Carlo Mondavi’s Autonomous Electric Tractors for Sustainable, Affordable Farming – Part 1
Grandson of Robert Mondavi & Chief Farming Officer Monarch Tractor on cost effective sustainable farming.
If you eat today, thank a farmer!
Farming is one of the most important aspects of human life as we know it. It’s also one of the biggest contributors to environmental pollution which is causing climate change that threatens our lives as we know it. Simply put, we can’t live without farming – but how can we live with it!
This is where sustainable farming comes in, and one of the ways to promote it is by using eco-friendly, cost effective farming machines. For instance, an electric tractor which reduces a farm’s carbon footprint while also autonomous to reduce operating costs.
In this episode, the first part out of two, Ed Bernardon interviews Carlo Mondavi, grandson of Napa Valley icon Robert Mondavi, and founder/Chief Farming Officer of Monarch Tractor. Carlo is also a farmer and one of the owners of RAEN Winery. We’ll talk about the use of autonomous electric tractors in implementing cost-effective and sustainable farming as well as learn a bit about what it takes to manage a vineyard and turn grapes into a fine wine.
Some Questions I Ask:
- How did the idea of the Monarch Tractor come about? (02:24)
- What’s the meaning of the farmer-first mentality? (12:42)
- Do you have a lot of competitors? (21:43)
- How did your grandfather’s influence help you get to where you are today? (24:28)
- Where did the name RAEN come from? (35:01)
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- The origin of the name ‘Monarch Challenge’ (03:27)
- The problems that the Monarch Tractor is meant to solve (14:39)
- How the autonomous tractor is able to save on cost and time (18:47)
- The impact that stainless steel has on the taste of the wine (30:24)
- What prompted the idea of skincare products made from grapes (33:32)
Connect with Carlo Mondavi:
Connect with Ed Bernardon:
Ed Bernardon: The aroma and taste of a bold Cabernet, the smooth, delicate finish of an earthy Pinot Noir… The crisp effervescence of a glass of sparkling… Though most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the taste of wine, many of us have no idea just how long and labor intensive the winemaking process is. Even if we’re one of the lucky ones who have visited a working winery, behind the scenes is a totally different world.
The growing, harvesting, and finesse that goes into crafting a great bottle of wine all starts at the vineyard itself. But can it be done in a sustainable yet cost effective way. As concerns around farming sustainability become more heightened, our guest today, a winemaker and founder of an electric autonomous tractor company, has figured out a way to use electric and autonomous technology to accelerate his vision of clean sustainable farming.
Welcome to the Future Car Podcast. I’m your host, Ed Bernardon. And on the Future Car Podcast, when we talk about autonomous vehicles they’re usually on the road. But a great application for autonomous, and even electric vehicles is agriculture and farming – row after row of crops provide a well-defined path to follow, just like those perfectly painted lines you want on a city street to help control an autonomous car.
Today, we talk about a particular type of agriculture – growing grapes and working in vineyards. We have with us, Carlo Mondavi, grandson of Napa Valley winemaking icon Robert Mondavi. Carlo is a vintner himself, and also founder and Chief Farming Officer of Monarch Tractor, a maker of autonomous electric tractors. It’s going to be an interesting conversation as Carlo explains to us how to achieve cost effective, sustainable, herbicide free farming with an autonomous tractor that seems a bit like as a giant, harvesting Roomba.
Carlo, welcome to the Future Car Podcast.
Carlo Mondavi: Thank you, Ed, very kind. And thank you for the kind introduction. It’s good to be here.
Ed Bernardon: So, Carlo, tell us a little bit about Monarch Tractor, what it’s all about, how it came about.
Carlo Mondavi: It’s been an incredible journey. I’ll just start by saying that I never planned to be involved in the technology business. It’s something that I enjoy – technology. I enjoy knowing when severe weather is coming. I enjoyed that as a farmer. And in the winery, just being able to understand what’s tracking, fermentation, etc. But it wasn’t something that I had planned on. But I got into kind of a hard place, I had begun a challenge called The Monarch Challenge, which was a challenge to basically create a conversation within my farming community of Northern California – Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino area – about how certain chemicals that are being used in agriculture are dangerous and unhealthy. So, things like herbicides, neonicotinoids, stuff like that. And just to create awareness, because a lot of people didn’t know. In fact, when I began the Monarch Challenge back in 2016, none of the lawsuits had been going on that have made people now know that things like Roundup are linked to cancer, etc. But I began this challenge, and the reason why we called it The Monarch Challenge was because since the introduction of herbicides, the introduction of Roundup in 1974, the monarch population of butterflies has declined by 99%. In fact, this last winter’s count done by the Xerxes Society, that’s an incredible organization, they’ve dedicated their time to invertebrates, mostly insects, and whatnot. And since the introduction and the beginning of Xerxes, Xerxes has been keeping the count since the ‘80s. So, back in the ‘80s when they began the count, they were counting off the westerly monarchs, about 5 million monarchs migrating through the state of California down on their way to Mexico. And this last winter’s count in 2020, they counted 1910 individuals.
