Dining with the Mondavi's
Out of the blue, I received an invitation to join Tim & Carlo Mondavi for lunch in London, which is one invitation you do not decline. The great and late Robert Mondavi was known throughout the wine world as a pioneer until the world lost this colossus of a man in 2008. I arrived (far too early as usual) at Hawksmoor Guildhall and prepared myself to meet two generations. Carlo (the son of Tim) arrived first followed by the Mondavi’s European export manager who, and before the arrival of Tim, made sure I was aware of the seating arrangements. Hawksmoor offers some very comfortable banquet seating around the parameter of the dining room – I was told to sit in the middle with Carlo & Tim flanking each side like presidential bodyguards. Soon after, Tim arrived and with all the dignitarys finalised we sat and ordered a bottle of sparkling wine. I understand they spent the previous evening in the company of Steven Spurrier and wanted to try a bottle Steven’s English sparkling wine, Bride Valley. Alas, this was not possible. Instead we opted for a bottle Hambledon’s, NV Classic Cuvée which was very pleasant but certainly not a compelling drink at £60 per bottle. Carlo quickly got down to business and introduced his own wine project, RAEN which he shares with his brother, Dante. Make no bones about it – Carlo is deeply passionate and has a great understanding of winemaking. His enthusiasm was affectionate and his technical know-how genuinely impressive. Moreover, Carlo is simply a great guy and easy to get on with. We sampled the trio of 2015’s which included their Royal St Robert Cuvee, Fort Ross-Seaview and Freestone Occidental. All three Pinot Noirs, from the Sonoma coast were outstanding (both our allocations of the Royal St Robert Cuvee have sold-out) and stylistically very different.
"It was fascinating to be guided through each wine as Carlo is very much a hands-on winemaker and has a deep understanding of each microclimate, fauna and flora which surrounds each vineyard."
It was fascinating to be guided through each wine as Carlo is very much a hands-on winemaker and has a deep understanding of each microclimate, fauna and flora which surrounds each vineyard. Royal St Robert Cuvee is a true expression of the cool climate vineyard where all the grapes are nurtured. We moved onto the Fort Ross-Seaview which was stunning and more so when Carlo explained the grape’s struggle to mature within the growing season. Their vines sit just above the fog line, which allows the foliage to photosynthesise. The afternoon sun warms the canopy and slowly ripens the grapes. This wine offered a real ethereal elegance and can be enjoyed over decades. Tim quickly interjected and wanted to express his preference for this wine. He also wanted to express his views to Carlo regarding site selection and made it clear that Carlo should be seeking-out cooler climate areas equal to Fort Ross-Seaview. I quietly sat back and took a large forkful of prime rib slathered in béarnaise sauce.
We moved onto my personal favourite, the Freestone Occidental which I found to be the most masculine of the trio. I believe the Occidental vineyard is circa 2 miles off the Sonoma Cost and is their coolest daytime site. The vineyard is surrounded by coastal oak trees, towering redwoods and wildflowers, which I can only imagine as something truly beautiful. The Pinot Noir ripens incredibly slowly but the wine offers extraordinary depth, complexity and balance rarely seen with US Pinot Noir. Son and father tackled the wine list whilst I tackled as much lobster macaroni cheese I could shovel in whilst retaining some level of decorum. Carlo is not shy in coming forward with his ambitions to make the greatest US Pinot Noir and he truly believes he has the sites, the clones and more importantly, the skillsets to make this a reality. Each year, Carlo spends an astonishing $40,000 on a blind vertical tasting, which includes the true Burgundian greats of Domaine Romanée Conti, Dujac to namedrop a few. Carlo pitches his wines against these as he believes this is his benchmark. Of course I asked the question “where do your wines come in the blind tasting” however, I do not recall receiving a response and I was too polite to press for one. Carlo also spoke of his miniscule bottling of his 2016 Fort Ross-Seaview Charles Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay, which is a first for them. Only 200 cases have been made and Carlo has promised The Vinorium a small, exclusive allocation, which we will share with you all...
My attention was ushered towards Tim and his project, Continuum which is located on Prichard Hill, St Helena, also home to some esteemed neighbours including Bryant Family. Tim’s export director jumped into action with his PowerPoint presentation whilst Tim reeled off his patter precisely and with fervour. It was a well rehearsed double act however, I have to confess the laptop was blocking my way to all the beef which was diminishing quickly! We started with Tim’s 10th release; the 2014 which was served ‘en-magnum’ - A classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot and drinking deliciously. These are very serious wines however, the ’14’s elegance was pure magic. This vintage has sold-out both in the US and UK however, we have requested a little allocation. The 2009 was next inline to be served which and to be perfectly candid, was a brute with lifted alcohol levels that I found disagreeable. Ditto with the 2006 which is showing no sign of age whatsoever. I delicately broached my discord with both vintages which Tim agreed with. Tim went on to explain that his earlier vintages are his least impressive and each new vintage seems to be getting better and better. Early vintages used 100% oak and perhaps the toasting was too obvious. Today, Tim has replaced 20% oak with Sonoma Coast Stone and Nomblot concrete eggs vessels which provides a wonderful clarity to the overall finished wine. Like Carlo, Tim’s knowledge of his craft and land is quite extraordinary - Granted, the Mondavi family is a behemoth name in the wine industry however, each and every one of them understands wine like few I have met over the course of 25 years. Wine presentation finished, discussions regarding wine critics immersed with some fabulous stories regarding their relationship with Robert Parker, which has not always been convivial. Sadly, these are best saved and shared over a bottle of wine rather than putting pen to paper! It goes without saying, I am a privileged man to have the opportunity to dine, drink and laugh with two amazing winemakers. They were incredibly generous with their time, their selection of wines and they picked up the check too (just in case you wondered). Sadly, I am unable to offer a thorough assessment of Hawksmoor (for the above reasons) however, what I did sample was delicious and I must say the staff were super-friendly...