Peter Mondavi Jr. Talks Of Napa Valley Wines And The Future

Food & Drink

Vineyard in Napa Valley

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While on a recent river cruise along the Gironde Estuary in the Bordeaux region of southern France, Peter Mondavi Jr. visited the town of Blaye (pronounced bl-IE) on the right bank of the wine country. We met there and sat on the porch of La Cave Wine Bar to share glasses and conversation. Mondavi was able to provide insights into how Napa Valley in California has changed over time, and the differences between ‘new world’ and ‘old world’ wines.

Peter (together with his brother Marc) is a third-generation co-proprietor of Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley in California. The grandson of Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, he has a degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University as well as an MBA. Charles Krug includes nine estate vineyards on 850 acres (344 hectares) within Napa Valley, and produces wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Peter’s father (Peter Mondavi Sr.) and his uncle (Robert) had worked together and separately in wine businesses, both of which helped to establish the reputation of Napa Valley wines throughout the world.

In 1860, a man named Charles Krug married Carolina Bale of Napa Valley. Her dowry included 540 acres (218 hectares) of land. Krug produced wines from vineyards on this property and founded the St. Helena Viticultural Association. The future owner of this winery, Cesare Mondavi, was born in Italy and moved to the U.S. He made his fortune during Prohibition when alcohol sales were banned, but families were legally allowed to produce a limited quantity of wine for personal consumption. Mondavi shipped grapes from California to the Midwest and to eastern U.S. states, selling them to families eager to make their own cottage vintages.

While we enjoyed glasses of Mondavi’s Charles Krug Generations wine on the porch, Peter shared the story of how such crates of grapes—packed in ice—were sent east from California via rail cars.

The train would go to Minnesota, and Virginia. The rail car would pull up to a siding and open its sliding doors and they’d sell 40 pound [18 kilogram] boxes of grapes to Italians right out of the car. Families in towns knew when the rail car was showing up. They’d get their boxes to make homemade wine. During Prohibition you could produce four barrels—200 gallons—at home as long as you were inconspicuous and did not sell it. Despite a lack of education, my grandfather turned into an entrepreneur and became very successful. He saw the business potential. That provided the family exposure to winemaking. He’d begun shipping in 1919, and in 1922 he moved from Minnesota to Lodi in California. This was the center of the vegetable, fruit and packing industry—part of the Central Valley of California, the breadbasket where everything was growing, grapes included. He built up a very vibrant business shipping grapes to the whole northeast part of the United States during Prohibition.

One of the labels for grapes was called Valley Beauty. We still own that label and license it to a grape picker in Lodi. Same place. They ship about 25,000 boxes a year of grapes to home winemakers, because that activity has become quite sophisticated in the United States.

In 1943 the Mondavi family took over the Krug Ranch and Charles Krug brand, and the next year produced their first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1943 the winery was marginally operational, and in very poor condition. It required a tremendous amount of re-work. It was during World War Two, so the reconstruction process was challenging because of the availability of building materials, and labor. My father was in the war, stationed in England. My uncle was not because medical conditions kept him out. So, Robert stayed and refurbished the winery and built it up. Back then there were less than a dozen wineries in Napa Valley altogether. They would all help each other. It was a big struggle. The other thing was the U.S. consumer, especially on the west coast of the United States, was not sophisticated in the least bit. Until the 1960’s, sweet and fortified wines were the predominant wines sold in the United States. Traditional dry still wines, like we have here, really were not part of the business. It was a big, big education. We started what are called ‘tastings on the lawn.’ We have this big lawn area, and would have several hundred people.

By the end of the century, Peter Mondavi Sr. undertook a massive replanting project focused on red Bordeaux grape varieties. A dozen years later their winery was generating its own electricity using more than 4,000 solar panels. Today the winery is recognized as the oldest in Napa Valley, and the site of the valley’s first tasting room.

Peter Mondavi Jr. enjoys a glass of his Charles Krug wine in La Cave Wine Bar in Blaye, Bordeaux

Tom Mullen

Peter spoke about challenges that Napa wineries now face—including climate, distribution and heritage.

Some of these challenges are shared around the world. Climate change and how that’s going to affect us. We’re addressing the extremes of weather today, and tomorrow, and next year. Thirty, forty years, the next generation, that could be a different question which we don’t have an answer to at this point. But that’s many years, or decades, in the future.

The United States has a very different distribution system of wines than Europe, and the EU. And it’s consolidating. So there are fewer and fewer distributors selling more and more wines. We’ll have a distributor in a major state such as Florida, California or New York that could have ten to fifteen thousand selections of different wine bottles they have to sell. So we’ve lost, or are losing, the personal touch through the distribution network. We now have to become more proactive and, through our sales people, add that personal touch.