Carlo Mondavi: And so, when I found out about the collapse of the monarch population, colony collapse with the bees, the destruction that herbicides have on our soil microbiome and farm biology, and all the things downriver from that, I said, “I have to create awareness.” The human health impact is one thing. But as humans, we’re free to learn, we’re free to do whatever we want. And I don’t want to impede on people’s freedom, but I do want to create awareness about things that are not free to make those decisions within our environment. So, began The Monarch Challenge, that I got a big splash of cold water in late 2016, early 2017. So, this is a long way around the beginning of how I got involved in technology. But I go talk to my farming friends and neighbors, and they’d say, “I love our planet. I love our farm. But I’ve got to put food on the table for my family, I’ve got to put my kids through college. This practice of not using herbicides, and this cleaner kind of practice cost more, not a lot more, but enough to make an impact for my family. And so, I can’t do it.” And I realized quickly that there was a cost divide that was too great for most farms to take. And then within some of these companies, they would say, “Well, you think you’re holier than thou by protecting the soil microbiome in the farm biology and being beyond organic.” There’s something Dante, my brother, and I found a reason we’ve been beyond organic for a long, long time, my family has. But you think you’re better than all of us conventional farmers, but you’re burning more diesel to be organic. You have to do more passes in the field. Because the chemicals you’re using, even though they’re organic, they have a shorter half-life, so you have to use them more often. And to be honest, they’re right. Organic farming comes with a greater carbon footprint in many areas.
Carlo Mondavi: So, I realized that the chances of The Monarch Challenge succeeding were little. We’re super blessed in Northern California, Silicon Valley is right over the other side of the bay. I realized if you can drive a Tesla down a freeway at 70 miles per hour, pop it in Ludicrous Mode, have it change lanes; why couldn’t you take a tractor two and three miles per hour down the vineyard and do your work autonomously? And so this idea of being able to create an autonomous tractor that was electric started to become something that I was like, “This is the solution to The Monarch Challenge.” Meanwhile, in 2017, something hit me really hard in my family. We had our first sobering of climate change, which was the wildfires of 2017 that hit Napa Sonoma, Mendocino, burnt thousands of structures, people lost their lives in this fire. It was tragic. There was even a firefighter who lost her life. It was a very, very sobering moment. It wasn’t like one fire happened. It was like fires all around us were happening. My father’s winery continuum lost 30% of their crop. We were very lucky. My brother and I were fine because of rain; we picked out earlier – we have Pinot Noir so we bud out earlier, we set and ripen and harvest earlier. So, we were fine. But we felt incredibly blessed because we have friends that lost their homes, friends that lost their wineries. It was just tragic.
Carlo Mondavi: So that was the moment where I realized, “Well, who cares about the soil microbiome and the farm biology if we don’t have a planet to live on?” And then 2018 happened, wildfires again. Similar areas, 2019 happened. And then 2020, the path that 2017 fires burned, 2020 burned over those paths. The realization that we are in a climate crisis in a state of emergency right now as a planet, and we have to fight for our survival. So, long story short, I got the introduction of a lifetime to my co-founders – all three of them have dedicated their life to the development of incredible technologies. It’s actually a fun story. A friend of mine, John, who’s in the technology space in autonomous vehicles, in a way. I was given a continuum, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m looking for autonomy engineers if you know anybody.” I said, “Yeah, me too. I’m in this trillion-dollar battle to solve autonomous vehicles.” one day, he called me up and said, “Hey, come up to the office.” And so I drove up to his office, and he introduced me to Mark, who’s one of my co-founders, and he has a rule at his company, my friend John, and that’s that he doesn’t hire his friends. And they were college buddies at Cornell University.
Carlo Mondavi: And so long story short, Mark is our president, one of my co-founders. His background comes from the early days at Tesla. His first job at Tesla was to double the Roadster production. So, he took it from 10 vehicles a week to 25 vehicles a week. Then he was involved with aspects of the S Factory. Then from there, he went on to build – him and one other gentleman was in charge from sheet to build of the Gigafactory. Then he went on to Romeo Power and Zoox. And along the journey he met and he hired Praveen and Zachary, my two other co-founders. Praveen who’s our CEO. He’s just this incredibly brilliant guy who’s been deploying Ag-Tech for the last 10 years. Him along with Dr. Zachary, my other co-founder. His first job out of college was at NASA. His background really is PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon. He loves to solve massive technological problems. Him and Praveen had been deploying and solving these crazy technology problems for aerospace, auto and agriculture. And along the journey, they were deploying these crazy single-use-case implements that were costing hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. And they realized they’d go out in the field with these potato transplanters or romaine lettuce feeders. And they would go hook these up to these tractors, these really incredible, state-of-the-art pieces of technology, and then hook it up to the tractor. We need GPS, we need connectivity, we need electric power.” So, they’re taping onto the tractor, all of these things that they need to make their implement work. Quickly enough they realized that if they could update the tractor that hasn’t been updated in forever, they could make these really important implements a lot less expensive and basically take a lot of the burden off the farm. So, that’s the really long story. I’m the Chief Farming Officer, so I really am marrying the technology to the farm. But again, it’s a dream come true to have a solution, Monarch Tractor, which we’ve built is the solution to The Monarch Challenge.
