and special wine and food programs, all worth exploring.

If possible, go on a weekday rather than a busier Saturday or Sunday. Big holiday weekends such as Memorial Day are always brimming with the tourists Mondavi so loved to welcome when he was alive. All of his quotes in this article are adapted from his autobiography, Harvests of Joy, written with Paul Chutkow.

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