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Charles Krug Winery has made big changes as it reinvents itself.

Napa Valley pioneer winery Charles Krug never had cult status and has been taken for granted but that's about to change.

Napa Valley (AVA)

The Fall and Rise of Charles Krug Winery

An interview with Pete Mondavi Jr. reveals the story of how a Napa Valley pioneer is keeping up and going forward.

by Alan Goldfarb
June 25, 2007

In this post-phylloxera era of Napa Valley, there’s no trace of “new money” from the latest computer whiz pouring into Charles Krug Winery. Nor, for that matter, is there any fashionable cult surrounding the wine from this north St. Helena property.

So, how then, does the Napa Valley’s first winery – established in 1861 and run by Mondavis for the last three-quarters of a century – survive? How does it even thrive and how does the Peter Mondavi family - the winery’s caretakers for the last four decades - manage to stay current?

It’s a story of a winery that has pioneered the wine industry in the Napa Valley only to see it bypassed, and even forgotten. As the ever-increasing
Peter Mondavi Jr.
Peter Mondavi Jr.
constrictions of a love-it-now society chews up and spits out the pit from today’s perfect peach, the sweet juices of yesterday are sometimes left to run down the drain.

That’s why, in part, the Charles Krug Winery is often taken for granted as some relic, while all around it, lesser-known interlopers with $150 wines and an owner on his second or third career iteration, flourish - if only for the moment.

But I, for one, have paid attention to what’s been going on the last five years or so as the third generation at Krug have become fully ensconced in its daily operations. I’ve frequently given my readers a heads-up as to the fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc that are being made by winemaker Peter Mondavi Jr. as he’s taken over vineyard and winemaking duties from his now 92½-year-old father Peter.

The cash cow for the company has always been the CK Mondavi brand with its annual million-case production. But what is not widely known is that under the Charles Krug label, some truly world-class Cabernet Sauvignons are being produced by Pete Mondavi and winemaker Adolpho Alarcon (Pete’s brother Marc and John Moynier are the winemakers for CK Mondavi.).

While the national media has well-chronicled the exigencies of the other side of the family’s loss of their far-more visible Robert Mondavi Winery, the Peter Mondavi branch has quietly stood by.

Krug has acquired some vineyards in the last five years. About half, or 225 planted acres over 11 vineyards (see Holdings below) and four of Napa Valley’s sub-regions, are being farmed organically. And the wines, some of which will soon be vineyard-designated, are finally being noticed by the press and consumers for their quality.

I recently spoke to Pete Mondavi Jr. about what it takes to keep going, and of the changes that have taken place at Charles Krug over the last few years.

ALAN GOLDFARB (AG): First of all, how’s your dad doing?

PETE MONDAVI (PM): He’s doing great. He has a little bit of a sore neck and back. But he gets to the winery every day. He’ll taste the wines, but he doesn’t formally sit down and taste the blends.

AG: How do you, as a pioneering winery, an older winery, keep up with the changes and fickleness of the wine press and the consumer?

PM: We’ve been plagued by that. What we’ve done – and it’s a long process – we started 20 years ago to focus our portfolio and eliminate Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Gamay Beaujolais, and Muscat Canelli and focus predominantly on Bordeaux reds. Now we’ve gone from one-third Bordeaux reds to two-thirds.

We’ve revamped the winemaking from top to bottom, revamped the barrel
Krug Carriage House
The carriage house at the Charles Krug Winery manifests its decades old heritage.
program to French. We’re replanting our vineyards because they were planted in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

And we’ve kept our nose to the grindstone and out of the press until recent years until the wines being produced today are exceptional. We’re reinventing ourselves. That’s how we’ve combated it.

AG: Why did you keep a low profile all this time?

PM: We were busy bringing our wines to the next level.

AG: Did the situation with your uncle’s (Robert) family have an effect?

PM: Not really. They are so far removed from us. There are very few parallels left: the size and the scope, and the financing. There’s very little to compare about these two wineries. (But) their whole direction had a personal impact on us. We were sad to see the family get out into the public.

AG: Among the changes, you’re also going organic. What’s the thinking there?

PM: The driving factor on moving toward organic farming was the health of our local community. We’ve been here (beginning in 1943) since right after the repeal of Prohibition [sic]. We have kids and want them to continue, and for our workers. If a better wine comes out of it, great.