Ed Bernardon: It’s a great story. And when I first saw your name and your title, CFO, obviously, the first thing comes to mind was “financial,” Chief Financial Officer, but no, you’re a Chief Farming Officer. And I think an interesting thing about that is you’re a farmer, growing grapes. Now, you’re teaming up with these people from the high tech world of Silicon Valley, when you bring together people with such diverse experience – experts in one plus experts in another – I think that’s an important part of the success that you’ve had, and being able to work together. What was it like at first, as a farmer, when you first started working with the high-tech world of Silicon Valley?
Carlo Mondavi: I’m so inspired by our team. We’re now over 100 individuals and they’re all incredibly brilliant. And a lot of their families are farmers. So, there’s a lot of understanding of farming, but it’s just incredible. We have people come from aerospace auto, not just in the founding team, but within the whole team, and getting into there saying, “Hey, we want to solve this kind of global food chain challenge that we have right now. We want to make our planet better. And the quickest way we can make an impact right now is via agriculture.” It really is. There’s the biggest opportunity right now. If you account for agriculture, it’s like a quarter of our planet’s carbon footprint. And so if we can address that, we can not only make eating and farming and all those things healthier, but we can also protect our planet. So, it’s an incredible team, they inspire me every single day. One of the things I do when I get to the office, which is the first thing, is I’ll just walk around the factory floor and I’ll say hello to everybody. And that gives me so much energy.
Ed Bernardon: Do you bring a bottle of wine for lunch? Is that part of the employment package?
Carlo Mondavi: Yeah, sometimes when we have the holiday parties or things like that, like when we’re done with the day on a Friday type of thing, we’ll open some wine and taste. I am reminded by the team that we have a lot of heavy equipment, all that back in the factory. But yeah, we absolutely enjoy wine. And there’s a lot of people that are really keen on great food and great wine, which is really cool.
Ed Bernardon: It sounds like the desire to make farming better is really key, and that’s what pulls your team together. And then you can draw on this diverse experience. You talk about a farmer-first mentality. What does that mean – farmer-first mentality?
Carlo Mondavi: Farmer first is just the biggest thing. I got involved in this from a farming perspective out of a desperate need to have this technology on my farm and to meet the challenge of The Monarch Challenge. So, everything that we do at Monarch Tractor is to help farmers to make their lives easier; to make it less complicated; to make, hopefully, at the end of the day, their farms more profitable. In fact, one of the big driving factors of why The Monarch Challenge was going to fail is because of the economic divide. The carbon footprint divide is maybe the most upsetting, but being able to bridge both of those and give farmers the ability to bridge the carbon footprint and economic divide and have them feel good. Because I don’t know how many times I’ve said this, but I don’t know a single farmer on this planet that wakes up and says, “I want to go spray chemicals,” or like, “I want to put a hazmat suit on.” Even if it is to spraying organic contact spray, nobody wants to do it to make their lives easier, to also allow for us to bridge away from the dangerous nonorganic synthetic chemicals and to be able to get into a way that we can feed our planet in a healthy way that makes them feel good. So, farmer-first is at the core of not just me because I’m a farmer, but the whole entire team at Monarch Tractor has a farmer-first mentality. So also when it comes down to all the technology and all this stuff because it has a significant amount of technology, all that’s owned by the farmers, something that we’re just saying, “We are a service provider. We’re building a tractor for you. But once you have that tractor, it’s all yours.” You can repair it – right to repair. All those different things that are really controversial right now. And kind of the big, big, traditional diesel tractor world. We want to get rid of all that to make life a lot easier for farmers on the technical side. So, it’s something cool, I think we’re going to definitely shake up the tractor universe because of how open we are about that.
Ed Bernardon: Yeah, it’s not just selling them a tractor, you’re selling them a device that’s going to give them what they really want to do. Like you said, they don’t really want to spray those chemicals. I’m going to try and do a little summary of some of the things you just said that’s sort of a little segue into actually your tractor. So, you have the butterfly, the flutter of the wing of the butterfly draws your attention to, “Hey, the environment is not as favorable as it used to be. We got to do something.” And obviously, one of the things to do is get away from pesticides. Well, I’m doing that and doing everything organically, but I got to do it so much. And I’m using this dirty polluting diesel tractor. I got to do something about that. And if I do do it, it better be cost-effective and save people money or be equal or nobody’s going to want to do it. And then along comes the electric autonomous Monarch Tractor. So, what is it about the Monarch Tractor that solves this problem; cost-effective, sustainable farming?
Carlo Mondavi: It’s so multi-layered. But the biggest thing is that when you spray an organic contact spray, it creates like a shell around the fruit in the canopy. Whereas if you spray a synthetic, it penetrates and kind of has a lot longer of a half-life. Let’s say, you’re spraying four days a week if you’re organic, and maybe once or twice if you’re synthetic and conventional. This is a guy to who I was a mechanic’s assistant from when I was seven in our vineyard yard. This guy was super influential to me. I worked with him for a long time. He said, “The most dangerous place on this farm is in the tractor seat.” So, if you’re farming yourself or if you have a team of farmers, when you get into spraying multiple acres, four times a month versus once or twice a month, you realize, not only is it really hard to do, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous. So, putting on a hazmat suit and all that is just unattractive. Then you put the cost on top of all that, and it’s difficult. And then this past, I think, six years, we’ve had a very difficult time finding tractor drivers; getting a skilled tractor driver with the new implements that are coming along. It’s a lot harder to drive these tractors. It’s not as easy as it used to be, let’s just say. There’s a huge challenge protecting the farmers, and there’s a huge challenge finding the farmers willing to do the work. And so by being able to remove the driver by being autonomous, you can have the tractor go out “all day, every day” in theory, and have it do work. And you’re going to be saving money if you have someone sitting in that seat. You’re also going to be helping that person who would be wearing a hazmat suit, you’re going to elevate them to actually managing that fleet. So, no longer are they in the contact of the spray that’s around. So, you’re elevating jobs, you’re saving a significant amount of money, you can send it out and have that person go do other things while they can observe from their phone, from their handheld device. And so you’re creating a barrier or a bridge away from the incredibly dull and dangerous job of driving the tractor. On top of that, there’s the cost of fossil fuels. Just to give you an idea right now, turning on one tractor is the equivalent of turning on 14 cars. So, they’re very, very powerful and they’re very dirty.
