Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Fall of the House of Mondavi: 3 Questions for Julia Flynn Siler

The Mondavis are often compared (accurately) to the Kennedys, whose dramatic triumphs are matched only by the crushing blows they have withstood over generations. Julia Flynn Siler, a writer for the Wall Street Journal has chronicled the over 100 year history of the "First Family of American Wine" in her new book The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty (Gotham Books). M&LAF was lucky enough to interview Ms. Siler about her work and the complicated legacy of the Mondavis.

M & L: You make a case that the Mondavis are the great
family of American winemaking, are they seen on the
world stage as a great winemaking dynasty or are they considered second-tier because they are American winemakers?

JFS: Until perhaps the last decade, American wine makers were overshadowed by the French, with their long and grand tradition of winemaking. Yet two watershed moments helped change that perception – and both involved the Robert Mondavi Winery. The first was the famous “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, in which French judges, after a blind tasting of first growth wines versus those from California, chose California wines produced by two former winemakers for Robert Mondavi – Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich – as the best. The second key moment in American winemaking’s coming-of-age was the celebrated joint venture between the Robert Mondavi Winery and France’s Baron Philippe de Rothschild, a producer of Gran Cru wines from Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux. The Bordeaux-style wine they jointly produced, which came to be known as Opus One, was announced in 1980, and the Robert Mondavi Winery was the first American winery to forge such a prestigious partnership with a premier cru, or first class, winery.

M & L: In the rise of the Mondavi family was there one
or two key moments in their history that pushed them
to the forefront of American winemaking?

JFS: Yes, the partnership with the Rothschilds was key in terms of raising the quality levels of the wines produced by the Mondavis to a new level, including transferring such techniques from the French as high density planting of vineyards, thereby forcing the plants to compete more vigorously for soil, sun and water. Together, Robert and his younger brother Peter Mondavi, while working together at Charles Krug in the 1950s and 1960s, were early adopters of such then-novel ideas to the American wine industry as oak barrel fermentation and wine-tasting on the grounds of the winery.

M & L: In reading your book, there are signs that the
Mondavi dynasty might have avoided some of its recent misfortune-Do you think the family thought they could avoid fate or did they simply misread (or ignore) the writing on the wall?

JFS: Hindsight is always 20-20, but several family member and close advisors to the Mondavis told me in the course of my reporting that they’d wished they’d never taken the family business public in 1993 in the first place. In the decade after they sold stock in the Robert Mondavi Corp. to the public through NASDAQ, the world changed very dramatically for publicly-traded companies, in large part because of the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act, which became law in the wake of the scandals at such companies as Tyco and Enron and required much greater levels of public disclosure. Although the Mondavi family and its advisors, at the time of its IPO, had felt that the company was virtually “takeover proof” because of the dual share structure they put into place which vested the vast majority of voting control with the family, in fact, it was not.

See more about the book and the author at

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

He will kick your ass and the other will beat you in chess-Authors Polly and Wenreb at Palmer Vineyards

From top: Author Mike Weinreb and Mark Rhodes-Author Matt Polly with Mark Rhodes

The most recent offering from Palmers Writers on the Vine series were the authors Matthew Polly who has just written American Shaolin (Gotham) and Michael Weinreb
who wrote Kings of New York (Gotham). American Shaolin is a tale as old and archetypal as a Vintage Charles Atlas ad where a literal 98 pound weakling transforms with will power, discipline and mentoring into a formidable fighting machine. Polly didn't buy a set of Sears barbells to undertake this, he went to China to seek out martial arts instruction from the mythical Shaolin temple. He studied there for two years and had a series of experiences worthy of Allan Quartermain including defending a friend against underworld types, defend the temple's honor in a no rules challenge match and compete in a Chinese national tournamnet. Kings of New York follows a group of high school age students on the Edward R. Murrow Chess Team in Brooklyn through a season of private clubs, cash games at Washington Park to the Nationals in Nashville. Weinreb's book follows a colorful group of chess prodogies, coaches and the occassional chess groupie in a work that recalls such idosyncatic sports classics as The Last Shot, and About Three Bricks Shy.

The two young authors entertained the group with anecdotes from their books and anecdotes about the authoring of their books. Weinreb mused about the internet and its impact on chess which has been considerable (individuals can memorize sequences, openings and strategies in ways that had been impossible to do prior to the WWW). He also mentioned that there are a lot of draws now (which he hinted might have to do with the information and influence of the internet). With the indiviuals in the chess universe of Murrow High, chess is often simply a way to be good at something when you aren't good at anything else. Indeed, the idea of chess as a signal of academic excellence is often a bit of a myth (at least these days) since many of the chess prodogies (as well as lesser players) end up becoming obssessed with the game and often neglect all other areas of there existence by playing a constant loop of matches with humans or online.

