Getting to Know You: An Interview with Robert A. Mueller
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
The world is weird right now. All of us here on this page, reading this post, are lucky to have a similar love of wine, especially in such unusual times. It helps us unwind at the end of the day, it adds a little sparkle to our Sunday brunch, and it helps us travel to our favorite wine destination from the comfort of our couch with just the pop of a cork.
In the spirit of loving wine we hope to offer a positive distraction from the day to day with an interview with Robert Mueller--winegrower here at McKenzie-Mueller Vineyards & Winery, former Director of Enology at Mondavi Winery & a member of Mondavi production team that collaborated at the start of Opus One.
Robert Mueller (Photographed below with his wife Karen McKenzie Mueller) has seen the Napa Valley transition from a no stoplight town, to a one stop light town, to a stop light every 400ft kind of town (looking at you, downtown Napa Jefferson St!). His wealth of knowledge regarding winegrowing and the Napa Valley is perhaps sometimes overlooked as his modesty and practicality don't make for exciting reality tv specials or dazzling marketing pamphlets, but as my brother-in-law used to say, he's a 'Real McCoy' in the Napa Valley.
But all that being said, this multi-part interview that will sometimes be transcription & pictures, and other times videos, will hopefully allow you a momentary escape and also, help you get to know my dad, Bob Mueller a little better. My dad and I sat down yesterday afternoon and chatted via Zoom about his start in the Napa Valley. The following has been transcribed from the video:
Sam: So I wanted to take some time to sit down and interview you about the different periods of the Napa Valley that you have experienced first hand. So to get started, could you tell us a little about the farm you grew up on--what did you grow, where was it, etc? Paint a picture for us...
Robert: Well, the family farm was on Skellenger Ln. off of Silverado Trail and to the East of Rutherford. Back then not everything was in grapes. So we had hay land. Neighbors had prunes and walnuts. It wasn’t just grape vines, and wine was really not that, I don’t know…well accepted or that known. [The community] was still coming out of the tough periods with prohibition. And you know wineries were just like an everyday type of thing. I mean, it’s kind of strange but a bottle of wine would have been a couple of bucks, three dollars—Something like that. And not everybody had the varietals that we see now now. There weren’t that many Cabernet Sauvignons, or Chardonnays. But there were Zinfandels, Carignans, Palomino, French Colombard. I mean there were some of the varieties that still make wonderful wines but that are not that acclaimed in this day and age.
Sam: And just to clarify, we are talking mid-to-late 1950's to mid-to-late1960's, yes?
Robert: Yes. And growing up on the farm, we were pretty isolated. We were what, seven miles away from St helena (?)—which that was the big city. And maybe a half and hour away from Napa. That’d be by car. It was really a great time though. I enjoyed it tremendously. It was just real people, and real farmers. People lived there. Not necessarily people that had them for investments or second homes. And I remember one time in our neighborhood there was a noted author—Arthur Hailey, and that was a shock to me that an author would be coming into the agriculture area, because everyone here got their hands dirty. People who were more ‘city folk’ didn’t come out here that much and didn’t really participate. It was really tough farming.
Sam: Farming is tough. I can't imagine farming grapes through prohibition or something of that nature. What was the winery scene at that time?
Robert: Maybe the bigger winery was Krug, Beringer, and BV. Other than that it was pretty meager pickings for getting wine. The big wineries really had a tough time selling because it was before there was a lot of modern technology with vineyards and frost protection, so one year you might loose 60-80 % of your crop and you know, when you have markets developed and you lose that much supply someone else will take it over.
But again, as far as the area, it was just a beautiful area, and I just really enjoyed it. It was just like heaven. We had cattle, and grapes. It was pretty isolated in comparison to this day and age. But I didn’t mind that at all.
Sam: I'm sure the farm helped to keep you busy in isolation. As far as the grapes you grew on your farm...You had some table grapes and some wine grapes? Robert: Well, I guess you could say, grapes could go either way. They were all wine grapes really. Some were not meant for high quality varietal wines. But they did have a lot of Zinfandel and the Zinfandel made wonderful wines. I don’t want to be snobbish about grape varieties. I welcome them all. I welcome more!