Ed Bernardon: Just the turning on? Just the actual turning of the key and turning it on?
Carlo Mondavi: Turn on. You can feel it and you can smell it.
Ed Bernardon: That big puff of black smoke that comes out the back?
Carlo Mondavi: Yeah, and I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve been standing out in the middle of a field in the darkness of the night and the lights are coming off the tractor and the tractor is running, and I’m sitting there going, “Why is the tractor running?” The tractor literally is running just to keep the lights on. And you’re burning this immense amount of diesel and it’s a class 1 carcinogen – so, a particulate amount NOx and CO2 just enveloping the whole entire area where you are. And so being able to get rid of that you have immense cost savings on going electric. And that’s when hooked up to the grid. If you go down the renewable path, which is what the path I really hope people invest in, and you bridge away from fossil fuel farming, you bridge over the grid and to being able to farm your own power plant on your farm; you start to really see the bridge away from the conventional world and into the cleaner kind of world.
Ed Bernardon: Let’s break out of autonomy and electric just for a second. But what you explained is the autonomy, first of all, there’s your saving; one person can run multiple tractors. Also, you’re elevating the worker, that’s even better. It’s safer, you’re not getting involved all the herbicides. And then electric on top of that is another layer, which now says, “Hey, let’s get rid of this polluting diesel fuel. One of the things I think is very surprising that people don’t realize is “Oh, I’m going to get an electric car. And I’m going to contribute to try and address global warming and sustainability.” But you’re only using your car 10% of the time. 90% of the time it sits in the garage, which is okay, it’s not polluting, but it’s sitting there. I thought it was interesting that one of the advantages of your electric tractor was we can start the tractors at four in the morning now and the neighbors aren’t going to complain. And I thought immediately, “Wow! If they’re starting at four in the morning, that means they must be running them quite a bit.” How much does a tractor actually run? And how much, over a period of a year, do you save in emissions and savings in costs for fuel?
Carlo Mondavi: That’s a really good question because for the growing season, typically, when it rains, it pours; you need your tractor immense amount of time from basically spraying all the way through to harvest. Little less so in the cooler dormant months of winter. And I’m talking about this mainly for orchards and fruits and vegetables. There certainly are winter crops as well. But during those peak times, there are moments when you need the tractor a significant amount, it can be upwards of 10, 12, 13 hours. Sometimes you’re having two crews coming in – so, a daytime and nighttime crew – so, you need the tractor a significant amount during the peak times, like around harvest and during the disease pressure season of the growing season and all that. And the autonomy piece is such a massive part to that because nobody wants to do those hours. And again, it’s a dangerous job. So, if you can be in the comfort of a warm office, it just makes your life better at managing the fleets. And then also, there’s a path with this tractor to 24-hour operations. So, basically, we have a battery swap cart on the tractor. So, right now, you can swap the battery within about 10 minutes, one person, and put it right back out there. This works incredible for the farm because it’s a closed system, for the most part. Farms know where they’re going to start and where they’re going to end up, it’s going to be the same place. It’s not like where you have range anxiety with a car, when you say, “Hey, I’m driving from California to New York, where am I going to sleep tonight, where I’m going to charge my car?” Tractors always return to the same tractor barn. So, the infrastructure once built is just incredible and so easy to manage. So, you can, in theory, have basically, 19-plus hours of pure operations, which is very difficult to do with a human right now.
Ed Bernardon: In so many ways, agriculture, the things you’ve just described, the fact you’ve got the perfect rose, seem like such a great application for autonomy and certainly from sustainability standpoint for electric drive. Are there a lot of competitors out there?
Carlo Mondavi: It’s really great because when we began this, you’d go talk to the VCs and whatnot, and they’d be like, “Oh, this is a really interesting space.” But there hadn’t been any big exits of technology companies in the Ag-tech universe, and so they’re kind of like, “Ah, we don’t know about this, but we know it’s a massive space.” Now, there are several single-use-case robots, where you have these incredible technologies that are going to go out and solve weeding or harvesting or all those things. But there’s no true platform where you can get into the tractor, use it and operate it like normal tractor today. So, in Monarch, you can basically reverse hookup to your entire implement yard that your diesel tractor hooks up to. You can drive it and operate it like a normal tractor. And then on top of that, you have the autonomy. So, not just the autonomous driving but autonomous operations of all the implements. So, everything that’s hooked up to the PTO, the hydraulic pump, and there’s a new little wing-of-all electric connections for electric implements down the road. You get a lot of data connection, all that stuff. So, what we see potentially happening is a lot of these technology robots that are kind of been out there, they’re single-use-case robots, will fold their software and technology into kind of our platform system. And then their algorithms can run certain things for farmers. Think of it like an Android or an apple, you can develop apps. So, third parties can develop apps and put them on to our tractor, and then the technology – so, all the cameras – pick up all that data, and then those third parties can benefit. And the farmers, at the end of the day, are really the ones that benefit from having that data that they need, whether it’s dealing with vine health or plant health, or there’s a million little things that the data can do. It literally addresses the three big things on the on the chemical side, which is fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides – you can eliminate all those with this data, which is cool.
