Winemaker lauds campus

Robert and Margrit Mondavi sat down at the flagship Robert Mondavi Winery in lOakville to discuss their relationship with UC Davis, their enthusiasm in bestowing their generosity upon the campus, and their passion for wine, food and the arts - a passion that will be reflected at UC Davis and also in their soon-to-open cultural venture, COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in the Napa Valley.

How did your relationship with the university develop?

Robert: I didn't go to the university, but I read their books. My bible was (professor Maynard) Amerine's Principles and Practice of Winemaking. I learned to make wine only because I followed that book so religiously. I succeeded because of that … And my son Tim (now Mondavi's winemaker) went to school there and was very impressed.

Margrit: My eldest grandson, Quinn, is also a graduate of Davis, so we have several generations to thank the university for having helped form them.

If the university weren't there, what would be the state of the wine industry in California?

R: Unfortunately, we would not have excelled the way we have now. We were learning a lot about winemaking, not just what they were doing in Europe. We did research work here beyond what they did there. The university was a tremendous teacher. It really was.

M: The university has an experimental plot here, right next to our (Oakville) vineyard, so there was always a communication back and forth with the faculty and the students. We feel very close to the institution.

R: I knew after 25 years in the Napa Valley, we had the climate, the soil and the grape growing to be the best in the world. All we had to do was learn to make it. As I traveled the world over, I traveled everywhere, and I learned so much. But it was really the university that set me on the right road.

What prompted you to make this very generous gift to UC Davis?

R: I knew they needed more money for their research work, and I knew they weren't getting money from the industry. I knew, with further research, we could improve winemaking.

M: The viticulture and enology department obviously needs renovation. The ideas are there. But the old buildings really needed renovation. We felt that for many years…For me, of course, it is also the cultural activity that I wanted to engage with. The arts center at UC Davis is so overwhelming. I would like to further the arts, and further the interest in audiences. That facility is going to be a great place to come and see and hear the best artists in the world.

What personal significance does the gift have for you?

R: It is giving me great satisfaction, because I had the notion that we could make great wines equal to the greatest wines in the world, and everybody said it was impossible. I knew it was possible … I knew that the University of California had to be renovated, and I knew that we could add much more in the future. Many people thought we had accomplished all we wanted. But everyone was doing what his or her forefathers did without learning any more. I knew we could do much more by going into the scientific part of it in detail, and that's why I was willing to pursue this. I knew the university had the desire and the will, but not the money to do it with.

How do you see the three coming together - wine, food and the arts - at the university?

M: You will have the institute of food sciences right next to the viticulture and enology school. In the same area, there will be the center for arts, music, all wonderful endeavors. It's right there.

R: How exciting that is. I get so excited when I see that building, the performing arts center. It's so wonderful. All of a sudden, this is going to go throughout the world.

M: This is no longer the cow college. This is a university of international importance…We were fortunate to also be introduced to some of the programs that are going to open the center and what's going to happen in a year or two. With that kind of famous talent, and international talent, this is an attraction. Fortunately, it's right off the freeway that connects many areas of big population. It's going to be bringing people from all over. It's going to be a great reflection of the culture of the university.

R: This is amazing! This is falling in with what we always felt - wine, food and art enhance the quality of life. And that's exactly what's taking place at the university. That's what's taking place with our project here in Napa Valley, COPIA.

What will COPIA, combined with what you are investing in the university - mean for the region?

R: This is going to let the world know that we are a cultural center. This is going to raise the cultural image of our country in the eyes of the world. Wine, food and the arts, what more would you want?

M: I also find it very exciting that university students will have access to such a great performing arts center, that it's there, and they get some reduced ticket prices. We are creating future concert going. We are really giving a new dimension to the university.

R: What a great step forward this is for the University of California. It's going to be amazing.

What does this mean for the Central Valley? Northern California? The Napa valley? The region?

R: It raises the image completely above anything else as being unique in the world. That's what you need. You have to be unique to excel in the world. That's what we have here. Where else in the world will you find anything like that?

M: It gives people an opportunity to go to such an important center, without maybe having the traffic problem of going to San Francisco, which is still a fabulous place to go to. But here it's right off highway 80, so easy to get to, with so much to offer.

R: I can never understand, with this world that we're in, why we didn't combine wine, food and the arts for the enhancement of quality of life. I couldn't understand that. We started with COPIA. And all of a sudden we have the University of California, Davis, which has come in and is doing a big job of this. And I think it is a big step forward.

You are known as a risk taker, perpetually pursuing excellence. So has the university. There are a lot of parallels between the growth and advancement of the university and the growth and advancement of the industry that you lead.

R: That's why I love the University of California at Davis. Here they started years ago as a cow college. Their medical program, all of the programs that they have now, they have advanced so fast, so rapidly. And now with this…

M: Great arts school, too. I just saw Wayne Thiebaud on television yesterday…The faculty is fantastic.

R: We wanted to excel. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to excel in everything. Whether I played marbles, whether I played football or swam or anything else, I wanted to excel. And this is exactly what the University of California at Davis began to pick up. And I could see how they were progressing and going forward, and made tremendous strides in the last 30 or 40 years. And now all of a sudden, they are combining what I feel are central - wine, food and the arts, which no one has done. And the location, it's all there. Really it is; it's outstanding.

Do you think you have inspired your colleagues? Do you think they will sit up and take notice?

R: I also knew that if we excelled in everything we did, eventually, it will be like a magnet. That's what's happening here…The University of California is an internationally known institution that is highly regarded, and what a great step forward that is… It helps everyone. From the small, from the youngsters, to the older people. It's going to be a good educational institution. The combination, it couldn't be more perfect in my opinion.

M: You are right about the youngsters. Where are they going to go to college? They are going to go to the university. When you have such a brilliant place to go to, it makes it good for them, too.

What motivates generosity such as yours?

R: Maybe I was born with it from my parents, the gene system. I wanted to share. I have great pleasure. Once I was able to take care of myself and my children, I then wanted to share. And it really is much more fun to share with people. You see that developing and growing. And then you get rewards much greater. Really, the more you give, it takes awhile, maybe longer than you think, but eventually it comes back. And the more you give, the more you get back. It's the great pleasure that you have in just doing it.

M: It's really true. Giving is really much more fun than receiving.

R: Once you excel, at anything, and believe you me, Davis with everything they are doing with their viticulture and enology school and also their performing arts center, it can attract. It's going to raise the image of the university.

You are helping raise the image by lending UC Davis your name.

R: I think how lucky we are to be able to do that. We feel honored that we can do that. Each of us wants to do the same thing. We want to raise the art of living well. How wonderful that is. How happy I am to find a partner that is known the world over.…We are so happy to be part of the team at the University of California, Davis, because they are really creating a great thing, enhancing the quality of life, and we love being a partner with you in that regard.

M: Another important part is the people. The chancellor, the dean (Neal Van Alfen)… everybody who has been in contact with us has been special.

R: It's amazing, the simple things. How beautiful it is to excel, and the goodness of giving from your heart. And yet it's paying dividends to you all in the long run. That's the real blessing.

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Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

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