They grew up playing tag on the winery catwalks, hide-and-seek in the barrel rooms. First cousins, born just half a year apart, they’re so tuned to one another they finish each other’s sentences. Dina (vintage 1976) and Carissa (1977) — daughters of Robert Mondavi’s sons Michael and Tim, respectively — recently joined the winery staff. Like their fathers and famous grandfather, they’re on a mission to make wine a part of American culture. But unlike the elder Mondavis, Dina and Carissa view wine, and life in general, from the fresh perspective of young adults.
We met at Taylor’s Refresher, a ‘50s diner complete with walk-up window and picnic tables. The Mondavi gals went for the cheeseburger; for me, the gingery ahi burger. We found a table under an umbrella and out came bottles of Mondavi fume blanc and cabernet. So far, so good.
Wine X: Gotta ask the obvious: what was it like growing up a Mondavi?
Carissa Mondavi: I grew up knowing how important the wine business is to our family. We always had wine on the table at home — it was just there, the way it is in Europe. Even when we were really young, Dad would always ask us what we thought of the wines. And he’d take our answers seriously, so we were never intimidated by wine or afraid to try different ones.
Dina Mondavi: Everything revolved around dinner. We’d eat together as a family. My parents always cooked from scratch. Nothing packaged. Well, except the boxes of mac ‘n cheese for the babysitter. That was the only thing she could cook!
WX: So other than an occasional mac ‘n cheese, it sounds like you were exposed to good food and wine at a very early age.
CM: Let me just show you.
Carissa produces a photo of her christening: her father (Tim) is tilting a glass of Champagne to her lips.
WX: Doesn’t get much earlier than that.
WX: Young adults never seem intimidated by food, yet wine for some reason causes panic. How was it with your friends? Did your attitude, or your relaxed attitude, about wine spill over to them?
DM: When my friends would come over, they’d relax about it, too. They’d ask my dad how to know a good wine. He’d always answer, ‘If you like it, then it’s good!’ When I got to college, though, I’d see people chugging wine just for the effect. When you grow up with wine and know it as an everyday part of meals, you learn to respect it.
CM: During summer breaks from college I brought friends to the winery, and to meals at home, so I could show them what wine’s all about. It really opened their eyes. I’ve always tried to help my friends feel more comfortable about wine and how they approach it. It doesn’t have to be just for special occasions. I’m finding now that my friends drink wine with their meals, after work, at parties. They talk about it, they have fun learning about it, and it feels completely natural for them.
WX: Was it expected of you to join the family business? Or was that your decision?
CM: Both of us studied music, art and culture in college. I played with other career possibilities to make sure I became involved here for the right reasons. I’ve worked in the vineyards, in the cellar and in retail at the Jug Shop in San Francisco so I could become better acquainted with other wine producers and with customers. I also interned at the winery, doing field marketing, creating regional sales materials, coordinating promotions.
DM: I decided I wanted to begin working at the winery sooner rather than later. With my job I can still be involved with visuals, art, beauty, education, and integrating wine and culture. Our grandfather always told us: ‘Do what you want to do. And if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.’
WX: What’re your goals at Robert Mondavi?
CM: I want to be involved with education, marketing and cultural affairs in ways that focus on the unique perspective of our generation. I want to get more people excited about wine.
DM: I want to reach a larger base of people, and our generation is already discovering what a great enhancement wine is to the way we live. I want to show people my age that there are affordable wines that taste really good.
WX: So what is it you do to help people your age feel more comfortable with wine?
CM: More than ever, people are looking for a personal touch. Someone they can meet, shake hands with. Someone who makes them feel comfortable about wine.
DM: That’s where we come in. Our goal is to get wine out there so that people, especially our generation, can connect with it and really enjoy it. Our education department has put together essence tastings and other such offerings to help people understand the aromas and flavors in wine. I showed my boyfriend and roommate an oak-aging comparison that we just developed, and they were really excited that they could taste the difference.
WX: I’m sure you’ve seen the data indicating that young adults are fueling the growth of wine consumption in the U.S. Do you see a noticeable demographic shift in people visiting your winery?