Ed Bernardon: Well, when people think about farm tractors, they probably think it’s a corn combine or a wheat harvest. And you’re really starting to touch on a lot of things. Certainly, you could do things like that, but also there’s going to be the spraying, there’s going to be moving bins around, providing power. And you’re going even further now like saying, “Oh, well, if there are little robotic types of devices that could be implemented.” You’re sort of creating a platform. And I want to get into that and talk a little bit about those types of things. But first, I want to talk to you about your background.
Carlo Mondavi: And I forgot to say that it’s all those things plus electric. And there’s a mix of all sorts of things out there. So, first, it’s the fully converged stack is what I should say. The farm stack.
Ed Bernardon: But that’s actually a really good point is underneath it all, the autonomy and the electric provides you those benefits that you’ve been searching for ever since you saw that monarch butterfly and started worrying about it. But it can do so much more than just harvest. And certainly, we need to talk about all the tasks, and I’m sure there’s many of them, at least in the area of growing grapes and making wine. Speaking of making wine, your grandfather, Robert Mondavi, an icon of Napa Valley. He must have been an influence. I’m sure he was. How did he influence your life to get you to where you are today?
Carlo Mondavi: So, my grandfather and I were incredibly close. He and my father, he was Dante and my influential inspiration in terms of the philosophy of life. Just an incredible individual. If you ever had a chance to meet my grandfather, you walked into an aura of just warmth and good energy. He loved life. He loved nature. He loved wine. He loved food. He loved people. So, he influenced us in such an amazing way. When he began Robert Mondavi Winery way back in the day, he was told he was crazy. He began that it was in 1966. So, in ‘65, he left my family’s old winery, Charles Krug. In ‘66, he began Robert Mondavi. And he was 53 years old, and he had this dream, he said, “We have the soil, we have the climate, we have the know-how to make wines that can sit in the company of the best wines of the world. We just have to invest in the vineyard, into our farming. And to how we care for our vineyard, we have to invest into our cellar and how we take care of our cellar and how we clean our cellar. But we have the soil, we have the climate, we know how to do this, we just have to make those investments.” And that actually is what led to him leaving my family’s old winery and beginning Robert Mondavi Winery.
Carlo Mondavi: And that dream that he had. So, he would blind people just trying to think outside of the box. And when he began, those investments came with a lot more of an expense than the normal wines coming from California. It was at a time when what he said was crazy. You asked someone at that time, “Can you make wines outside of France or Italy that can sit with the best wines in the world?” People would say, “Absolutely not.” There was no Australia, there was no Argentina. None of these really incredible wine regions around the world that there are now. He had that dream. And one of the great realizations of that was when Baron Philippe de Rothschild said – he’s one of the five First Growths of Bordeaux – “I’d like to come to California make wine with you, Robert.” And they began a project.
Ed Bernardon: And the name of that project?
Carlo Mondavi: Opus One. My father was the one behind the scenes in the cellar and in the vineyards. So, the wonderful thing about wine is right now I can open a bottle of wine from the ‘60s and the 70s, and I can think about what my grandfather was doing. So, his wines continue to inspire Dante and I to this day. And then my father was our technical viticultural technologist for my family. He still is for continuing for my family, still one of our greatest fundamental teachers. Thinking back to those wines, and he continues to inspire Dante and I on the wine side. But I think my grandfather inspired Dante, and particularly me, with his philosophy of life.
Ed Bernardon: He was always ready to try something new. He never gave up.
Carlo Mondavi: One of the testaments to that was amazing. He was the first one to use stainless steel in the wine business. And he pioneered stainless steel from the milk industry. And he said, “Right now, we don’t understand what all these different bacterias, we don’t understand what they are, we don’t know how to clean them. We don’t even know what malolactic fermentation is and how that’s happening.” This is a time when there was so much science and studying going on and the science of the cellar and fermentation. So, he said, “Well, I don’t want to inherit last year’s challenges, I want to start with a blank canvas.” So, he went to the milk industry pioneers stainless steel. I still get goosebumps when I think about this. We were at Chateau Haut-Brion, which is one of the wonderful and one of the oldest of the First Growth wineries in Bordeaux. And Jean Paul Domas said, “Robert, these tanks are here because of you.” So, my grandfather influenced this guy who was being told “You’re crazy for starting a winery that you think you can make wines and I can sit in the company –”
Ed Bernardon: Became the student.
Carlo Mondavi: Yeah, it helped change the way that so many of us make wine around the world. And he was very humble, too. He was a very sweet man. So, just the way he lived his life and the way that he considered himself a steward of the land as my father does, and Dante and I do. He was just a great visionary and a great person.
