At a spry 96, Peter Mondavi Sr. remembers vividly the day in 1943 that his family bought the historic Charles Krug Winery.
“My brother and I, along with my dad and Paul Alexander, the local banker, went to San Francisco to meet Mr. Moffit, who owned the property,” he said. “The price was $75,000 … of course, God knows what the value is today.”
After some “back and forth” between his father, Cesare, and Krug owner James Moffit, Mondavi said that Moffit interrupted the meeting to take a phone call. After a few minutes, Moffit hung up the phone, turned to the three Mondavis and said “It’s yours.”
“Just like that,” Mondavi recalled. “That was really a surprise!”
And just like that, the first and oldest winery in Napa Valley passed to the Mondavi family, a merging of two legacies that would have an indelible impact on the future of the California wine industry.
Mondavi recounted the story last Saturday during the annual Tasting on the Lawn that this year celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Charles Krug Winery.
An estimated 1,000 Krug fans and wine club members sipped and noshed under the majestic oaks outside the winery’s historic Carriage House. It was a scene familiar to Mondavi, who has hosted hundreds of such gatherings during his family’s 68-year tenure at the St. Helena winery. Today, Mondavi’s own two sons, Marc and Peter, Jr., are guiding the family business into a new era.
“I tell my sons it gives us a good job,” the elder Mondavi quipped before taking the stage to greet the crowd. With a twinkle in his eye and an air of feistiness, the 96-year-old still comes to work each day. “You have to love the business … because it has its ups and downs. When my father started here he had his ups and downs. Of course now those ups and downs involve so much money that it’s unbelievable. And of course the government is there with hands out … so it’s very difficult to perpetuate a family business.”
Further commemorating the anniversary milestone, Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed Sept. 10 “Charles Krug Winery Day” and the elder Mondavi was saluted as a “Living Legend of the Napa Valley.”
Mondavi took the stage and gave the crowd a short course in the history of the winery and his family’s seven-decade tenure at the property.
The winery’s namesake and founder arrived in Napa Valley after a colorful life as teacher and journalist. A native of Germany, Krug first came to America in 1847 and worked as a teacher and newspaper reporter in Philadelphia. He returned to Germany the following year where, according to one account, he wrote revolutionary articles and was involved in a failed attempt to overthrow the ruling German Parliament. He was imprisoned for nine months and released after another revolution was successful.
Krug returned to the U.S., started a German newspaper in San Francisco and eventually wound up in Napa, where he began making wine for various growers with a small cider press. He married Carolina Bale in 1860, and the following year, at the age of 36, opened Charles Krug Winery at its current site. Following Krug’s death in 1892, the winery was sold to Moffit, a San Francisco banker and close friend of the founder.
The Mondavi family took a similarly convoluted path to the historic winery. Cesare Mondavi was born in Italy in 1883 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1906, settling in Virginia, Minnesota where he worked in mining and other odd jobs. He returned to Italy in 1908, married and returned to Minnesota with his new wife Rosa. Cesare ran a saloon and Rosa operated a boarding house for 15 Italian immigrants.
After Prohibition began, Caesar started a grocery store. His customers, eager to make their own wine, urged him to go to California to obtain grapes to ship back.
“He made his first trip to Lodi in 1920,” Mondavi told the crowd, “and shipped grapes that same year.”
After making the same trip for the next two years, he realized that shipping grapes to home winemakers back east was a good business opportunity. In 1923, he moved the family to Lodi. He then quickly expanded the business by shipping wine grapes out of Fresno as well as California cherries and melons. When Prohibition was repealed, he decided to get into the wine business, eventually relocating to the Napa Valley.
“He moved up to Napa Valley because, imagine that, he was not a winemaker … he was a businessman,” Mondavi said.
After purchasing Sunny St. Helena winery (now Merryvale Vineyards), at age 60, Cesare decided to buy the historic Charles Krug property, partly because his sons Robert and Peter were interested in perpetuating the family business. When Cesare died in 1959, his wife, Rosa, became president and continued the operation with her two sons. Shortly after, the legendary family conflict came to a head.
“We family members felt Bob was too progressive,” Peter Mondavi told the crowd. “Our differences came to the point that he offered to buy us out. That was never the intention because this winery was meant to be for the entire family. Since we wouldn’t go his way, he started his own winery in 1965, which turned out to be tremendously successful.”
Mondavi said his family has been breathing new life into the Krug property, referring to the winery’s $25.6 million capital improvement program started in 1999.
“This seems to be an everlasting project,” he said, “but we’re determined to continue on with it.”
Rosa Mondavi died in 1976, leaving Peter and his two sons to perpetuate the family legacy and its stewardship of the Charles Krug Winery. Today, Charles Krug remains one of the oldest, family-owned wineries in California.
In keeping with the historic theme of the event, actors portraying Charles Krug and his wife, Carolina Bale Krug, strolled the grounds, their period apparel in sharp contrast to the sundresses, shorts and flip-flops favored by most of the partygoers. Inside the restored Carriage House, Peter Mondavi, Jr. poured tastes of 1966 and 1986 vintages of Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon. He said he had just returned from New York where the two library wines were sampled by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov and wine specialists from Sotheby’s auction house.
“They were just stunned at both of them,” he said. “I think the ’66 was the standout of the whole lot (of 19 wines tasted).”
The elder Mondavi sat next to the tasting table, greeting admiring visitors and posing for photos. Earlier, he posed for press photos with his children and grandchildren, grouped in front of a huge arched window overlooking the Great Lawn below.
“The wonderful thing,” he said later, “is that my sons and my family are devoted to the wine business. To us, it’s just natural to keep on going.”