Your Italian immigrant grandfather was a miner. How did he move into winemaking? "When prohibition hit America in the 1930s, wine was still recognised as part of the sacrament in Christian services. All the abolitionists were church goers, so they had to allow an exception for the production of sacramental wine. So friends of my grandfather Cesare in Minnesota said, 'We trust you, take our money, go to California and buy grapes so we can make wine.' You couldn't make beer or spirits but four barrels of home-made wine for medicinal and sacramental use was legal. This allowed my grandfather, who used to work in iron-ore mines and had nothing, to go to California, buy grapes and eventually go into winemaking."
Your family was ousted from the Robert Mondavi wine company. How did that happen? "My dad, Robert Mondavi, started the winery in 1966 and over the years it expanded all around the world. We even had a relationship with Mouton Rothschild, producing the wine Opus One. I started as a winemaker there in 1974. To make a long story short, we went public in 1993 but our board grew enthusiastic about leveraging my father's good name and lost sight of the vision and the clarity of focus that my grandfather and my father had. The board just wanted to leverage everything regardless. I was against it but they decided they knew better and that I was just a silver-tongued artiste and was discounted. Anyway, it all ended in 2004."
How have you picked yourself up? "With our world of experience and love of great wine, my father and I and four of my children decided to produce Continuum. It's a blended wine from a fabulous estate of 173 acres high on a hill above Napa Valley."
Was food important to your family? "Food was so important to us. My grandmother was an amazing cook. My father used to say he ran his winery out of her kitchen because everyone loved her food. My father always celebrated food, or the art of the table, even as America was promoting mass production and engineered products. That's why, together with Julia Child, he developed the American Institute of Wine and Food."
Do you think the quality of food has improved in America? "We are eating and drinking better than the kings of the past just because there is more focus on food and wine than before and we have the economic ability to pay for the work needed to elevate quality."
Are you worried about the drought in California? How has climate change affected winemaking there? "I have noticed things I attribute to climate change but it's hard to know. Nature is diverse over millenniums. The way I see it, there is less certainty about what will happen. We've always had a range in terms of hot and cold, wet and dry, but it seems more erratic than ever, with more extremes. The drought is concerning to us. Luckily, vines are resistant. I am less concerned about vines than all the other things we eat."
If it hadn't been for wine, what direction would your career path have taken? "Before wine, I considered marine biology. I love the ocean and diving. I find it fascinating - the intricacy of nature. When you're below, everything is brand new and filled with wonder. We take it for granted. I was also fascinated by architecture. It's a way of interacting with people and doing something functional and beneficial in an efficient, effective way."