Five questions with Julia Flynn Siler, author of ‘The House of Mondavi’

by TrevR on June 18, 2007

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A new book related to the Napa Valley is due to be released tomorrow called ‘The House of Mondavi‘.

After conducting some 500+ hours of interviews for her book, we turned the tables on author Julia Flynn Siler and asked her a few questions about the potentially explosive book that looks at the rise and fall of the Mondavi family empire. She shared with us details about the willingness of the Mondavi family to grant her interviews, her most surprising discoveries and what others can learn from the Mondavi story.

The House of Mondavi CB: Your upcoming book, The House of Mondavi, is described as “…a tale of genius, sibling rivalry, and betrayal.” Talk to us about the genesis of the book–how and when did you decide to pursue this project?

Siler: In January of 2004, I saw a piece buried in the San Francisco Chronicle’s business section about Michael Mondavi stepping down as chairman of the winery. That made me curious. Why would the scion of the powerful Mondavi family give up his seat as chairman of a family corporation? Once I began asking questions, the Mondavi’s public relations folks did their best to throw me off the scent which made me even more curious. I began interviewing other players who were involved, and eventually wrote a long piece for the Wall Street Journal that ran on the front page.

Soon after the story ran, a well-known publisher in New York asked me if I’d consider writing a book on the same subject. At that point, in June of 2004, the takeover drama hadn’t yet played out, but because of the family dynamics involved in the story, I decided that the fascinating human and corporate story of the Mondavis over a century was enough to warrant a book.

CB: You conducted countless hours of research and interviews during the course of writing the book. Talk to us about the Mondavi family’s reaction to your book and requests for information, access and interviews.

Siler: Initially, because of various lawsuits that were pending when the company changed ownership, they would not participate. However, once Ted Hall, the non-executive chairman of the Robert Mondavi Corp.’s board, gave me a series of long interviews, the key members of the Mondavi family involved in the corporate drama recognized that it was in their interest to share their perspective with me, in part to balance the views of Ted Hall and the independent directors. Ultimately my researcher and I interviewed over 250 sources to write this book and conducted more than 500 hours of interviews.

CB: The Mondavi family is essentially synonymous with the California wine industry. Having closely examined the rise and fall of the family’s business, what lessons are to be learned? How is the Mondavi story indicative of the current state of the California wine industry?

Siler: Though five Harvard Business School case studies have been written about the Mondavi winery, none of those studies have explored the combustive mix of emotions, strong personalities, and a large fortune on a business dynasty. The rivalries and differing philosophies of the family members make for a much more dramatic tale of money, power and kinship than a regular business where people are hired and fired depending on how they work with the team. The great majority of the world’s enterprises today are family firms, with a particularly high concentration in the wine industry, and many may find that some of the same issues that are explored in “The House of Mondavi,” — succession, sibling rivalry, nepotism, inheritance battles– also resonate with their own experiences.

The backdrop to the Robert Mondavi family’s loss of control of their business dynasty is the industry’s rapid consolidation. Indeed, Constellation’s purchase of the Robert Mondavi Corp. was a watershed moment in the industry’s history, as a family which built its business on low-end wines such as Richard’s Wild Irish Rose ended up taking over the company founded by Robert Mondavi, the patriarch of America’s fine wine trade. The Mondavi family itself reflected the divisions occurring in the industry. The differing philosophies of Timothy, who has long favored high-end, artisanal fine wines and who is pursuing his beliefs through his new brand “Continuum,” in contrast to his older brother Michael, who is more focused on lower priced but higher volume brands such as the rose “I’M,” is emblematic of a polarization of the California wine industry, with hundreds or perhaps thousands of tiny artisanal producers competing against a shrinking number of very large, volume producers, with the Gallos and the Sands brothers of Constellation dominating this end of the market.

CB: Of everything you discovered during the course of researching and writing this book, what were the one or two most surprising things you learned?

Siler: The question that kept nagging at my throughout my research was this: How was a seemingly takeover-proof company sold against the wishes of several key family shareholders? The closely guarded secret, known to only a few of Robert Mondavi’s closest advisors, family members, and the board, was that he had financially overextended himself in the course of giving much of his wealth away as a philanthropist to such institutions as the University of California at Davis, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, and Stanford University. The fact that Robert Mondavi, arguable America’s most famous vintner, was at risk of insolvency because of his generosity was something that the non-executive chairman and independent directors of the Robert Mondavi Corp. were well aware of and that gave them a lever to convince the family to relinquish voting control of the company.

One way these facts might be interpreted is that Robert Mondavi’s dream of leaving the business he founded to his children and grandchildren was superseded by his dream of leaving a philanthropic legacy. Another way to interpret what happened was that both he and the company, under his son Michael’s watch, became overextended and tried to do too much. This is perhaps the most dramatic example of how Robert Mondavi’s driven personality and brilliance as a marketer was also accompanied by destructiveness. I see him as a complex hero in this family saga, who fell prey to his very human fallibilities.

CB: You’ve decided not to release advanced copies of the book to reviewers and have instead run an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal. Talk to us about why you decided to go this route in promoting the book.

Siler: There are few books that present the kind of in-depth study of a family and business like “The House of Mondavi.” The willingness of so many people involved with the family to share deep emotions and painful memories with me is extraordinary, and is reflective of the culture of openness that Robert Mondavi encouraged at the company over the years. My publisher felt that because the book raised some sensitive subjects, such as the alcoholism of Robert’s first wife, the psychological damage to family members wrought by their legal battles, Robert’s long-term love affair with Margrit Biever, and particularly Robert Mondavi’s own philanthropic overreaching in his later years, which helped undermine the family’s control of the company, that it was best to prevent any pre-judging, particularly by partisans in the industry, that could have a negative effect on the book. Though “The House of Mondavi” is a full and complex portrait of this extraordinary family, it may be controversial because it looks closely at issues that many in the wine industry were aware of surrounding the Mondavi family but few were willing to fully explore.

CB: Thanks Julia!

For anyone who will be in the Napa Valley on Friday the 22nd, Siler will be at Copperfield’s Books doing a reading and book signing at 7pm, details here. Be sure to read our previous interviews with valley movers and shakers too!

[techtags: Napa, Napa Valley, House of Mondavi, Julia Flynn Siler, Robert Mondavi, Robert Mondavi Winery, Mondavi Family]

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About the Author

has written 725 posts on The Cork Board. He was born and aged in the Napa Valley and has a passion for wine, writing and social media, which led him to co-found this blog in early 2007. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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