In a time when the American wine industry continues to consolidate, with once-famous wineries becoming mere brands in corporate portfolios, it is refreshing to see one of Napa Valley’s most historic and venerable names celebrating a milestone under the same family that has owned it for nearly seven decades.
Charles Krug founded Napa Valley’s oldest operating winery in 1861, as the nation back east was plummeting into Civil War. The winery was purchased in 1943 by Cesare Mondavi and has remained in the Mondavi family ever since.
Yes, you recognize the name. Peter Mondavi Sr., Cesare’s younger son, was on the receiving end of the most famous punch in California wine history in 1965 when he and his brother, Robert, quarreled over the direction of the family business. Their mother, Rosa, who had taken over the winery upon Cesare’s death in 1959, sided with Peter. Robert left to start his own winery and helped revolutionize the modern California wine industry. His was a soap-opera story of spectacular success, continued family quarrels and ultimate downfall. Robert Mondavi died in 2008 at age 94, a few years after his winery was sold to Constellation Brands.
Meanwhile, the Peter Mondavi family continued steadily at the helm of the Charles Krug winery. This year, as the winery celebrates its sesquicentennial, the family owns more than 500 acres of vines in Napa County and recently completed a makeover of the vineyards and winery that positions the company for continued growth. Peter Mondavi Sr., 96, remains active at the winery, though day-to-day operations are handled by his sons Marc and Peter Jr.
The vineyard rehabilitation effort allowed the Mondavis to take advantage of the latest techniques and practices in viticulture, including dense spacing of the vines to promote even ripening, as well as careful selection of rootstock and grape clones. (They were not forced to replant during the phylloxera scourge of the 1990s because Peter Sr. had rejected the local preference for a productive rootstock that proved vulnerable to the pest.) The replanted vineyards reached full production with the 2008 vintage, giving the family greater control over its product and leading to improvements in quality, says Peter Mondavi Jr.
“It’s very refreshing to deal with ourselves as growers,” he says. “You have a myriad of priorities when you’re dealing with others, and it’s easier when it’s your decision to drop a little extra crop, make an extra pass of [pulling leaves from the vines]. It gives you a little extra flexibility in the winemaking.”
Charles Krug wines come in three tiers: Napa Valley and Carneros appellation wines; Family Reserve; and Limited Release. The first group accounts for the majority of the company’s 80,000-case production. The wines are distributed nationally and offer consumers a good taste of what Napa Valley is all about. If you thought Napa had priced itself out of your reach, these wines are for you.
The Family Reserve line, aimed primarily at the steakhouse market, offers an estate cabernet sauvignon and a Bordeaux red blend called Generations. They are what I call trophy wines, made in an opulent, fruit-forward and alcoholic style ideal for fueling business-lunch negotiations. The Limited Release selections are sold only through the winery and at a few restaurants.
Family is a theme that runs through the Charles Krug and Mondavi story, and there is a fourth generation in the business. Marc Mondavi’s oldest daughter earned an oenology degree at the University of Adelaide, and his younger daughter is helping to market the company’s wines.
The close-knit family has so far kept the corporate sharks at bay.
“No one even comes knocking on our door,” Peter Mondavi Jr. laughed when I asked him about joining a larger portfolio of wines. “They know we’re having too much fun to sell out.”
Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection 2008
Napa Valley, Calif., $69
Created by Cesare Mondavi, this wine is made only on the best vintages. It is mouth-filling, with spicy licorice notes, soft tannins and a long finish. It will reward cellaring.
Charles Krug Chardonnay 2009
Carneros, Napa Valley, Calif., $20
This chardonnay shows why the Carneros area is justly famous for the grape. It exhibits a skillful marriage of fruit and oak, with firm acidity to give it structure and length without flabbiness. Quality at this level often costs a good deal more.
Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Napa Valley, Calif., $27
This wine represents nearly half of the winery’s total production. At first taste, I found it too oaky, but after just a few minutes, the fruit came alive and showed the black currant and licorice notes characteristic of Napa cabernet. With most Napa cabs pushing $40 and above, this is an excellent way to move above generic cabernet and experience what Napa is all about without breaking the bank.
Charles Krug Merlot 2008
Napa Valley, Calif., $24
Merlot has been the neglected stepchild of California wine for too long. This one, with nice plummy fruit and an attractive dusting of cocoa on the palate, should serve as a reminder of why we used to like the grape.
Charles Krug Generations 2008
Napa Valley, Calif., $51
Peter Mondavi Jr. acknowledges that the family is harvesting later for its reserve wines in order to achieve more power and alcohol, attributing the decision to market demand. While the Vintage Select Cabernet carried the heft well, I felt the alcohol was out of balance on the Generations, producing a slight burn that detracted from the fruit. Fans of the bigger style might very well disagree.
Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Napa Valley, Calif., $18
The grapes are picked at night and chilled with dry ice to preserve freshness. Harvest occurs in two stages to capture the flavor spectrum of sauvignon blanc, from citrus to ripe tree fruit, Mondavi says. This wine is closed with screw caps, a move the winery is also considering for the chardonnay.
***Exceptional **Excellent *Very Good
(This column appeared in The Washington Post Food section on August 17, 2011.)