Sam: Of course! I just remember reading something about André Tchelistcheff and how he helped a lot of farmers & winemakers realize they needed specific wine grapes to make high quality wines. So I was wondering if you saw that transition, you know, on your farm? Robert: uhm yeah, unfortunately I sold [my part of that Rutherford farm] early in the way there. But yeah, and I think that wineries were asking for better named varietals and they were willing to pay for them. So I think it was a duo where the wineries wanted the better grapes and were willing to pay for them. And, one thing I maybe neglected to mention before, but it was pretty tough making a living from what you could sell, the grapes or the hay. So anything that had a better economic return was taken, of course, positively by growers. But learning about new, and more complicated trellising and rootstocks… it was a learning experience.
Sam: And so as a farmer selling grapes you had some experience as to what wineries were looking for and willing to spend on. As for the winemaking, you were, at that point, not involved. Your parents didn’t make wine (and didn’t have the experience from a winemaking point of view), so you would be the first generation of your family to be a winemaker, yes?
Robert: Thats true. Sam: So let's talk about that moment when farming and making wine start to come together. This is actually a really good point to introduce one of the questions I got when I opened up interview questions to social media: @corky_bros from Instagram asked, “what glass of wine was his aha moment?” … so what was it that inspired you to get into wine. What was your “ah-hah” moment that helped you realize what wine could be?
Robert: haha, I actually have two. The first one was,…you know, Being that it was a small community, there was a small grocery store in Rutherford, and my family would buy necessities. They had a great meat counter and that kind of thing. And you didn’t pay for the food that you bought, you’d just put it on a tab and pay at the end of the period. It harkens back to an older day. At the end of the year, the owner of the store—in gratitude to my parents—gave my parents a case of I think it was 1967 Pinot Noir that André Tchelistheff made. And both my parents were both not real wine drinkers. They were more hard liquor. So all of a sudden we had this wine in our house and... always the adventuresome person that I am, I was willing to try it. So I tasted that, and that was kind of a light going on—“oh this is pretty good.” Along with a meal or just drinking this…and I was maybe 14 or 16 years old I said to myself—“this is very interesting.”
Sam: Pretty young to be tasting! Ha! I must now add: you must be 21+ to drink wine, please enjoy responsibly...
Robert: Haha. On a side note, 3 or 4 or 5 years later, I decided “well I’ve got to go back and buy some of that wine.” So I go back, and I go back to BV to see, and they just kind of laugh at me and say, “oh, that’s long gone. That’s history.”
Sam: Historic for sure...
Robert: So the second wine that really hit me, was from one of my step brothers who was living there at the house—he got a job at Robert Mondavi. He worked in the cellar and worked with barrels, and uh, they must have had some barrels that were really dry and they leaked a lot.
Sam: Leaky barrels unfortunately do happen…
Robert: Yep, And so, he said when they were filling them, they were just like a sieve, just pouring wine out, and they didn’t do anything about it, so he put something underneath it to capture it and brought a small bottle home. And it was a Chardonnay. And I tried that, and I was like, “WOW, this is really good.”
Sam: Chardonnay. Nice.
Robert: So it’s kind of those two things that kind of hit me as things that I would be very interested in. At that point I still wasn’t thinking I would go into winemaking, but it looked promising as maybe an amateur winemaker. [I thought] I’d like to make some wine from our own grapes. So I made some Zinfandel, and I think it was 1970, and that was the first wine I ever made and it was about a tons worth of fruit. And uh, you know, I was really flying blind at that point. I didn’t know really too much about making wine except for what I could read in books, and a lot of books weren’t that definitive or that helpful, But I was able to talk to some other winemakers. One was Walter Schug (who worked for Gallo then). Like for example, we’d talk. I'd ask... “so what should I do?”
I’d crush it and everything and I’d get ready to bottle it, you know, then ask, “what is the next step?”
He told me: “well you’ve got to add some Sulfur.”
And when I'd ask, “well how much sulfur do you add?” he'd reply something like, “a little half a handful and just throw it in.”
And now I think back on it—the wine turned out really well—but it was really pretty much, I guess a lot of luck.
Sam: Luck and and some good practical advice!
Robert: So, Those are the wines that I think I got my start on and they still make a mark in my mind right now of how lucky I was, how fortunate I was, to be able to be in this place, in this agricultural community in Napa before it really got booming. You know, it was very nice...
So, We will leave off for now.
Thanks to my dad for taking time to sit down and chat about the beginning. I'll be sitting down with Bob again next week for part 2! Also, Happy Birthday to Robert & Happy 50th Earth day to everyone! Cheers, Samantha Mueller