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A Mondavi branches out to water witching

Marc Mondavi is part of California's wine aristocracy — and he swears by his ability to find water using divining rods. Russell Yip/Chronicle photo

By
January 03, 2013 |

By Stacy Finz

Marc Mondavi is standing in the middle of his vineyard, talking to two copper rods.

“Find water,” he tells them as he walks slowly down a row of vines holding the rods pointed in front of him. As if possessed, the rods start moving until they cross over one another. “Here,” he says. “Here’s where the water is.”

Yeah, right. The first thing that comes to mind is summer sleepovers with a Ouija board and the power of suggestion. It’s his vineyard, after all — of course, he knows where the water is. And isn’t the whole woo-woo thing a little undignified for a descendant of California wine royalty — not to mention the vice president of Charles Krug Winery?

Try telling that to grape growers in Northern California, who repeatedly call on Mondavi to seek out water for their industrial- size wells.

“I don’t know how he does it, and I’m not going to learn,” said John Franzia, whose Bronco Wine Co. in Ceres grows 40,000 acres of grapes and makes Charles Shaw’s Two-Buck Chuck and 59 other popular wine brands. “But I’m a believer because I have water.”

Franzia has 300 wells on his various properties, and Mondavi told him where to drill several of them. Rombauer Vineyards, maker of a famous Chardonnay, uses him. Patriarch Koerner Rombauer even had rods custom-created for Mondavi. When Carmen Policy, former president and CEO of the San Francisco 49ers, bought property in Yountville contingent on finding water, Mondavi was called in. He found a gusher.

Mysterious ability

He’s a bona fide water witch — someone who can find groundwater without the use of science. It’s also known as water dowsing, divining or doodlebugging. Often, dowsers use forked willow, peach or witch hazel branches as divining rods.

It is speculated that there are thousands of dowsers operating in the United States, according to the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey, the federal agency responsible for assessing the quantity and quality of the nation’s surface and groundwater.

There’s no scientific evidence to support the practice — in fact, most science experiments to determine its authenticity have concluded that dowsers find water no better than the rate of chance. Still, people throughout rural America hire water witches — sometimes instead of geologists, sometimes in conjunction with them — to find the best place to dig a well.

The U.S. Geological Survey is lukewarm about the practice, warning, “No single technique suffices to locate favorable water well sites. Some water exists under the Earth’s surface almost everywhere,” according to the agency. “This explains why many dowsers are successful.”

Although the history is unclear, some experts say the practice started in Germany in the 15th century and was used to ferret out metals. By the 16th century, dowsing was derided as satanic. And in the 17th century, the method was used in the south of France to somehow hunt down criminals — a practice no longer recommended.

One would never know Mondavi is a water witch by looking at him. The 58-year-old wears Wranglers and cowboy boots and drives a pickup truck. His office walls are covered with the heads of animals, ones he shot and ate — no voodoo involved.

Then, there’s the whole Mondavi issue.

His late uncle, Robert, arguably put California wine on the map, and his 98-year-old father, Peter, is the man behind Charles Krug Winery. The winery was established in 1861 and is believed to be one of the first in the area. Marc’s grandfather acquired Charles Krug in 1943, and the Mondavis have kept it a family business ever since.

“My dad is still president and CEO, and will be until we put him 6 feet under,” Marc Mondavi said.

But he and his brother, Peter Jr., are responsible for the day-to-day operation. In addition, Marc Mondavi has released the Divining Rod label, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay that celebrate his powers as a diviner.

The spirit came to him in high school when he was dating a girl whose father was a water witch. “He must have seen something or felt something in me, because he grabbed me,” Mondavi recalled.

Recruited to the calling

Soon, Mondavi was standing in fields or on farms, trying to find water. Although he had tapped into the dowsing spirit, he hadn’t quite refined the prowess to make accurate predictions.

“You have it or don’t,” he said, estimating that 50 to 60 percent of the population are capable of dowsing but don’t know it. Three of his four adult daughters have water divining skills, he said. “If you have it, you have to take time to develop it.”

Frank Wood, a vineyard manager and renowned Napa Valley water witch, took him under his wing. Before Wood died, he taught Mondavi everything he knew. Mondavi dowsed the eight wells on Charles Krug’s various vineyards. After a lot of practice, he’s not only able to pinpoint where an underground stream is, but he can tell how far down it is and, to a good degree, predict how many gallons of water will pump a minute, Mondavi said.

“To see it is to believe it,” said Jim Davis, the facilities manager at Rombauer. “It’s not a bunch of smoke and mirrors.”

Davis said he needed a new well for the Rombauer winery in St. Helena, so he called Mondavi. They sat on the porch drinking Merlot with Koerner Rombauer; then Mondavi grabbed his rods and said, “Let’s go.”

They walked the property for about an hour and Mondavi pointed out three different places, finally choosing the one he expected to be the best — 150 gallons of water a minute, more than 600 feet down.

It took 680 feet to be exact, and Rombauer got 150 gallons, Davis said. “I would’ve been happy with 50 gallons.”

Davis estimates that it would have cost $100,000 to bring in a geologist. He got Mondavi for the price of wine. “We drank quite a few bottles together,” he said.

Before Wood died, Mondavi used to water-witch for free, mostly as a favor to his friends and associates. Now, he charges $10 per gallon-a-minute pump flow. So if he predicts that the site he’s chosen will produce 50 gallons of water a minute, and it does, the charge will be $500.

Drilling an agricultural well is an expensive endeavor, typically costing $250,000 in the San Joaquin Valley, Franzia said.

Better track record

“Before we spend that kind of money, we want to make sure there is water there,” he said. “And it turns out that the guys with the rods have a better track record than the guys with all the equipment. So that’s why we’ll call Marc, or one of the other water witches in the valley.”

But Franzia is a pragmatist.

“All that stuff about predicting exactly how many gallons of water a minute is down there, well, that’s a little hokey,” Franzia said. “I don’t buy into that part of it. But as long as I know there’s water down there, I can drill.”

To hedge his bets, Franzia said he’ll start with a test well — costing only about $25,000 — to make sure there is actually water. He has yet to be disappointed, he said.

When Mondavi witched Policy’s Yountville property, the former football executive, as well as the neighbors, remained dubious, he said.

“Carmen saw me walking the land with my rods and said, ‘I think you hit your head too many times,’ ” Mondavi said. “I found the spot and predicted that he’d get 150 gallons a minute. The neighbor came over, saying, ‘There’s not a well within 2 miles that’s more than 30 gallons.’ ”

The well pumps 180 gallons a minute. Mondavi still laughs about it.

— Reach Stacy Finz at sfinz@sfchronicle.com

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