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Michael Mondavi's Victory Lap

In the winemaking process, consistency and evolution are often at odds. Some wineries, especially the biggest ones, strive to provide a similar product to their customers with every vintage.
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In the winemaking process, consistency and evolution are often at odds. Some wineries, especially the biggest ones, strive to provide a similar product to their customers with every vintage. Others, especially the smallest ones, focus on a single patch of vines and allow the wine to change with the weather and the terroir itself. The challenge is to gratify and engage the consumer by doing both.

Michael Mondavi was once the chairman of an enormous wine enterprise - the one his father started in the Napa Valley - but today he focuses on just one rather remarkable plot in the Atlas Peak AVA. The fifteen acres of the Animo Vineyard, planted in 1999, are harvested up to a dozen times per vintage so that each grape is picked not just at some uniform point of optimal ripeness, but rather at the moment when it will best serve its anticipated function in the blend. The flagship wine, M by Michael Mondavi, comes only from the crest of the vineyard's knoll, where greater drainage and exposure to the elements result in smaller berries with intense flavor. As always, challenge the vine, make better wine.

Earlier this week Mondavi was in New York with his daughter, Dina, who directs exports and supports sales for Michael Mondavi Family Estates, including the Emblem line made by her brother, Rob. The Emblems are beguiling wines. In the wine's first vintage, the 2014 Chardonnay offers a touch of sweetness up front, then an unexpected dose of perfume in the center, and a gently acidic finish. The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon boasts a nose full of dark berry aromas that yield to cassis syrup on the palate, still quite tannic and a little tangy, with a burst of black pepper near the end. It made a good partner for spicy food but ran the risk of feeling cloying with something softer. For Dina, it's a "cocktail wine", where the 2012 Animo Cabernet Sauvignon, the vineyard's namesake, is a "dinner wine". The Animo carries its acid more deftly, with a mild violet bouquet giving way to a sparkly - almost citrusy - palate, with a dab of bitterness in the rear. What it gave up in power, it made up in versatility.

Over an abbreviated vertical of the M, which has lately become a cabernet-heavy blend rather than a pure cabernet, Mondavi reflected that the goal of the line was consistency of concept rather than specific flavors or textures. "They need to be of the same style," he said, "but we also want to find the complement of Mother Nature's variables." Indeed, the wines are consistently big, tannic yet balanced, and built for lengthy aging. With food, the structure of each wine tends to clarify itself, becoming more limpid and effortless.

This is especially true of the 2010, a gigantic wine that spent 28 months in oak, with a nose full of plums and a tiny whiff of swampiness. On its own, it feels ruddy; the wood is perhaps overpresent. But alongside a rich meat dish, the lighter flavors more evident in its siblings suddenly shine through, making it almost minty. In fact, it seems to represent the terroir the best of all of them.

The same clarity appears to have descended on Mondavi, who was in town to be named Wine Enthusiast's Person of the Year. With a smaller winemaking enterprise but an impressive portfolio of foreign imports, he is in a position to leave a more orderly legacy than his father did. Indeed, despite the tribulations that led to the sale of The Robert Mondavi Corporation eleven years ago, Mondavi easily looked fifteen years younger than his age.

Money and the Northern California climate will do that for you. But so will the satisfaction of building something on your own, in the culmination of a career spent learning and striving to improve. Salud!