Napa Valley's rich wine business history is revealed by those who live it

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History, and the challenges of the Napa Valley wine industry told from those who are living it are part of an expanded Napa Valley Vintners oral history project announced by the trade group as part its 75th anniversary celebration.

In collaboration with the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley, the project captures the 75-year journey of the wine trade organization and recollections of the area’s key wine making families as told by descendants in interviews.

“The genesis of the NVV Oral History Project was to capture the heartfelt words of these people as both tribute and legacy, ensuring that the NVV’s rich history is preserved for future generations,” stated Linda Reiff, president and CEO of the NVV, in announcing the release of 12 interviews done as part of the project.

Interviews, commissioned by the trade group in 2018, include John Shafer (recorded shortly before his passing last spring) and other luminaries such as Bob Trinchero, Michael Mondavi and current NVV leadership including David Pearson and Beth Novak Milliken.

These Napa Valley–centric oral histories will now augment the existing archives at the Bancroft library.

“The Napa Valley Vintners oral history project builds upon decades of interviews conducted by the Oral History Center that document the history of wine in California and, in some cases, the specific history of the NVV," the library's website states. "These oral histories date back to the late 1960s and include interviews with NVV founders Louis M. Martini and Robert Mondavi, as well as Eleanor McCrae, Joseph Heitz, Dan Duckhorn, and several other NVV leaders.

“Narrators describe the growth and transformation of the organization in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time the NVV ceased being a small group of vintners who viewed the organization as a social club as much as an industry group and changed into something much more consequential. Narrators, including Bob Trinchero and John Shafer, tell how the NVV grew into a large and influential organization that impacted the law, policy, trade, and marketing of wine in the United States and abroad,” the website continues.

Among the topics discussed in the latest round of interview is the charity-driven Auction Napa Valley which was established in 1981 and, according to the group, has raised more than $190 million for area charities.

“I remember the first Auction Napa Valley indelibly,” reminisced Robin Lail, president of Lail Vineyards, daughter of NVV founding member John Daniel, Jr. and one of the Steering Commitee members of the 1981 event. “It was the first wine auction in the country and we really had no idea what would happen. But what has happened over the years is its own miracle. Through the proceeds, among other things, every child in Napa Valley has access to affordable health insurance and one in five county residents uses OLE Health as their primary source of healthcare. I am very proud of the vintners’ continuing support of our cherished community.”

Also among the released audio files and transcripts as part of the oral history project is an interview with Michael Mondavi, founder of Folio Fine Wine Partners and Michael Mondavi Family Estate. Mondavi served in several capacities at the Robert Mondavi Winery prior to 2004, including as winemaker, CEO, and chairman of the board. Michael Mondavi is a third-generation Napa Valley vintner, preceded by his grandfather Cesare Mondavi and his father Robert Mondavi.

In the interview, the interviewer noted he was born in 1943, and the family had purchased Charles Krug winery in 1943.

“When I was six months old, the family moved into one of the homes, that was literally a hundred yards from the Charles Krug winery. From the time I was about five, my babysitter was the cellar master, and my jungle gym were the tanks and barrels. They had old conveyers that would take empty boxes up to the bottling room on the top floor, and then bring full ones down. I got in more trouble riding those conveyors—you know, see if I could do it without getting caught. It was fun.”

Also part of the project is Bruce Cakebread, the president and chief operating officer of Cakebread Cellars. Cakebread was born in 1956, raised in Oakland, and was educated at the University of California, Davis. He served as the chairman of the Napa Valley Vintners in 2010 and 2013.

“The Vintners have really helped us get where we are today,” he told the interviewer,”because we know if we just have to do it on our own, we’re just a small slice, but when you can band together with 500-plus wineries, it makes a bigger impact, and so, it’s knowing that we have to work together to promote Napa Valley, and then we can promote ourselves, as kind of the best way to go, and so we’ve been fortunate to be part of that through my father, my brother, myself, kind of going forward there.”

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