Ed Bernardon: When making wine, you put the wine in the oak barrel, it gives certain flavors that oak can impart onto the wine. However, a lot of care needs to go into those barrels, like you started to mention, different bacteria or who knows what, if you don’t take really, really good care. So, now you put it in a stainless steel tank, how do you get that oak flavor and all the flavors they have? So, there must be another part to that as well.
Carlo Mondavi: It’s such an interesting conversation because he also, back then, went to using all new oak barrels. Because again, you could start with a blank canvas and not inherit any of the bacterial problems from the vintage that might have had before because we didn’t understand microbiology at the level we do now. And so he was using a very clean blank canvas with each harvest for the best fruit. Now that we understand microbiology at a higher level, we can clean these barrels. And the one wonderful thing about oak versus stainless steel is the micro-oxygenation in the way that oak can allow for wind to age. When you have a delicate variety like Pinot Noir, for example, which my brother and I make with Raen, you use a new barrel. You have all those aldehydes like vanilla, all the spice that comes out of that wood and imparts its flavor and aromas into the juice. And for us, we spend so much time farming and we have what we consider to be California Grand Cru sites, three special sites. We farm 18.5 acres with Raen, on the Sonoma Coast. We don’t necessarily want the oak characteristic, we want the characteristic of the microflora of the vineyard and all that.
Ed Bernardon: Stainless steel is an advantage there and you have more control.
Carlo Mondavi: My grandfather went to the right path to get closer to terroir, which was to basically eliminate any potential microbiological challenge that could face. We’ve gone – now that we understand microbiology – even closer to terroir than he was able to get because we’re able to clean our barrels, we’re able to have very, very clean pure wines without the oak characteristics. The best way to think about it, Ed, would be like, you go to a Michelin three-star restaurant and they serve this unbelievable cut of fish, or this unbelievable cut of meat, or this unbelievable vegetable; they’re going to try to, nowadays – I think the best ones that I’ve been to – to minimally spice it. So, it’s what you’re tasting really is the meat or the essence. And so instead of piling on bearnaise sauce or something heavy, and drowning the flavors with the sauce. It’s the same thing with wine. So, it’s been this evolution. And that’s because we’re incredibly proud of our site. So, when you get into wines that might not have maybe the great terroir and a great care, oak is a great way to mask anything that might not be perfect. So, using a lot of new oak, for example. Or in the event which you were saying, you could put oak chips into a stainless steel tank and do things like that, which are practices we don’t do. Unfortunately, right now we’re very small and we get to play with just the best fruit. But there’s a whole range of winemaking that exists out there.
Ed Bernardon: It must have been great growing up and pioneer like that, it gets you all ready to go start your own Raen vineyard. And in fact, one of the reasons you went to the Sonoma Coast is you like to surf. You’re also a professional snowboarder. You started a line of skincare products made from grapes. How does a surfing snowboarding skincare specialist transition from that back to making wine? Because I’m sure you start off when you were young with your grandfather walking in the vineyard, tasting grapes. I don’t know, it sounds great – snowboarding and surfing. But then you’ve switched back.
Carlo Mondavi: I knew from a young age that I wanted to make wine and be in the wine business. I knew from when I was seven years old. And it was one of those things where I don’t know what my grandfather and father did. But I knew I wanted to do what they do. And then every single year as I worked in the vineyard yard, and I worked in the vineyard, and then I worked in the cellar; I kept confirming that that’s what I wanted to do. Meanwhile, on the side, I grew up in an area where skateboarding, I was skateboarding in Napa and Sonoma, surfing on the Sonoma Coast. And then eventually began snowboarding. And I just loved being outdoors. We have great surf spots in the Sonoma Coast. It’s really cold water and a little bit more off the beaten path than some of the point breaks you find like in Southern California or around the world. But it’s one of the most beautiful places to surf. I think it’s incredible. And you’re surrounded by beautiful little valleys and little areas where they just make some of the best wine in the world. It’s a special place.
Ed Bernardon: I want to get back to your tractor and the technology but how do you make a skincare product from grapes or grape leaves? How did you get an idea to do that?
Carlo Mondavi: Well, that came from a friend of mine who was a professional snowboarder, actually. We went on a surf trip to Indonesia and to the Mentawai islands. This is a long story. But I was with Bob Hurley, one of my sponsors at the time. We’d started clothing and we had a group of surfers and snowboarders that went on this incredible trip. It was just like an amazing trip. And my friend Josh, who’s an incredible entrepreneur and a brilliant guy. So, we had this waste at the winery. You take the skins and seeds and pumice and all that. At the time we were getting rid of it, now we use it for compost, Dante and I use it for compost. But it was kind of this polyphenol-rich, antioxidant-rich, beautiful kind of material. And so I met up with a friend of mine, Josh, who’s this incredible guy, and just said, “How about we do something with this?”. I’m no longer involved in any of that but I just was kind of the guy who was able to help come up with some of the ingredients because I was in the cellar with every harvest and just said, “Hey, here you go.”
Ed Bernardon: Yeah, see what you could do with this?
Carlo Mondavi: Yeah, not deeply involved.
Ed Bernardon: It doesn’t turn your skin purple or anything like that, of course?
