Interview with Joe Harden of Robert Mondavi

What was your first memory of wine and how did you know you wanted to be a winemaker?

I grew up on a vineyard and have many fond childhood memories of walking my family’s dogs in the vineyard and eating a ton of grapes!  I knew I wanted to be a winemaker after spending a couple of weeks with Karl Wente in Livermore shadowing him during harvest. Watching him work in the vineyards, getting creative in the blending session and seeing his passion while working insane hours during harvest – it all seemed like an amazing profession and lifestyle.

What was your first wine job?

I had a couple of volunteer harvest gigs but my real first wine job was my internship at Robert Mondavi Winery. I spent a year getting my feet wet in all facets of production (working the vineyard, cellar, bottling line, lab, and eventually, spending a harvest working closely with Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking). It was an amazing experience that provided a great foundation.

What is your favorite wine?

One wine that really blew my mind was the 2001 I Block Fume Blanc from the historic To Kalon Vineyard at Robert Mondavi Winery.   That those old vines (believed to be the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines in North America) can still produce a wine with such incredible vibrancy of fruit balanced by fullness and weight was a revelation!

What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your winemaking career?

I have made plenty, but one that really sticks in my mind occurred while I was working in the cellar. I was a couple of months into my internship year and I was racking and filling a tank with some of our best Cabernet lots and prepping the wine for bottling. I was multi tasting and working on some other duties as I was filling the tank. The flow was a lot faster than I had expected and all of a sudden I see a fountain of red flowing high above the tank. I almost had a heart attack but was able to switch to another tank quickly, we ended up only losing a couple gallons but it was a valuable lesson for me.

Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?

I would have to say without a doubt Genevieve Janssens. I showed up at Robert Mondavi Winery very “green” with limited experience and she really took me under her wing. I feel so fortunate to be able to learn from someone who has 30+ years of winemaking experience and the perspective that comes from working with fruit from the same vineyard (ToKalon) year in and year out.

What are some characteristics in your wine that consumers will find that may be your “stamp” or “trademark”?

I wouldn’t say I have any trademarks. I have more of a hands off approach to winemaking. The ultimate goal at the end of the day is to craft a wine that expresses a sense of place. When you start manipulating and intervening you lose the DNA of the wine. Less is more.

What is your favorite after work drink?

A Kikori (Japanese Whiskey) Manhattan, Revik Sauvignon Blanc, or Fort Port IPA depending on how long the day was.

What is your favorite local spot?

My wife and I have a couple local favorites. Kelly’s Filling Station has the best coffee in Yountville. We love Tannery Bend (new local brewery/taproom in Napa) for after-work beers. We also love Yountville’s Redd and Reddwood for cocktails and dinner.

Tell us something that would surprise people about you

My wife and l love getting outside. Hiking and camping are some of our favorite hobbies. We throw our three dogs into our 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia campervan and drive it all over the state. We are currently planning a big National Parks trip for June, 2018.

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