Charles Krug Winery, a Family Affair

What are your favorite childhood memories? Do they have anything to do with your current job? In a conversation with Peter Mondavi, Jr., co-proprietor of Charles Krug Winery, he reminisced about doing odd jobs around the winery in the mid-60s when he was 8 years old. His grandmother lived on the property, and after a long morning of work Peter would come home to her house to a lunch feast of homemade pasta, roasted chicken and other delights. He also remembers celebrating Easter at the winery with his cousins. One year they held an Easter egg hunt in the bottling line because it was raining outside. During the following days, unfound eggs turned up in cases of wine and in other unexpected places. 

Fond family memories have turned into celebrated family accomplishments. California Governor Jerry Brown has proclaimed September 10 “Charles Krug Winery Day.” This isn’t because Gov. Brown is angling for a free tasting and a private tour of the venerable winery. No, it’s in honor of the 150th anniversary of the starting point for Napa Valley wine and the advances that Founder Charles Krug and later, Peter Mondavi Sr., have brought to the industry. They’ll celebrate the proclamation and the anniversary with a big bash on the winery lawn, pouring library wine for guests on Saturday, September 10.

Founded in 1861, Charles Krug Winery is the first commercial winery in Napa Valley. The Mondavi family has owned it since 1943 when Cesare and Rosa Mondavi bought it and took it out of the post-prohibition moth balls. Peter Mondavi Sr. has been at the helm since 1966, a year after a nasty spat with his brother Robert Mondavi led to his departure from Charles Krug to found his own winery down the road. Peter Sr., who will turn 97 in November, still comes to work every day, but he has turned over the day-to-day operation to Peter Jr. and his brother Marc. Now some of the fourth generation Mondavis are joining the party.   

In an era of when the wine industry is dominated by corporations consolidating smaller holdings, the independent family winery has gone the way of the cassette tape. The way of life is slowly eroding away. How do the Mondavis continue to succeed as a family venture? Peter tells me, “It’s in our blood. We love it. It’s a wonderful lifestyle. I love wine-making and everything that goes around it: The great people, the great food. Having a legacy of family is important. Maintaining a family winery ownership is a priority over all else. It’s a priority over profits and everything.”

A sesquicentennial celebration is a great indication that the blood line commitments are working.

One of the fun things they are doing to celebrate the 150th anniversary is a search for the oldest bottle of Charles Krug wine. One of the oldest bottles submitted on the winery Facebook page is from 1947. Can you imagine what one of the pre-prohibition, pre-Mondavi wines might taste like? Back then Napa Valley was dominated by different varietals like Muscatel and other sweet wines. The original grapes were mission grapes, and not Bordeaux blends despite the significant European influence, of pioneers such as Charles Krug and Gustave Niebaum.

Not only have the varietals evolved, but so have the technology of wine production and the viticulture. Krug was an innovator in 1861, introducing a cider press to crush grapes instead of crushing with feet. Peter Mondavi Sr. pioneered temperature controlled fermentation that is now a standard. He also introduced the first barrel aging in Napa in 1968. The vineyards root stock has changed dramatically, with vines tailored for specific soils and micro-climates. In addition, vine density has increased three-fold and pruning techniques have improved.

More recently the winery has undergone a significant refurbishment of the buildings. The historic Carriage House was restored and the Redwood Cellar, built in 1872, now holds the reserve barrel aging in a temperature controlled environment. They built whole new winery with smaller barrel fermentation and a temperature controlled environment to enhance fermentation. Charles Krug also brought in new grape presses from Switzerland to get the finest juice possible. The multi-million dollar renovation of the historic properties and the introduction of new technology shows a commitment to legacy and to continued quality improvements. 

Charles Krug Winery produces three lines of wine – the Napa Valley and Carneros Appellation Wines, the Family Reserve and the Limited Release – using six varietals. Within that line-up, Cabernet Sauvignon is the mainstay. The 2008 Cabernet Napa Valley is blended to achieve a good balance of moderate alcohol, fruit and tannins. The Mondavis strive for food friendly wines that don’t over power and are subservient to the food.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Look It is a glimmering jewel in the glass. Opaque garnet, with a bright heart and brick red at the edges. Slowly stretching legs cling to the glass with silky viscosity.  
Smell The ’08 Cabernet is has lush scents of blackberry, plum, anise and smoky cedar.  
Taste Velvety black cassis and blueberry coat the mouth followed by bitter dark chocolate and firm tannins. It has a smooth, long finish of stewed plum, charcoal and tobacco
Price $27

 

I also tried the Merlot. Charles Krug blends 79% Merlot with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and ages it for 20 months in French oak to achieve a quintessential California Merlot style. 

2008 Merlot Napa Valley

Look It is a polished aubergine shining with opaque mystery and depth.   
Smell The 2008 Merlot has a lively scent of black cherry, ripe plum and spiced chocolates.
Taste Its like a big mouthful of blackberry jam and violet blossoms, balanced with a touch of minerals and a smooth smoky, persistent finish.  
Price $24

 

Peter Mondavi Jr.’s favorite way to enjoy a glass of Charles Krug wine is with family and good friends while sharing a great meal. That’s exactly how I enjoyed these two wines. Open a bottle or two with your friends.  

What happens after “Charles Krug Winery Day” and the big anniversary bash on September 10? Peter Jr. plans for continued success with the winery as a family business. Staying an independent, family winery is paramount. He hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for quite some time yet to come. I’ll raise a glass to those honorable goals, and to the prestigious honor from Gov. Brown. Cheers.

Charles Krug Winery provided samples of both wines for review. Photos provided by the winery.

What are you drinking?