Carlo Mondavi: During winemaking, my hands just lost the layer of crust of all the beautiful tannins and all that. But no in a skincare kind of thing, I don’t think that that’s what people want.
Ed Bernardon: So, your current winery and vineyard, you have with your brother, Raen. Where did that name come from? Interesting name.
Carlo Mondavi: So, it’s a longer story, but it came from a story that my dad – my father, Tim – told my brothers and sisters and I when we were little. And when we were little if you go to the winery, that was our hiding and go-seek kind of playground. So, tanks and all sorts of stuff. And you see all these things, forklifts and it’s larger than life, I literally thought that we had a laboratory and all this stuff. And so I felt like we were closer to NASA than to how natural wine is; lab coats and all. My dad told me that as the story, he said, “You guys realize that wine is the most natural beverage you can have, that the alchemy or miracle of water becoming wine happens every year in the vineyards.” And he told us a story of rain becoming wine. And he said, “If you think about it; rain falls in the fields, filters through the rocks, the vine strength, the sun sweetens it. And then on the outside of the grape, there’s this wax that collects the native yeast that’s floating through the air. So, it collects all of the different microflora – so, the resin from the flowers, the grasses, the trees, the dirt, all of that which we call a terroir, all that sticks to the that that wax and creates the bloom. And within the bloom, it’s loaded with native yeast. There are over 50,000 individual yeast cells on that wax. And so if you do nothing at all, and we see this every year, it will bite the grape up, and a bird pecks it up, and the juice mixes with the skin sugar plus yeast cells alcohol right there without intervention, rain becomes wine.”
Carlo Mondavi: And then Dante and I, when we began Raen, we knew we wanted to farm as permaculture and biodynamics and go beyond organic and really push the limit of where we can go in terms of farming within the forest and not having edges, just have it flow through. And so the unique spelling, R-A-E-N, was something that we tried to come up with a way to express what we were doing. R -A-E-N, stands for dedication to Research in Agriculture and Enology Naturally. So, all of our wines are natively fermented. We don’t add yeast. We don’t allow yeast in the winery. We don’t fine, we don’t filter. And we went with A for Agriculture instead of V for Viticulture, because we believe in kind of a polyculture or we believe in biodiversity. And this is how we’re going to save our planet too is biodiversity. When we start seeing a loss of life is when we are on that timeline. And biodiversity is going to be in plant life, and in organism life, and all those things. Biodiversity is how we’re going to save this planet. And so we wanted to make sure that we talked about biodiversity, and that we stressed biodiversity, and that we had an incredibly diverse farm. So, we’re a little bit doing some really fun things, but it’s been an incredible journey with Raen.
Ed Bernardon: I like that description of the Mondavi vineyards and your father’s vineyard was in Napa Valley, and the lab coats, you’re describing and all that. And then you make the transition to Sonoma, go a little bit more natural. And for those out there, there’s Napa and Sonoma County, they’re right next to each other. It’s the wine county of Northern California. And they have different personalities. I’ve been there. I spent most of my time, when I visit, in Sonoma. And it does have a more laid-back, more relaxed feel to it. I saw a t-shirt there once was and it said, “Sonoma makes wine, and Napa makes auto parts.” And for our international listeners, Napa is an auto parts store, a very famous auto parts store. Is there any truth to that?
Carlo Mondavi: Yeah, I’m just sorry because whoever made that is a phenomenal comedian. But no, that’s just… I mean, there’s NAPA Auto Parts, but Napa Valley…
Ed Bernardon: It is a different feel though, from Napa to Sonoma, I think a little bit, would you say?
Carlo Mondavi: I think they are so different in their terroir and what they deliver in terms of what’s in the bottle. My father and my grandfather began continuing up on Pritchard Hill, it is an incredibly diverse area. So, also going back, we no longer own Robert Mondavi Winery. We sold Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004. It’s a long story. Turned out to be, I think, the best thing that could have happened to my family because my grandfather was around to begin continuing with my father Tim. It’s a family project upon Pritchard Hill. But we stopped making anything but that one wine. And so Dante and I, I went to college at France, worked in Burgundy. My brother, Dante, is a crazy Pinot Noir guy. My dad is a crazy Pinot guy and my grandfather. So, finally, in 2013, we went to the Sonoma Coast. And we went to the Sonoma Coast because, first off, right in front of where our vineyards are is one of the deepest and coolest channels of water on the planet. It’s just this incredible, fresh, cool body of water that creates an incredibly cool climate that you can ripen Pinot Noir in. You could ripen Cabernet there but it would have a totally different characteristic than it does in Napa Valley. And there are parts of Sonoma, by the way, it’s one of the amazing things about Sonoma is that you can have areas that ripe in Syrah, Cabernet, because as you get closer to – because it does share a property line like you were saying – it gets warmer that is more ideally suited for thicker-skinned, later ripening varieties. And then the true coast out there where it’s very cool is more ideal for thin-skinned, earlier ripening varieties. But they’re very different terroirs. They’re very different sites. And so you get really into the depths of the artistry of wine. But in terms of vibes, there’s a really cool young scene happening in Napa right now, which is, I think, injecting a lot of really cool energy into what’s going on. And same with the Sonoma Coast, there’s a lot of really cool young winemakers making some just incredible stuff. So, both areas are really exciting, just slightly different.
