Peter Mondavi Jr.: "It All Flows from the Vineyard"
Each season presents Napa's oldest winery with a chance for spectacular success — and its own particular challenges.
Peter Mondavi (Photo by Jonathan Sprague) What is said to be Napa Valley’s oldest winery — Charles Krug. (Photo courtesy of The Charles Krug Winery)
Peter Mondavi (Photo by Jonathan Sprague)
What is said to be Napa Valley’s oldest winery — Charles Krug. (Photo courtesy of The Charles Krug Winery)
When most people are slugging down coffee, Peter Mondavi Jr. is drinking wine. He and Stacy Clark, the winemaker at what is said to be Napa Valley’s oldest winery — Charles Krug — spend many mornings sampling fermented grape juice at various stages of its evolution, blending it, and imagining the wine it might become.
Like all businesses, winemaking is a quest for excellence. And getting to that point is as great a struggle for winemakers as for other companies, given the number of variables out of their control. Each season presents Mondavi and his team with an opportunity to create spectacular wine, but also presents its own unique set of conditions. “We are at the mercy of Mother Nature and what she throws at us throughout the growing and harvest period, which in today’s climate is becoming much more variable and less predictable,” explains Peter, co-proprietor of Charles Krug, together with his father, Peter Mondavi Sr., and brother, Marc.
It’s a challenge that Peter Jr. and his family have been tackling for decades. The winery was established in St. Helena, California, in 1861 by Charles Krug, purchased by Peter’s grandparents, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, in 1943, and taken over by his father in 1965. (The other well-known Mondavi winery was founded by the late Robert Mondavi, Peter Sr.’s brother; the businesses are unrelated.)
The elder Peter Mondavi, a 1937 Stanford graduate who will turn 99 this autumn, is still part of the day-to-day operations at the winery. The younger earned three degrees from Stanford: a bachelor of science in 1980, a master’s in engineering management in 1982, and an MBA in 1993. Wine has always flowed through his veins: “I started working here when I was 8 years old,” he says, “and I never really left.”
Their goal: a balanced wine. For the family, that subjective and relative term represents a wine whose characteristic elements — fruit, tannin, and acid — are in harmony. “It all flows from the vineyard,” explains Mondavi Jr.
The winery produces seven wines today, from grapes cultivated over 500 acres in the Yountville, St. Helena, Howell Mountain, and Carneros American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, growing largely Bordeaux-style varietals. The specific climate and character of each plot help determine the character of the grapes grown there. The Howell Mountain plot, for example, is slightly warmer, with abundant afternoon sun, cooler nights, and limited rainfall, producing fruit that is more acidic. By contrast, the Page vineyard in southern Yountville can be dry-farmed much of the year, creating tenacious vines and imbuing the grapes with a wild characteristic that is a welcome addition to blends.
The Mondavis constantly monitor the vineyards. In response to environmental variables that cannot be controlled — early or late frosts, sweltering summer days, and dry spells that can last for months — they make tweaks to the growing process, such as adding irrigation or deleafing, which allows the grapes to receive more direct sunlight.
Properly managed, the differing environmental factors present in each plot can be to the winery’s benefit, and the sheer amount of grapes grown by Charles Krug allows Mondavi and Clark, his winemaker, to be especially choosy when selecting the grapes they want to use in any given year. (The surplus is sold off to other winemakers for blending.)
Once the grapes have been harvested, the Krug team faces myriad decisions to help them zero in on perfection. From the morning-time blending experiments to the time and temperature of fermentation, to the type and age of barrels and the amount of time the wine spends in them, each step of the post-harvest process can be manipulated in response to the season’s fruit. During the first stage of fermentation, the process during which yeasts convert the sugar present in the juice to ethanol and carbon dioxide, the goal is to extract the maximum amount of flavor from the grapes without pushing it too far, which can result in an overly tannic wine. Temperature is key to this process; at too low a temperature, the yeast may not be invigorated enough to begin fermentation. Too warm, and the yeast can be killed off, or the wine can develop an unpleasant flavor due to the presence of unwanted bacteria that thrive at higher temperatures.
The choice of aging the wine in stainless steel tanks versus oak barrels also has a significant impact on the finished character of the wine. Stainless steel tanks are neutral, contributing nothing to the flavor of the wine, which can be advantageous if a winemaker is hoping to preserve the flavor of a delicate white wine. By contrast, oak barrels impart distinct characteristics to a wine, characteristics that are more pronounced if the barrel is new (that is, has never been used to store wine). Some winemakers choose a hybrid approach, aging a wine in both stainless tanks and oak barrels, in order to get the best of both worlds.
Though the staffers at Charles Krug keep notes about changing environmental conditions that affect each vintage, they seldom refer to them. “The interactions between all the variables, known and unknown, are so vast that discrete notes are only so helpful,” says Mondavi Jr.
More helpful is their experience, which allows the team to take calculated risks, such as trying out new barrel suppliers or pressing the fruit in whole clusters (rather than destemming), which can contribute to a wine’s tannic structure, aroma, and flavor. “We try to make a consistent product, and let tradition influence but not dominate our winemaking process,” Mondavi Jr. says.
Given the complexity, it’s almost impossible to become bored with the process, which explains his father’s career longevity and, the younger Peter Mondavi predicts, his own. “I love this business. It’s my legacy and my life experience,” he says. And, of course, there are the perks: On a good day, he can bookend his day with a couple of tastes of great wine.
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