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A Grape Opportunity: Kurtis Ogasawara

California’s iconic Robert Mondavi Winery is already well-established as one of the greatest in Napa Valley. Now, Director of Winemaking Kurtis Ogasawara is bringing its carefully crafted wines to the Australian market.

Even though he had grown up surrounded by the vineyards of Sunnyvale, California as a young man, Kurtis Ogasawara was more interested in wrestling than wine.

Having won a spot on the University of California Davis Athletics wrestling program, he studied engineering at first before realizing after a couple of years that his heart just wasn’t in it. And so he set off on a series of taster classes including an introduction to winemaking.

“It was really an introduction to wines and how it’s made in the different regions – a very high-level, broad spectrum class,” he recalls. “And I just thought it was super interesting.”

His love of wine ignited, Ogasawara changed his degree to enology – studying wine and winemaking. The qualification led him to roles in the Napa Valley wine region, first at Mumm Napa and then Domaine Chandon working with sparkling varietals.

But seeing great opportunity in still wines, he quickly transitioned over to Newton Vineyard. “That’s really where I fell in love with red winemaking and still wine,” he reveals.

“So when the opportunity came up to work at the historic Robert Mondavi Winery, I jumped on it. It was an opportunity for me to learn from Napa Valley’s most legendary wine producer.”

Robert Mondavi had a pioneering role in establishing Napa Valley as a fine wine epicenter and shaping the wine industry as we know it today. He believed that California had the potential to create beautiful wine capable of competing on the world stage.

“It’s one of the most beautiful vineyards in the world,” Ogasawara adds.

An In-Depth Knowledge

Working his way up from enologist, Ogasawara got to know every aspect of the winery and its functions, learning from expert winemakers along the way.

“I just kept growing and learning and evolving over time, and grew into my current position,” he says.

Now Director of Winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery, which was bought by Constellation Brands in 2004, he finds many of the same thrills in his role that he once found in wrestling.

“A sport has a season every year where you’re working your butt off, trying to get to your goal and then you have the off-season where you’re doing your training and getting ready for the next season,” he explains. “That’s exactly what winemaking is for me.

“You have a vintage every year, you have this opportunity to grow, to continue to be better, to push quality – and that’s what I really love about it. Every year, I get a new opportunity to start afresh and keep pushing.”

“It’s such a historic name and it’s something that we need to continue to push and share with the world.”

Innovation and intense attention to detail are at the heart of everything the Robert Mondavi Winery team does, from picking the fruit all the way through to pouring it into the glass.

“It’s about really hitting that perfect note, keeping freshness, keeping elegance and fruit intensity. It’s making wines that I want to drink, that our team wants to drink, that you want to keep enjoying,” he enthuses.

New Horizons

The past four years have seen Ogasawara take on a new challenge – to share his passion for Robert Mondavi Winery wines with the Australian market. The company first launched in Australia in 2020 and has been steadily building its presence in the years since.

“Robert Mondavi’s goal was to make wines that could stand against the best in the world – so why aren’t they more present in Australia? I think there’s a huge opportunity to stand alongside Australia’s best,” he reflects.

“The name is known out there but we need to share the story and get the wine in front of as many consumers as possible to share what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Robert Mondavi Winery is a brand that people should all be able to have the opportunity to taste and enjoy.”

The company has launched seven of its wines in Australia so far, carefully selected to represent the company’s take on Californian wine, including its award-winning Napa Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The pinnacle is the award-winning Reserve To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, awarded 98 points by Jeb Dunnuck.

“I think that they’re great examples of California wines and of our stylistic approach to really showing you what Napa Valley tastes like,” Ogasawara says.

Nestled in the heart of Napa Valley, To Kalon Vineyard Company’s Mediterranean climate lends itself to warm, dry days with cool nights. With 18 different soil types, the wine produced here expresses a distinct sense of place. Through its acquisition of Robert Mondavi Winery, Constellation Brands owns 182 hectares of To Kalon Vineyard Company, which has been listed four times in William Reed’s ‘World’s Best Vineyards’.

“The special thing about wine is that you can make something that represents where it’s from. If we make three different cabernets, one from Stag Leap and one from Oakville and one from Carneros, those should taste dramatically different,” Ogasawara explains.

“They should transport you to the vineyard so that the consumers, the people who are drinking it, can understand what the differences are.”

“Robert Mondavi’s goal was to make wines that could stand against the best in the world – so why aren’t they more present in Australia? I think there’s a huge opportunity to stand alongside Australia’s best.”

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive, Ogasawara reports. Now with an extensive renovation underway at the iconic Napa Arch & Tower facility, he sees a great few years ahead for the iconic wine brand.

“Excitement’s a great word for what’s going on with Robert Mondavi Winery, with the physical transformation of our Napa Valley winery, and with the wines that we’re making now,” he explains. “It’s not that we weren’t making great wines in the past, but we’re tweaking those so that we can continually improve.

“It’s such a historic name and it’s something that we need to continue to push and share with the world. So I’m super excited that we have a bigger footprint now in Australia.”

Robert Mondavi Winery is a sponsor of The CEO Magazine’s 2024 Executive of the Year Awards in Sydney, Australia.

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