AG: You sound dubious about the last part.

PM: Some people are absolutely convinced that (organic farming) is going to make a better wine and I’m not going to dispute that at all. But I haven’t tasted (an organic and non-organic wine) side-by-side.

(But) if you have pesticides coming into grapes, I think that would hamper the fermentation process. Unhealthy, struggling fermentation gives you off-flavors. If
Charles Krug’s Peter Mondavi Sr.
Charles Krug’s Peter Mondavi Sr.
(the grapes) are healthier and robust, you’ll get a much better quality wine. Even before converting, we were very sensitive (to organics). It’s not a radical shift.

AG: Will you be making single-vineyard designated wines from those vineyards?

PM: We’re just starting that, in small production. We’re focusing on our Yountville properties. (They are the Slinsen and Voltz vineyard, which are both immediately south of Domaine Chandon and the Veteran’s Home and are planted to Bordeaux red varieties. (See sidebar)

AG: Why did you choose your Yountville fruit as single-vineyard designates?

PM: They rise up to the base of the Mayacamas hills. The higher up (blocks) are Cabernet Sauvignon on rocky soils. Slinsen has always given us exceptional Cabernet. [Note: These wines will be released in ’09 with the ’06 vintage and priced in the $75 range.]

AG: How much of your 80,000 case production will be given over to single-vineyard designates?

PM: Not a huge portion. It’ll be a modest, more select portion of our portfolio. We love the ability to blend across vineyards because of the complexity we can add to the wines.

AG: Why those two vineyards?

PM: That’s when you talk terroir. It emphasizes the qualities and characteristics of that specific vineyard. It’s a style of wine that may not be for everybody. Slinsen is still in process. We’re still learning about those qualities, although it’s been going into our reserve Cabs for awhile. It has great extractions, great color, cedar, and cinnamon spice. It’s not a big fruit bomb and it tends to be well-structured and refined. With Voltz, the vineyard was originally planted to Chenin Blanc. We planted what we needed to plant back in the ‘70s. Both vineyards have many of the same terroir qualities: soils, sloping, exposure. We don’t get much hot afternoon sun because they’re shielded to some degree by the Mayacamas range to the west.

Charles Krug’s Vineyard Holdings

CHARLES KRUG (St. Helena) Purchased 1943, 137 acres: Originally planted in 1861, planted to Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot in gravelly, well-drained soils. Sauvignon Blanc is planted in clay loam. Also Charles Krug Winery planted here are Carménere and Carignan. A vineyard-designate will be produced from the Zinfandel from here.

LINCOLN (Yountville) 1966, 91 acres: Krug’s oldest Cabernet, as well as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The soils are sandy and rocky.

VOLTZ (Yountville): 1971, 106 acres: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot grown in rocky soils.

SLINSEN (Yountville) 1968. 58 acres: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot in rocky, shallow soil.

FRACCHIA (Yountille) 1971, 132 acres: This former pear orchard lies on the Napa River floodplain. The vineyard is currently in a resting state (fallow).

HOMEFINDER’S (Yountville) 1969, 30 acres: Adjacent to the Napa River, the river has influenced this particular vineyard through decades of flooding and deposits of riverbed silt. Planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.

PAGE (Yountville) 1974, 75 acres: Deep clay loam soils of the valley floor, Page can be dry-farmed in most years, and produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Malbec.

WILLOW LAKE (Carneros) 1968, 169 acres: Cool climate grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot. Shallow, nutrient-poor soils tucked within rolling hills.

COLD SPRINGS (Howell Mountain) 2003, 59 acres: Will eventually comprise 33 acres planted to various selections of Cabernet Sauvi

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [2]

Bruce Coulthard , Pres. CEO
Genesis-Soils.com, St. Helena, CA
Finally, an article about the Peter Mondavi Family. Honest determination and a commitment to quality and hard work is and always has been what built this valley to what it is today. Perhaps now, people will recognize their staying power and give them the respect they have earned and deserve.

Stacy Goldfarb , farmer/forager
Sonoma County Culinary Guild, Healdsburg, CA
In this day of corporate wine and mega money made elsewhere, I'll raise a glass of Charles Krug '04 Cabernet to the slow and steady who look as though they will win the race. Bravo!

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