In the wine industry, you don’t think of the next quarter or year, but the next generation. That’s the mentality that allows you to continue in the industry. Bordeaux can relate to family transitions to the next generation. I’m third generation now passing it onto the fourth generation. In California it’s extremely rare to have that many generations working. It’s a great thing. The laws impact us in the United States through inheritance tax. So, can you pass it along, or do you have to sell it to cover the taxes associated with that gifting? My dad did a brilliant job of estate planning. It’s well into the fourth generation, and then will concern the fifth generation, which does not exist yet.

Grape vines in Napa Valley, California.

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He next spoke of satisfactions the industry brings, as well as changes to Napa Valley.

The biggest satisfaction is interacting with those who enjoy our wines, and talking about them and socializing with them. Being in this business brings you together with wonderful, interesting, inquisitive people. It brings you to areas of great culinary exposure, and when you travel to wine regions around the world, grapes typically grow in very beautiful areas.

I was born and raised in Napa Valley. It’s changed very dramatically. When I was a young child, fine dining did not exist. There was maybe at most a dozen vintners in the area and we all knew each other. We would go to each other’s homes for dinners, because there wasn’t a restaurant to go to. We would help everybody out, which still happens. But today, we have world class restaurants, such as in Bordeaux.

There was virtually no traffic. We lived in the town of Saint Helena and the winery was on the edge of town, probably three miles from our house. We had a dog, Fritz, who would commute every day from our house to the winery, walking or running three miles and crossing Highway 29. No problem. Today, it would not make it across Highway 29 alive.

Instead of less than a dozen, I think we have—at the last count—475 wineries. And the tourism business is very robust, with a lot of visitors around Napa Valley.

Now we have great restaurants, beautiful scenery, and a lot of traffic that has come with that. One of the big challenges now is the quality of life for locals, and our employees. It’s become very, very expensive to live in Napa Valley. Many of our employees live outside—maybe in Sonoma County or in the Fairfield area adjacent to Napa Valley—and commute in, which adds to traffic.

And the future for Charles Krug Winery?

One hundred percent family owned—first and foremost.

I don’t think we make good partnerships, so it’s either all owned or not owned at all. We’re determined to have the next generation come in and carry it on for subsequent generations and continue to make and improve upon some great Napa Valley wines.

We are absolutely passionate about the wine business. Of course, financially we have to survive and be successful. However, when you get into partnerships or corporations—the driving and motivating factor there is financial. Profit. Quarterly or annual profits. In the wine business, we think that to produce a great wine and be successful you have to have generational views. All the wine families in Europe understand that. That’s what we’re striving for. We’ve been around as a family at Charles Krug winery in Napa Valley since 1943. Now in the fourth generation. We’re only one of three wineries that go that far back in Napa Valley. I think we have strong roots in the old world. My grandparents came from Italy. Our two kids hold Italian passports. My son lives in Italy, and has been working there for two years in Bologna. We have strong ties to the old world and I think that philosophy carries over into our winery philosophy in Napa Valley.

This picture of Peter Mondavi Sr. was taken in 2009. He passed away in 2016 at age 101

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Mondavi then spoke about the 2015 Charles Krug Generations Family Reserve wine we drank, and about differences between ‘old world’ and ‘new world’ wines.

Generations is a proprietary blend. We refer to it as a Bordeaux blend, only from the varieties that are in it, not on the style. 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the rest Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Of course, those percentages change from year to year. Stylistically, it’s more representative of new world wines than old world wines. It’s a beautiful kind of counterpart to the wines here. It’s an elegant, pretty wine.

On a very high level, ‘new world’ wines tend to emphasize more fruit characteristics. Cabernets and blends like this one—you think more of black fruits, blackberries and blueberries. That’s what you really detect first in the wine. ‘Old world’ wines tend to—I’ll use the French term terroir—have more earth notes, spice notes, herbal characteristics in a beautiful way. Tannins tend to be a little bit drier, I think. ‘New world’ tannins can be a little more abrupt at times, although not in the Generations we’re having.

Those are some high-level differences. It’s not that we vinify that way, and make it that way. It is the reflection of where we are—again going to the French term—the terroir. We will not be able to duplicate a Bordeaux wine, nor will Bordeaux be able to duplicate a Napa Valley wine, even though they are dealing with the same varieties. It’s truly an expression of the place that differentiates the two styles of wine.

We finished our glasses and Peter departed to Bourg to re-join the cruise, and to continue exploring Bordeaux vintages.

 

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