Ed Bernardon: And equal skills in making auto parts or selling them, I guess, right?
Carlo Mondavi: Yeah. That’s hilarious.
Ed Bernardon: Carlo, as always, we finish with our rapid-fire section, which is a set of real quick question with quick answers. And are you ready to go?
Carlo Mondavi: Sure am.
Ed Bernardon: What was the first car you ever bought or owned?
Carlo Mondavi: I always had hand-me-down cars. My family was very much a hand-me-down kind of a family. So, I had the third used car from my mom, then my sister, then my older sister, and then me. But the first thing I bought that was really cool, that I was pumped on was actually a motorcycle. 2004 Dinah’s SuperGlide Harley Davidson. I still have it. I love it.
Ed Bernardon: Did you pass your driver’s test on the first try?
Carlo Mondavi: No, actually, I did not. It’s funny. It was a weird turn lane and I totally blew it. I was so embarrassed. but I got it the second time.
Ed Bernardon: Did you ever get a speeding ticket on that motorcycle?
Carlo Mondavi: No, not on the motorcycle. I’ve been lucky there.
Ed Bernardon: On the tractor?
Carlo Mondavi: No, not on the tractor. Thankfully, jeez! That’d be scary. The Monarch, we had to put a governor on it because it could go really fast.
Ed Bernardon: On the Future Car Podcast, we always talk about the living room on wheels, which is if it’s fully autonomous, you don’t have to drive; you can do whatever you want. So, you’re on a five-hour trip. You’re on your living room on wheels. What do you have in your living room on wheels?
Carlo Mondavi: Well, of course, if it’s autonomous and you’re not driving, you have to have a little wine cellar. So, some delicious bottles of wine, maybe it’s as casual as some bread and cheese, or maybe it’s something that you’re diving into. But I do think that’s so cool; being able to enjoy a glass of wine and have an autonomous EV. If that happens, I think that it would be something with wine, great wine.
Ed Bernardon: What person – living or not – would you want to spend that five-hour car ride with?
Carlo Mondavi: Oh, that’d be my grandfather. We were really, really close. And you never get to spend enough time with someone who’s influenced you like my grandfather influenced me. So, I would definitely, maybe my grandfather.
Ed Bernardon: If you had a time machine, and you could go back in time to your 12-year-old self, what advice would you give to the 12-year-old Carlo?
Carlo Mondavi: I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. And my life has been anything but easy. All the challenges and stuff that I’ve done that’s been stupid has led to where I am now. So, I wouldn’t want to give myself any advice that would alter where I’ve come to at this point. There’s a ton of things I would say.
Ed Bernardon: Top one. You could only give them one piece of advice, what would it be?
Carlo Mondavi: I think it would be what my grandfather always told me, which is just to follow your heart and soul and keep being you, which is essentially what my grandfather told me; pour your heart and soul into whatever you do in life. A lot of the teachings my grandfather taught me are exactly what I tell myself and I already knew around that age. He’d always say, “Common sense is uncommon.” “The greatest risk you can take in life is not taking a risk at all.” All of those things. He molded the greatest advice I’ve ever gotten and the same advice I’d give myself.
Ed Bernardon: That’s part 1 of our talk with Carlo Mondavi, join us again for part 2 where Carlo explains the technology behind Monarch’s electric, autonomous tractor. And as always for more information about Siemens Digital Industries Software, make sure to visit us at plm.automation.siemens.com. And until next time, I’m Ed Bernardon, and this has been the Future Car Podcast.
Carlo Mondavi- Guest, Chief Farming Officer Monarch Tractor
Carlo is Chief Farming Officer of Monarch Tractor. An expert viticulturist with experience in Organic, Biodynamic, and Permaculture Farming. He is a fourth generation winegrower from the world-renowned Mondavi family and is co-founder of Raen Winery, as well as a partner at Continuum Estate. Carlo is the co-founder of the Monarch Challenge, an effort focused on elevating farming by eliminating herbicides and powerful chemicals from farms in Sonoma, Napa and beyond. The Monarch Challenge is the namesake of Monarch Tractor.
Ed Bernardon, Vice President Strategic Automotive Initiatives – Host
Ed is currently VP Strategic Automotive Initiatives at Siemens Digital Industries Software. Responsibilities include strategic planning and business development in areas of design of autonomous/connected vehicles, lightweight automotive structures and interiors. He is also responsible for Future Car thought leadership which includes hosting the Future Car Podcast and development of cross divisional projects. Previously he was a founding member of VISTAGY that developed light-weight structure and automotive interior design software acquired by Siemens in 2011, he previously directed the Automation and Design Technology Group at MIT Draper Laboratory. Ed holds an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, B.S. in mechanical engineering from Purdue, and MBA from Butler.
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The Future Car Podcast
Transportation plays a big part in our everyday life and with autonomous and electric cars, micro-mobility and air taxis to name a few, mobility is changing at a rate never before seen. On the Siemens Future Car Podcast we interview industry leaders creating our transportation future to inform our listeners in an entertaining way about the evolving mobility landscape and the people that are helping us realize it. Guests range from C-Level OEM executives, mobility startup founders/CEO’s, pioneers in AI law, Formula 1 drivers and engineers, Smart Cities architects, government regulators and many more. Tune in to learn what will be in your mobility future.