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Lesson From Wine Country

05/10/2015

I was fortunate to be in Napa, California, last week, where a friend told me the story of the Mondavi winery and recommended The House of Mondavi:  The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler, which I did read on the long flight home.  (I suspect the saga of the Mondavi brothers may have been the seed for the CBS soap opera Falcon Crest during the 1980’s.)  There was certainly no end to the real-life drama in the Mondavi family.

A first-generation Italian-American family in Lodi, California, they moved into wine as Prohibition ended.  The two oldest sons later took control of the winery business.  (As was normal in those days, the two daughters were marginalized.)  Unfortunately, the oldest son was so obsessed with building the business that he permitted his ego to run rough-shod over the ego of his younger brother, with predictable results.  I strongly recommend this book as an insight into dysfunctional families, especially those with large family businesses.

However, as a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER (r) professional, with particular emphasis on both estate planning and investing, the sad story of the Mondavi family was both predictable and preventable.

First, there was an obsessive focus on family-control, pointedly excluding professionals.  The surviving wife, Rosa, was unable to control her oldest son, who could not control himself.  A professional co-trustee would have done that, probably by empowering a Chief Financial Officer.  (The family employed accountants but no CFO!)  Similarly, passing on a family business to the next generation has a certain quaint charm but, considering the risk, is not enough reason to own a business in the first place.

Second, the Mondavi family had no respect for cash — everything was plowed back into the business.  They went to the edge of survival numerous times, due to the predictable liquidity problems.  (Does anybody believe that financial problems have zero impact on the family harmony?)  More importantly, the Mondavis  had no respect for diversification — their only asset was the wine business, leaving them 100% exposed to the wine industry alone.

The family always employed excellent, expensive attorneys, usually with political connections, but never used a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER (r) professional.  They may have saved some money in the short run, but it also caused them a lot of emotional pain in the long run!

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