Polly's work and experiences were especially good fodder for the crowd at Palmer. He held forth on the history of the Shaolin Temple, the roots of Budhism, the philosophy of martial arts (You must "eat bitter," in other words embrace the physical pain of martial arts to achieve the desired physical and spiritual results). He also provided stories which illustrated the dismay of his father at his choice to immerse himself in the study of martial arts (Polly would practice striking a tree to develop the "iron forearm" on visits to his home in Kansas).

For more on these charming books and the others who wrote them see their websites

Writers on the Vine at Palmer Vineyards-Walt Disney author Neil Gabler-July 1, 2007

For the past seven years, Palmer Vineyards in Aquabogue has had a really exceptional series in the summer called "|Writers on the Vine." The idea is fairly simple: An author and moderator (the adroit Larry Davidson) have a casual discussion about the author's work for about an hour and then take questions from the audience (usually about 20-30 people). Finally, there is always opportunities to have the authors sign books available for purchase. The authors are a various bunch (Chris Elliot, Anthony Swofford, etc) and are typically extremely approachable and relaxed. The wonderful setting is no hindrances either. The setting of Palmer is perfect and there wines (many a reasonable 4.00 a glass) are a great decadent treat on a lazy Sunday morning (a personal favorite is the Sunrise-Sunset Blush wine which is a first-rate summer wine).

Most recently, author and commentator Neil Gabler spoke as part of the series and took questions about his recent biography of Walt Disney entitled Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Knopf). Mr. Gabler's enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of Disney the man and Disney the corporation was dizzying. Mr. Gabler spoke nearly non-stop for two hours (he could have gone longer) relaying anecdote after anecdote and theorizing about Walt Disney's life and work. The questions from the audience were interesting and often provocative (Was Disney an anti-Semite?, a Racist?, How much did Disney pay attention to work done by other animators and animation studios?-According to Gabler no, probably not and not much). The picture that Gabler paints of Disney is of a flawed man (a genuine control freak who wanted to create a kind of alternate reality which resulted in, among other things, Disneyland and Disney world) who demanded excellence and kept many in the studio off balance with arbitrary firing and hiring practices; who preferred a work of art that elicited an emotional response rather than the years ahead of its time wit and sophistication of the Warner Studios animated work.

When I asked Gabler about my own favorite Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he ticked off fascinating info about the film such as the fact that the films Director Richard Fleischer was the son of Walt's old animation rival Max Fleischer. When everyone left all were buzzed with the History of Disney (or, maybe it was the Rose).

Monday, July 9, 2007

French Invasion on the North Fork-Lavender by the Bay

Lavender by the Bay in East Marion is one of the most unique places on the North Fork. There you will find fresh cut and dried lavender as well as various types of honey produced by suave French bee-keeper and owner (with his wife Susan) of the business in East Marion. The company has been in business for 15 years, but really took off in 2002 when the enterpirse dramatically expanded after the purchase of 17 acres which constitues the current site of LBB. The result is a very sophisticated and really fasinating place where the public can pick its own lavender and there are over 20 varieties of lavender to choose from. The Lavender honey is especially wonderful and a favorite of honey geeks.

Dee-Vine in Greenport

Even the best and most satisfying food on Long Island is often heavy-handed, overdone and portion-heavy. That is perhaps why Vine is such a refreshing departure from this trend. The food, served tapas style is light on its feet, but very satisfying due to its flavor and tapas style presentation. Lynn and I ate there two Sundays in a row and we were wowed both times. Where to begin? The spicy almonds are great (and a serious bargain at 2.00 a serving). I had the argula salad with olive oil and shaved parmegean which was perfect for the hot summer day that we dined there. As for some of the more substantial fare, Lynn had the Moussaka which had a crust of unusual seasoning with an elegant Indian style garnish. The wine list is excellent with an especially nice selection of roses (an oft ignored wine in restaraunts on Long Island) to take some of the sting out of the hot weather. The hosts and staff were all attentive and friendly, especially a lovely young waitress named Emily who waited on us both times and remembered our preferences the sencond time. (Bravo to her). Owner Joe Watson has good reason to be proud of his work here.

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I (Mark) have written for The Christian Science Monitor, Clear Magazine, Picture Magazine, Film Score Monthly, Dan's Papers, Rue Morgue, In Flight USA and a lot more publications that I can't remember.... My wife Lynn was a model with the Ford Agency and her photography has been featured in most of the publications I have written for...


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