Peter Mondavi Sr., a Napa Valley innovator who steered his family's Charles Krug Winery through more than a half-century of revolutionary change in the industry, died on February 20th at his home in St. Helena, California, on the Charles Krug estate surrounded by his family. He was 101.
Peter Mondavi Sr. (photo courtesy of C. Mondavi & Family)
Mondavi began his career in wine when Napa Valley was chiefly known for inexpensive jug wine, or "vin ordinaire," as he would refer to it. In 1943, his parents purchased Charles Krug Winery, which even then enjoyed a long pedigree. Prussian emigrant Charles Krug founded his eponymous winery in 1861, making it the oldest operating winery in the Napa Valley today. Mondavi worked the property with his family and eventually assumed the role of president and CEO upon his mother's death in 1976.
Known for introducing a number of significant advancements to California winemaking, Mondavi earned legendary status among Napa Valley vintners. As a student, he studied the effects of cold fermentation on white and rosé wines, which were then being fermented at higher temperatures and losing their distinct characteristics through oxidation. His revolutionary research and practical methods resulted in the production of exceptionally crisp, fruity white wines.
A winemaker above all else, Mondavi was quoted in the Wine Spectator speaking to his joy, which was "to linger in the laboratory, testing and experimenting." A recent review in sommelier Kelli White's tome,
Napa Valley Then & Now, refers to his 1959 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon as "Simply stunning, this impossibly youthful wine is incredibly vibrant and powerful."
To advance his wine knowledge and winemaking prowess, Mondavi toured the wine regions of Europe with fellow vintners. Under Mondavi's tutelage in 1963, Charles Krug was the first winery in Napa Valley to import French oak barrels for ageing, a common practice among today's winemakers. In addition, he was among the pioneering vintners who planted pinot noir and chardonnay where dairy cows had previously dominated in the Carneros region of the valley.
Mondavi was proud of his insight and drive to amass prime land parcels for vineyard production. He acquired more than 800 acres of premium Napa Valley land in the late '60s and early '70s at a mere fraction of current land values. This land-buying spree established the foundation for the winery's estate-driven wines.
Fiercely determined to keep the winery family owned in the midst of corporate buyouts happening up and down Napa Valley, Mondavi led an effort to preserve the family's estate vineyards. During a nine-year period ended in 2010, Mondavi invested $22 million in replanting 400 prime acres of vineyards with primarily red Bordeaux varietals, instituting sustainable farming practices and implementing state-of-the-art winemaking equipment in the process.
Mondavi invested a lifetime in building, growing and protecting his family's business. Asked late in life to note his proudest accomplishment, he replied, "Never losing control of our family winery. If I could, I would tell my father: I did the best I could during the difficult years. I was determined and we held on."
In 2011, still spry at age 96, he hosted a Tasting on the Lawn to commemorate the winery's 150th anniversary, telling the gathered crowd with a twinkle in his blue eyes, "I tell my sons this gives us a good job." Mondavi officially retired in 2015 but he was a fixture at the winery years after he turned over the day-to-day operations to his sons, regularly climbing two flights of stairs to his office to settle in to work. When asked by a group of visiting Nike executives, he credited his stamina to "living a good life and drinking great wine."
Mondavi left an indelible impression on the California wine industry, but also on the legacy that passes to the next generations of winemakers within his family. He took steps to preserve the history of Charles Krug, overseeing the restoration of two landmark buildings - the 1872 Redwood Cellar and the 1881 Carriage House - that are now registered on the National Registry of Historic Places and considered California historical landmarks. His efforts were recognized with the Governor's Historic Preservation Award in 2010.
The family business, C. Mondavi & Family, founded by and named after patriarch Cesare Mondavi, continues to thrive and includes third and fourth generations of the family. Today, Mondavi's sons, Marc and Peter Jr., lead the vision of the family winery with his grandchildren in the wings.
Mondavi was born in Virginia, Minnesota, on November 8, 1914, to Cesare and Rosa Grassi Mondavi, natives of Sassoferrato in the Marche region of Italy. He was the youngest of four children, and his parents originated from very modest means and had no winemaking lineage. As characteristically hardworking immigrants, Rosa ran a boarding house for Italian iron miners while Cesare, after working briefly in the iron mines, opened a saloon and parlayed it into a grocery store at the onset of prohibition. Prodded by the local Italian community, Cesare became a wine-grape buyer, traveling to California to purchase fruit for his home-winemaking neighbors in Minnesota. The burgeoning success of his wine-grape shipping business brought the family to Lodi, California, in 1922. In a paradoxical way, prohibition introduced the family to the beginnings of winemaking.
Mondavi got his start as a boy nailing boxes for his father's wine-grape shipping business. He went on to earn a degree in economics from Stanford University in 1937, but was drawn to winemaking, performing research in oenology at the University of California, Berkeley. World War II interrupted his career, and he served in the military overseas, returning in 1946. Four years later he married his beloved Blanche Hurtzig, a union that lasted until her death in 2010.
Mondavi's influence on the Napa Valley wine industry has been recognized and honored for decades. In 1986, the Napa Valley Vintners Association named him one of "Twelve Living Legends in the Napa Valley," and he was the last survivor of that group. In 2002, he graced the cover of the Wine Spectator as one of the "Napa Mavericks" who were the wine region's trailblazers. In 2009, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Napa Valley vintners from the California State Fair. In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown honored him, along with the legacy of the Charles Krug Winery, with a proclamation for his contributions to the wine industry. Congress acknowledged him and the winery on his 97th birthday in the Congressional Record. His lifetime achievements were recognized in 2012 when he was inducted into the St. Helena-based Culinary Institute of America Vintners Hall of Fame for his industry contributions in cold fermentation and sterile filtration. "I share this award with my parents," a characteristically modest Mondavi said at that time.
Mondavi was an avid fisherman and enjoyed fishing with his family, friends and colleagues. His sons' best childhood memories were packing to a lake in Desolation Wilderness on horseback, camping for days and feasting on fresh fish every night. His sons also fondly remember leaving for Tahoe early winter mornings for a day of skiing.
Mondavi was preceded in death by his wife, Blanche, and his siblings, Robert, Mary and Helen. He is survived by a daughter, Siena, two sons, Marc and Peter Jr., nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.