Remembering Peter Mondavi Sr.

Monday brought the sad news that Napa Valley pioneer Peter Mondavi Jr. had died over the weekend at the age of 101. Mondavi was the patriarch of the family that owns the Charles Krug Winery, which his parents bought in 1943.

Peter Mondavi Sr. (Courtesy of Charles Krug Winery)
Peter Mondavi Sr. (Courtesy of Charles Krug Winery)

Cesare and Rosa Mondavi had planned for their sons, Peter and Robert, to run the venerable winery, founded in 1861, once Peter got out of the military. The rest of the story is well-known: Peter made the wine and Robert sold it, until escalating tensions resulted in an infamous fight between the brothers. Robert was ejected from the business and started Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966. Peter continued quietly at Krug. Even as many of the valley’s other early wineries (as well as Robert’s eponymous winery) fell into corporate hands, Charles Krug has remained in the family. According to a statement released by the family, Peter said that maintaining family control of Charles Krug was his proudest accomplishment.

As the years went by, Peter was often in the shadow of his charismatic, more famous brother, who died in 2008. But Peter was an influential figure in his own right. He experimented with cold fermentation of white wines and sterile filtration. And he was among the first vintners, in the early 1960s, to bring French barrels to California.

I interviewed Peter Mondavi when Charles Krug was celebrating its 150th anniversary. He was 97 then, but seemed to still have abundant energy. Although his sons, Peter Jr. and Marc, had taken over day-to-day duties, Dad still went to work every day. (He finally retired when he turned 100.)

We stood at a tasting bar and sampled a few wines together. After about 20 minutes, I apologized that we were still standing and asked whether he wanted to sit down. (I know that I did.) But he said he was fine, and we continued our conversation – still standing. I had been told that I would have 10 or 15 minutes with him – I don’t recall the exact details – but we spent more than half an hour, tasting and chatting.

While we tasted, Peter mused about the more powerful style of cabernet that’s so popular now in the Napa Valley. “I call them cocktail wines,” he said. “They’re certainly not a dinner wine. … When you have a nice dinner, you want a wine that is drinkable but won’t overpower it.” He told me that he still drank wine every day, but “at my age, naturally, you have to watch it.”

During my visit, we shared tastes of the 1966 and 1974 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignons. The wines had aged remarkably well – nearly as well as the man who made them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *