Geneviève Janssens laughs as she recalls going to work as a young woman at the Robert Mondavi Winery.
Was she scared? “No. When you are young you don’t feel scared,” she says. “You are like a little bird and you fly.”
Janssens may not be the first name you think of when you think of the legendary winery, which turned 50 this summer. This is, after all, a story of brothers, Robert and Peter Mondavi, two Napa Valley legends who went separate ways and led the Robert Mondavi and Charles Krug wineries, respectively, and Michael and Tim Mondavi, Robert’s sons, who ran the Mondavi winery until its purchase in 2004 by Constellation Wines.
But there has always been a strong female component at work here, from winemaker Zelma Long, an early addition to the team and a path maker for women in the industry, to Margrit Mondavi, who joined the winery in 1967 and later became Robert Mondavi’s wife. Among other things, Margrit Mondavi reimagined the Vineyard Room at the winery, transforming it from a large open space into a more intimate gathering place featuring artwork and merging her interest in food, wine, and the arts. She also was the first to envision music events in a winery setting.
And then there is Janssens, current director of winemaking who has been associated with the winery since 1978.
Janssens, who grew up in the south of France, caught the wine bug early as the daughter of a winemaker. “Every lunch, every dinner, we were talking about wine,” she recalls. She studied at the University of Bordeaux where she received her National Diploma of Enology in 1974 and then managed her family’s vineyards in Corsica and France from 1974 to 1977. As if that wasn’t enough, she also owned and operated her own enology lab in Provence and was a consulting enologist to several French chateaux.
She visited the Napa Valley in 1978, “just to grow and learn more about winemaking,” and set out to explore the region, armed with a Sunset Magazine article as a guide.
A stop at the Robert Mondavi Winery was a given. “Mr. Mondavi was already very well known in Europe because of his innovation,” she says. An unexpected bonus: After taking the tour and wishing aloud that she could meet the winemaker she got her wish, spending a hour with Long talking about “just everything.”
“If you have a job for me, I’ll come back,” Janssens joked as she left. Two months later, she got the call—there was a temporary position open in the lab. Back to California she went.
“When you are young you don’t know what you are doing but you go with the flow, with your passion,” she says.
Like Mondavi, Long, who went on to become president of Simi Winery from 1989 to 1996, is known for the ability to spot potential. Between them, they gave several future stars their first shot, including Warren Winiarski, who preceded Long as the first winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, and went on to lead Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, winner in the red category at the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. Other Robert Mondavi Winery alums include Paul Hobbs, owner/winemaker at Paul Hobbs Winery and Vina Cobos in Argentina, and Dawnine Dyer, hired by Long as a lab tech, who went on to a VP/winemaker role at Domaine Chandon from 1976 to 1999 and is now owner of Dyer Straits Wine Co.
As for Janssens, her temporary lab job turned into a two-year gig until she left to become a consultant in the Napa Valley. In 1989, she was back as director of production at Opus One, the joint venture started by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. By 1997, Janssens was appointed to the job she still holds as winemaking director of Mondavi.
A pioneer and trailblazer, Mondavi founded the winery in 1966, the first to open in California since Prohibition. He championed cold fermentation for whites, French oak barrels, and never stopped promoting wine as an everyday accompaniment to food, and California wine as a worthy rival to Old World vintages.
He wrote about his life experiences in his autobiography, “Harvest of Joy,” published in 1999, a book Janssens still uses as a guide. “I think he did everything in that book explaining to winemakers what he wanted,” she says. A key tenet: Keep it simple.
Good Years, Good Memories
Janssens, who spoke at a recent retrospective tasting that went all the way back to 1971, smiled as she got to a 1998, a wine made under her tenure. That was the year of an Indian summer, she says. “I remember walking these vineyards. It was delicious walking that vintage.” Interestingly, the 1998 vintage in the Napa Valley got some bad press, but this wine has aged beautifully, still fruity, fresh, and balanced with plenty of black and blue berries. “When the bad press arrived, I didn’t get it,” Janssens muses, although she theorizes that was a time when people were looking for more robust, muscular wines.
This year the winery made a rosé from Gamay grapes, popular in the ‘70s although they had to search to find enough. They made just 200 cases and called it “Harvest of Joy.” They also introduced a red blend, the 2013 Maestro, named in tribute to Mondavi’s legacy and also to an incident when the Napa Valley Symphony performed a special ode to To Kalon, the winery’s famous vineyard, and Mondavi, swept up in the moment, started conducting the orchestra.
The Maestro was supposed to be a one-off like the rosé, but has proved so popular, the winery plans to continue with it.
Cheers to the Future
Today, the winemaking team at Mondavi includes Joe Harden and Megan Schofield, part of a new generation of women making their mark at Mondavi.
Schofield calls working at Robert Mondavi “winemaking Nirvana” and says she feels “so lucky to have the opportunity to work under Geneviève, who has been the keeper of the flame for decades. Her deep knowledge of the winery, its vineyards, wine styles, and history is unparalleled.” Janssens’ “passion for carrying forth Mr. Mondavi’s vision while continually adapting to modern winemaking advancements is relentless,” says Schofield. “It’s an honor to be mentored by such an iconic winemaker in her own right.”