A taste of commercial winemaking

My first wine tasting was a hit. I enjoyed every moment of it, and grinning from ear to ear as my colleague drove out of the gates. Our next stop was the actual Robert Mondavi Winery.

We’d seen the family and their current estate, Continuum, and now we were about to visit the infamous winery they sold to a multi-national corporation. The buyers retained the name because—well—Robert Mondavi was an established name in the wine market. And so my colleague, the ever-enthusiastic guide, drove us to the one winery that rules them all.

The first thing that threw myself at me was the sheer number of people outside the winery. In stark contrast, Continuum had been empty except for our host. Here, however, I saw hundreds of people; men in shorts and women in tank tops, fanning themselves with brochures, some even clutching their hat in one hand and gesturing to their partners in the other. It was like a carnival where people congregated to stare at inanimate objects on display.

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At the reception, there were groups of 15 members each, with each group led by a white-clad guide bouncing with excitement as they explained the estate’s massive layout. Tours ran every 15 minutes, and prices started from $45.

We stuck our badges on our clothes and lumbered behind our guide, a young man who spoke of wine and the art of winemaking as it’s been in his bloodline for ages. It was believable, but I wondered if he made it up to keep the engagement alive. He first led us into a room full of maps of Italy, France, and most of California. In fleeting moments, he explained the world’s popular wine regions and the varied temperatures that defined their wines.

We then strolled down paved walkways through the vines. Our willing host answered questions, and explained the role of roses in wine making. Winemakers planted rose bushes amidst vines to help identify illnesses in the grapes. When the roses in infected areas begin to die, winemakers know something’s amiss. It was a hot day, and although most of rest of the tourists “ooh”ed and “aah”ed, I drifted. It was a glorious sight, however, and I wanted to stay there looking around in silence.

But our guide ushered us to our next stop at the winery—the actual wine cellar. He had been building up our excitement, and we were about to get our treat. At Continuum, harvest hadn’t begun yet and so they had no activity in the cellars. At the Robert Mondavi Estate, though, machines were grinding, grapes were drying, and people were chatting away in every corner. A hum of enthusiastic activity clung to the air, and blended with the waft of fresh whole grapes and fermenting crushed ones, like an additional slice of pie over a thanksgiving dinner.

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Further down the cellars, we walked through rows of red wine barrels with stained markers and white wine barrels with peachy tones. Telling us how each barrel comes from artisan manufacturers and remains untouched throughout the storing process, our host injected an air of grandeur that was only too obvious. At such a large scale, I knew, the Robert Mondavi Winery was a commercial producer.

We saw barrels upon barrels ready to unwrap, stock, and store for another 18 months. The difference between Continuum and Robert Mondavi was striking. While this estate had cellars capable of storing over a thousand barrels, Continuum paid more meticulous attention to the few hundreds they produce.

While I’d been musing, our guide showed us into another room. A long table stood in the middle with 15 places and three glasses in each spot. It was time to taste some of the Robert Mondavi makes. We each had a booklet in front of us with details of the wines we’d taste and the recipe for the cookie we’d nibble on. Along was a membership opportunity with pricing details and benefits—a classic sales move for any corporate, I remembered.

The tasting experience was noisier this time. Some of my fellow tourists gulped their wine and looked around for the next, while some followed each rule in the book; looking, smelling, swirling, smelling again, sipping, lip smacking, and so on.

The first was a white, and as I let it trickle down my throat I realised for the first time that I liked the flavour of the wine. It came as a surprise because I hadn’t expected to like white wines so much. Curious, I drank some more, and I enjoyed it even more. Smiling to myself, I awaited my next sample. Perhaps this tasting wouldn’t be such a dousing experience.

The second—a red—was less satisfying, but a third red made up for it. At the end of it all, though, the white still seemed the winner. Surprising us all, our host announced a bonus tasting of a Moscato. He told us to either drink up or pour down the rest of our white wine (I drank, of course), and then started filling each person’s glass with Moscato.

I hadn’t expected that.

Later, I questioned the guide if reusing the same glass for another wine would affect the taste of the second wine. To me it seemed like it would. To my my utter amazement, the guide shook his head. He claimed that using one glass to drink two wines would be the same as drinking each wine in separate glasses—and here I was thinking I should rinse my mouth in between changing wines! Although doubtful of his expertise, I decided to let it go. The day was warm and the wine was fine, and I figured I shouldn’t complain.

Our final stop—as in any commercial museum or exhibition—was the gift shop, where we could get stamped reminders of our visit to the winery. Taking only photographic memories, we drove away from the once-glorious, now-still-glorious-but-more-salesy, Robert Mondavi Winery—also known as RMW for easy corporate brand recall.

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