Carneros winemaker Nicholas Molnar, who shone in the face of adversity, dies at 94
Nicholas Molnar, a winemaker whose innovative thinking helped make Carneros a premier wine region, died on January 11. He was 94 years old.
“My father had a real entrepreneurial spirit,” said Arpad Molnar. “I think my dad’s life experience shaped his flexibility of mind, and he had that flexibility of mind until he passed away.”
Molnar was unswayed by naysayers who said Carneros, at the southern end of the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, was too cold and windy to prepare grapes for good wine. The native Hungarian, who fled the country after the 1956 revolution failed to overthrow the Stalinist regime, eventually made his way to Northern California and became an unconventional winemaker in the 1960s.
He tried his luck on a 100-acre piece of land in 1973 not far from the marshes of San Pablo Bay. This vineyard became an instrument of the Molnar family’s main business, Obsidian Wine Co., 12 years before the Carneros wine region was officially recognized as an American wine zone.
“You have to throw caution to the wind that others are unwilling to do,” Arpad Molnar said.
Molnar also ignored those who said Lake County was unsuitable for growing premium Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as those who scoffed at the prospect of California wineries buying Hungarian barrels.
The unorthodox thinker was born in Budapest in 1927 during uncertain times of economic depression, world war and Soviet occupation. In the 1940s, Molnar’s father ran a trucking business and, maligned as capitalists, both father and son spent time in prison.
Molnar was married to gymnast Andrea Bodo. While competing in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Molnar took part in a revolt in Budapest. When it was clear that the revolution would not triumph, Molnar fled across the Austrian border and was eventually reunited in Melbourne with his wife, who had won a gold medal.
At the time, magazine mogul Henry Luce launched Sports Illustrated and invited the Hungarian Olympic team to tour the United States. As the Cold War intensified, Luce sought to shed light on refugees from a communist regime, Arpad Molnar said.
“It was definitely trade-driven,” he said. “The political overtones of the time caused a stir.”
Molnar, who had experience as a journalist, took the opportunity to cover the story for the magazine.
After visiting San Francisco in 1956, Molnar and Bodo were charmed by the city and decided to stay there. But they eventually divorced, and Molnar remarried Catherine de Bokay, another Hungarian refugee, in 1966.
When Molnar started selling insurance, he crossed paths with the Pepi Brothers of Robert Pepi Winery, now known as Cardinale and owned by Jackson Family Wines. With the Pepi brothers as a new client, Molnar had the idea of planting a vineyard. Short of capital, he found investors by placing advertisements in newspapers, Arpad Molnar explained.
The 100-acre Carneros property he purchased in 1973 had been used for sheep grazing. There were only a few vineyards in the area at the time. Once he converted it into pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards, Molnar found a ready buyer for his harvest. French champagne company Moët Hennessy built Domaine Chandon and bought its grapes until 1985 to produce its sparkling wine.
Today, some of the fruit is used for the Molnar family’s Poseidon label, while the lion’s share is sold to Napa Valley sparkling wine houses, Mumm Napa and Schramsburg.
“There was certainly a lot of doubt, even fear, around the idea of planting directly on the shores of San Pablo Bay,” said Domaine Carneros winemaker TJ Evans. “This may have been perpetuated by farmers further up the valley who were worried about the humidity and wind. … I think we can all admire (Molnar’s) type of leadership and his willingness to go out and take risks.
Anne Moller-Racke, owner and winemaker of Carneros’ Blue Farm, agreed. Molnar, she said, was one of a small group of people who knew about the potential of Carneros soil for growing concentrated, flavorful grapes.
“Nicholas knew that clay soils are restrictive, resulting in smaller vines, which leads to lower yields,” she said. “He was a precursor. He was not afraid of risk. He was a refugee, and it takes a certain spirit to leave a country. He had the courage to try something new.
Moller-Racke remembers meeting Molnar at a social event in Mumm Napa years ago. He was a very charming gentleman, she said. “He was from the Old Country, and very interesting.”
Molnar was also ahead of the curve with the import of Hungarian-made barrels from Kadar, a company that fell on hard times during the Soviet occupation. California winemakers said it was futile, Arpad Molnar said, because winemakers were determined to use French oak barrels. But Gallo stepped forward and bought the Kadar casks, and today 120 wineries around the world buy the Kadar casks from the Molnars. The family eventually took a stake in the cooperage.
“My dad was always a bit of an outsider in the wine industry, but I don’t think so by choice,” Arpad Molnar said. “It’s just his way of seeing the world, and when you see the world differently, it doesn’t lend itself to being an insider.”
Insiders, who pedal in conventional wisdom, also didn’t believe Lake County held promise for high-end Cabernet Sauvignon. But, once again, Molnar saw an opportunity that others had missed.
In 1999 Molnar and his sons Peter and Arpad purchased a 100 acre walnut orchard and converted it into a vineyard. This vineyard, named Obsidian Ridge, continues to have a reputation for rivaling the Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley.
“I don’t know if it was my father’s DNA or the circumstances in which he was born that made him an entrepreneur,” said Arpad Molnar. “Like everything, it’s part nature, part culture. He had to make do with what he had.
Nicholas Molnar is survived by his wife, Catherine; his children Aniko, Peter and Arpad; and grandchildren Renna, Kyla, Nichos, Gabriel, Eszter and Andreas.
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at [email protected] or 707-521-5310.