Historic vintages from the Napa Valley’s oldest winery

The entrance to the historic Charles Krug Winery in the Napa Valley. (Photo courtesy of Charles Krug Winery)

Charles Krug Winery, founded in 1861 by the man of the same name, is the oldest winery in the Napa Valley (although it hasn’t operated continuously). Its “modern” history – if you can call it that – started 75 years ago, with the winery’s acquisition by Cesare and Rosa Mondavi.

The Mondavis had come to the Napa Valley from Sassoferrato, Italy, by way of Minnesota, then Lodi. They bought Charles Krug in 1943. Their son Peter made the wine; Peter’s older (and ultimately more famous) brother Robert handled sales and marketing. But an infamous family feud resulted in Robert being kicked out of the business in 1965, and he ultimately went on to found his own eponymous winery.

Peter Mondavi Sr. made some important contributions to California winemaking. (Photo courtesy of Charles Krug Winery)

Peter, meanwhile, was making important contributions to California winemaking, even as he maintained a much more low-key image. He experimented with cold fermentation of white wines and sterile filtration of slightly sweet wines. And he was among the first vintners, in the early 1960s, to bring French barrels to California.

Peter died in 2016 at the age of 101. When I interviewed him in 2011, in connection with the 150th anniversary of the winery’s founding, he was still going to work every day at the age of 97, although his sons, Peter Jr. and Marc, had taken over day-to-day operations. Even as many of the valley’s other early wineries (as well as Robert Mondavi Winery) fell into corporate hands, Charles Krug remained in the family. According to a statement released by the family when Peter died, the patriarch said that maintaining family control of Charles Krug was his proudest accomplishment.

Peter Mondavi Jr. is co-proprietor of Charles Krug Winery. (Photo courtesy of Charles Krug Winery)

In the early 1980s, the line “Peter Mondavi Family” was added to the Charles Krug labels, emphasizing the family connection. And now the fourth generation is getting involved in the business.

The winery’s flagship has always been a cabernet sauvignon called Vintage Selection. Historically, it was made in about seven out of 10 vintages, and it used to be a blend of the best lots of cabernet in the winery. Now, the wine comes from the best blocks in the winery’s best vineyards (mostly in Yountville). Because of that approach, it’s made more often now, according to Peter Jr.

The surest way to get me to make the trek to the Napa Valley is to promise a tasting of old vintages. In this case, the tasting of nine vintages started with the 1964 Vintage Selection. I found it to be fascinating – a little earthy, with sweet red fruit, smoke, celery seed, a hint of soy sauce and silky texture. Sometimes a wine that old can fall apart quickly in the glass, but this one held up.

The 1964, 1966 and 1974 F-1 Vintage Selection cabs.

Even better was the 1966 Vintage Selection. It had a little more structure than the ’64, as well as great elegance. Flavors ranged from red fruit to hazelnut to anise seed. (I had also tasted the 1966 back in 2011 with Peter Sr. and Jr., and it showed no signs of decline since then.)

The 1974 F-1 Vintage Selection offered slightly caramelized fruit, some earthiness and fine tannins. There were two Vintage Selections made in 1974; the F-1 designation refers to a bottling made from the Fay Vineyard in the Stags Leap District.

The 1983 Vintage Selection is still incredibly youthful tasting, with darker fruit and tannins that are still substantial. The 1991 is dense, dark and savory; it could actually use a bit more time. The 1998 – from a vintage that was widely panned – was excellent, with dark, spicy fruit, notes of black olive and meat and firm tannins. Peter Jr. said that he’s found that the 1998 will often prevail over the more highly regarded 1996 and 1997 vintages in a blind tasting.

The 2003 Vintage Selection is still quite tight and tannic, with black fruit and an iodine note. Then we jumped ahead to the 2015, which will be released in November. The wine is dark, dense and almost purple, with ripe, dark fruit and a lot of oak. It tasted like a big departure from the more elegant style of the earlier vintages, and not just because it’s so young. None of the earlier vintages had exceeded 14 percent alcohol; the 2015 checks in at 15.8.

The wine prompted a lot of discussion among the tasting attendees. Peter Jr. – who said, “We’re not advocates of high alcohol” — and Stacy Clark, winemaker since 2011, argued that the wine represented more of an evolution than a departure. But since we didn’t taste any of the intervening vintages since 2003, that’s difficult to assess. I did taste the 2008 Vintage Selection during my 2011 visit, and it was bigger and riper than the older bottlings, but it was still more restrained than the 2015. The 2015 Vintage Selection, it seems to me, is more emblematic of the direction of many Napa Valley cabs, so it certainly will have its fans.

We also tasted a barrel sample of the 2016, which is big, dense and concentrated but fairly primary at this point.

For Charles Krug’s 75th anniversary, the winery is putting together 75 three-packs that will include the 1974, 1991 and 2003 Vintage Selection for sale later this year. These older wines are a treat. Watch the winery’s website for more details.