CM: Absolutely. Not only do we see more people than ever in their twenties and thirties buying and drinking wine, but they’re really having fun with it too. The more they enjoy wine, the more they share it with their friends, the more the ripples extend outward.
DM: Younger people are definitely drinking more wine. And it amazes me how many people our age we’re seeing at the winery. We’re right in the heart of the demographic.
WX: Not to get off the subject, but this fume blanc goes wonderfully with my gingery ahi burger. Are you like your parents? Do you like to cook?
DM: I like to experiment a lot. I love Vietnamese food. It’s fresh and light, and I can get great ingredients where I live. I also learned a lot of Panamanian dishes from my mother, who’s a fantastic cook.
CM: My tastes in cooking are pretty eclectic. But when I can’t decide what to make I just do something with chicken. It’s so easy and it goes so well with so many wines. I usually work without recipes and just eyeball things.
DM: I’m not the type to measure anything either. Besides, I think you can learn to balance taste.
WX: Other than wine, what do you enjoy drinking?
DM: I really like good tequila.
CM: I do too. Also Manhattans.
WX: Any favorite restaurants these days?
CM: For down-home-casual, not-wanting-to-cook nights: Green Valley Cafe in St. Helena. It’s neighborhood Italian style with good pasta. Piatti in Yountville. Again, it’s mostly locals with a very casual feel. And they have the best sundaes: vanilla bean gelato with Valrhona chocolate sauce. In Napa, the Depot Diner. A classic, classic, classic Italian restaurant behind a used car lot, with an interior that looks like it hasn’t changed since the ‘50s. For super-casual: In & Out Burger and the burrito trucks in Napa. And when I want a festive, night-on-the town restaurant in the valley, I love Bistro Jeanty, Bouchon and Bistro Don Giovanni. They all have great food and great spirit.
DM: In San Francisco, the Slanted Door, La Rondalla, Barraca. Also Hukilau, a fun Hawaiian place with live music. And I’m on a perpetual hunt for the best Mexican food in the city.
WX: What do you do for fun? Let’s face it: life’s too short to just drink wine.
DM: Carissa and I just saw ‘Mean Girls,’ and we tried to go bowling, but it was league night and the lanes were full, so we just stayed at the bowling alley bar for a drink. I rarely go to movies though. I don’t want to spend time with my friends staring at a screen watching someone else’s life. I mostly save movies for when I’m beached on the couch while I have a cold.
CM: I love going up to Lake Tahoe with my family. We all cook together — breakfast, lunch and dinner. To be surrounded by those mountains while dining outside on the deck with the view of the lake… it’s perfection!
DM: I love dancing, parties, barbeques, impromptu dinner parties. Otherwise, I find I’m a mix of both my parents: Mom for indoors, Dad for outdoors. Sometimes I hop from one mode to the other. I’ll go hunting for duck with my Dad, then help Mom cook them!
WX: How do you see yourselves carrying on the family tradition at the winery? And what do you see in the future for your generation and beyond?
CM: We’re all really passionate about this. I’ve been lucky to travel through Europe with my father and our grandfather, which put wine into the perspective of tradition and really helped expand my horizons.
DM: I’m really proud of what our family has accomplished. I’m proud of all our wines, and that we have one for every pocketbook. And I’m proud that we can help introduce wine to our generation. It’s so exciting for us. People our age are so adventurous. We always encourage exploring wine. That’s actually how people get to understand it better.
CM: Our grandfather taught people in America about wine. Now we have a new challenge. We want to teach people of our generation about wine. And a big part of our job in educating our peers is liberating them from all the old ‘rules,’ and getting past the intimidation. Both as an industry and as a family, we have an incredible future.
DM: Basically, when it comes to wine, it’s all about opinion. It’s not about whether it’s bad or good. It’s about what you like. Our generation is learning that wine doesn’t have to be a luxury item. It’s fun. It’s delicious. It’s affordable. And it doesn’t have to be just for people your grandfather’s age!