Mentor Profiles

Michael Mondavi — Putting Napa on the Map


Family Businesses Can Be Tough. But for the Mondavis, and Napa Valley, the Challenge was Worth It.

empowering inspirational
Michael Mondavi — Putting Napa on the Map

Michael Mondavi and his father Robert were convinced that Napa wines belonged among the greatest wines of the world. Over the years they proved their point and demonstrated that a family business can give rise to a whole industry.

The Mondavis co-founded the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, CA in 1966, with a loan from a business partner. Michael was just out of college and ready to become a third-generation winemaker.

The father and son were convinced, “We had the soil, the climate, the grape varieties, the knowledge and the passion to make wines that belonged in the company of the great wines of the world,” Michael Mondavi said in a video interview with Global Mentor Network president Thuy Vu.

He continued: “But it hadn’t been done consistently in Napa, and that was our objective: Produce the wines (at a) consistently high quality and then market and sell them to the finer restaurants and wine shops.”

After the winery established itself domestically, the Mondavis became one of the first California wineries to export their products abroad. This included France and Italy, essentially the cradle of fine winemaking.

Napa Wines for the World

When it came to establishing his wines among the greatest in the world, Michael Mondavi just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He recalls bringing some of his reserve cabernets to a top restaurant in London and being told by the owner to just leave it and he would try it the next week.

“I said, `no,’” Mondavi recalled. “I said, `why don’t we have lunch together? And let’s compare this with some of the great wines that you have on the list.’” Mondavi told the proprietor Mondavi wines belonged at his table even with the more expensive varieties.

He made the sale. “We had to do things like that to kind of break the ice,” Mondavi said.

Getting to the top in the wine business wasn’t without challenges. Mondavi said the company almost went bankrupt four times and was close to it a dozen more.

Through it, all the Mondavis stayed true to themselves. “If there is a will, there’s a way but never do anything that you’ll regret,” Mondavi said.

Mondavi’s vision and persistence paid off. Their winery brought worldwide recognition to California’s Napa Valley wines, and the Mondavis are behind some of the most well-regarded wines globally, including Opus One.

A Very Family Business

Mondavi credits his father with providing the passion and the vision to build their wine business and his mother Marjorie for instilling the foundational values. He says she  would always make sure they asked the litmus-test question of “Is this the right thing to do, whether it’s for the family or for the business long term?”

Mondavi says his mother had those values instilled in her by his maternal grandmother.  “Neither one of them has ever gotten the credit they deserve. And I think that a majority of the success of the Mondavi family is because of those two ladies.”

Michael often found working with his father quite challenging. Robert Mondavi would often berate his son in front of peers and employees. Michael learned an important leadership principle from it.

“I’d see him afterward privately and say `Dad, you’re hurting you and you’re hurting me and you’re hurting our ability to lead people because we’re fighting,’” Mondavi said. “`If  you don’t like something I’m doing, tell me in private.’ I should applaud you publicly, whatever you do. You should applaud me publicly. But whenever we are in disagreement, we should do that privately.’”

Mondavi says his father didn’t do it out of malice; it was the way Robert Mondavi had been brought up. “He did it because that’s the way his father treated him and his brother in the first generations, if you will, of immigrants coming to the United States.”

Harvesting His Own Vintage

Today Mondavi is the founder of the Michael Mondavi Family Estate. He and his wife Isabel and their children Rob Jr. and Dina, own and run the winery.

As a leader, Mondavi made a vow never to treat employees the way he’d been treated. He focused on catching “people doing things right,” and then giving them accolades and rewards.

“If they’re doing things wrong, meet with them privately and say, `what can we learn from this?’” he said. “If you make a mistake, learn from it. It’s truly not a mistake. It’s a learning experience.”

Mondavi approaches managing people with a perspective from his daughter, that “it’s better to be a coach than a boss.” He derives his greatest satisfaction from guiding others to be more successful.

Mondavi’s philosophy for leading is, “You have to respect people and you have to lead your life so they’ll respect you. If people don’t respect you, they may follow you because they have to, but they won’t follow you because they want to. And to me, true leadership is having people follow you or your advice or your direction because they want to.”

Mondavi sat down with Vu, an Emmy award-winning television reporter, to share his perspectives on leadership, mentoring, and many of the personal lessons and struggles he faced founding and growing the Mondavi wine business and the Napa wine industry into the global leader it is today.

Explore these and other great lessons from Michael Mondavi at the Global Mentor Network.

The Global Mentor Network (GMN) was founded by Keith Krach, a Silicon Valley tech legend, in 2019. GMN’s mission is to help build the transformational leaders who will shape tomorrow’s world through the power of mentorship at scale.