Peter Mondavi Sr., a Napa Valley pioneer who steered his family's Charles Krug Winery through more than a half-century of revolutionary change in the American wine industry, died Feb. 20 at his home in St. Helena, on the Charles Krug estate, surrounded by his family. He was 101.
Mondavi began his career when Napa Valley was chiefly known for inexpensive jug wine. In 1943, his Italian immigrant parents purchased Charles Krug Winery, which dated back to 1861. Mondavi worked the property with his family and eventually assumed the role of president and CEO upon his mother's death in 1976.
He wouldn't retire until 2015, at age 100. His family called him the Energizer Bunny. "Every day I go to the office and see what's going on, sign some checks and taste the wines to make sure we're moving in the right direction," Mondavi told Wine Spectator in 2013, just before he turned 99.
The Mondavi story is well-known among wine lovers. Italian immigrants Cesare and Rosa settled in Minnesota, where Peter was born in 1914, a year after his brother Robert. The family moved to Lodi, Calif., in 1922 so Cesare could start a winegrape-shipping business, sending fruit to home winemakers back in Minnesota during Prohibition. Peter's first job was to assemble and pack 30-pound boxes of grapes for shipping.
Peter studied economics at Stanford University, earning his degree in 1937. But winemaking was always on his mind, so he pursued his graduate studies in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. "As a youngster, I used to make model airplanes, and I thought I might become an aeronautical engineer," he joked. "But the grape business took hold, and I had no desire to do anything different."
Just a few years previous, his parents had purchased Sunny St. Helena winery (now Merryvale), and split their time between Napa and Lodi until purchasing Charles Krug in 1943. Local banker James Moffit was offering the winery for $75,000.
"My brother and I, along with my dad, went to San Francisco to meet Mr. Moffit; after some back and forth, Mr. Moffit took a phone call," recalled Peter, who was on leave from his service in the Army. "Mr. Moffit stepped out to take the call, and after a few minutes, we overheard him say, 'No, I just sold it.' He came back in and said, 'It's yours.'"
In 1946, after serving in the Army during World War II, Peter returned home to work in the family business. When Cesare died in 1959, Rosa was named president. Robert oversaw the business and Peter made the wines. Together, they grew Charles Krug into one of the biggest and most well-known wineries in Napa Valley during the 1950s and '60s, becoming one of Napa's "Big Four," along with Beaulieu Vineyards, Inglenook and Louis Martini. For years, collectors rated the Vintage Selection wines as among the best in Napa Valley.
Peter made the wines. Robert promoted them. "My brother was a driver," admitted Peter. "Frankly, I couldn't keep up with him." The two often clashed over business matters, which lead to a bitter family feud in the 1960s and a fallout between the two. Robert left the family business and founded Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966.
As time passed, Robert Mondavi Winery moved forward dynamically. But Charles Krug remained known for quality under Peter's steady hand. "Robert had a vision. Peter had a vision too, but went at a slower pace; he was more introspective and methodical," said Tim Mondavi, son of Robert, who made wine at his father's namesake winery.
Though not as well-known as his older brother, Peter was an influential figure in California winemaking. Early in his career, he revolutionized the industry with his research on cold fermentation. Peter was also the first Napa Valley vintner to use cold sterile filtration techniques to prevent spoilage. In 1963, he purchased 450 French oak barrels, becoming the first person in Napa to use French oak.
As for the future of Charles Krug Winery, it has remained a family business. Sons Peter Jr. and Marc have taken over the winery and have made innovations with their father's guarded encouragement. In addition to extensive cellar renovations completed in 2013, the Mondavis have invested $25.6 million into their vineyards in the past 20 years, re-planting roughly 75 percent of their 850 acres.
Peter Mondavi remained 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. He took pride in a lifetime spent 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."
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.