Vintner Peter Mondavi can be found behind his office desk at the Charles Krug Winery Monday through Friday, even some weekends, rain or shine.
Most working stiffs would say that’s no big deal. But they may not know that the wine family patriarch celebrated his 99th birthday two weeks ago and will be honored by family and friends at a big celebration at his family’s St. Helena winery Saturday night.
Mondavi, with sons Marc and Peter Jr., oversees one of the county’s oldest winemaking operations, one that sends 1.7 million cases of wine to the marketplace every year.
Although his entire business career has focused on wine, Mondavi had other thoughts when he was a young teen “fooling around with model airplanes. ... I considered for a time becoming an aeronautical engineer.”
During a discussion this week that ranged from youth to present-day business, the first-generation Italian-American said his father, Cesare, “didn’t push (the wine business) on us. (Brother) Bob and I were both interested. I guess you could say we were involved in grapes from day one. While other (students) were on vacation, we were putting together shipping crates for our father ... to ship grapes back East (to home winemakers). We were the fastest brothers around.”
Discussing his father’s start in the wine business, Mondavi noted that his father immigrated to the United States in the early part of the 20th century, settling in Minnesota as his brother and others from Sassoferrato and surrounding villages of Italy’s Le Marche region had done. When his brother was killed in the collapse of an iron mine, young Cesare Mondavi returned to his native land.
Once there, however, he decided he wanted to live in America, and asked a young woman he knew to join him as his bride. Seventeen-year-old Rosa accepted his proposal after her mother indicated it was Rosa’s choice to make.
Cesare and his young bride returned to Minnesota mining country, where they opened a saloon and a boardinghouse for miners. Rosa Mondavi “was a youngster when she started cooking,” her son points out, and she was well known in Napa Valley for her culinary talents. For several years, Rosa Mondavi kept house and cooked at least two meals a day for their 15 boarders, while her husband tended bar.
Eventually, “he sold the saloon and opened a grocery store,” Mondavi said. “That was when his friends asked him if he could get grapes for them so they could make their own wine. ... It was Prohibition and making your own wine was allowed.”
That effort put Cesare Mondavi into the shipping business, shipping California-grown grapes back to the Midwest. “The zinfandel grape was the king of homemade wine,” Mondavi noted.
Once he saw the California landscape and that a new business opportunity awaited, Cesare Mondavi moved his wife and four children to the San Joaquin Valley. In Lodi, Cesare established a successful fruit packing business under the name C. Mondavi and Sons, packing and shipping grapes to the East Coast. Subsequently, he served for a number of years as president of Acampo Winery and Distillery.
“He had a number of contacts in the Napa Valley and (eventually) bought Sunny St. Helena Winery,” Peter recalls.
In 1943, another opportunity presented itself to Cesare Mondavi and his sons. Established in 1861, the Charles Krug Winery was on the market.
“Mother and I have enough to be comfortable the rest of our lives,” Peter recalls his father telling his sons. “If you want to enjoy the wine business that we love and want to perpetuate it,” Cesare told his sons, then he would enter into discussions to buy the Krug estate.
“It was during World War II, and I was in the service. My father, my brother and I were joined by Paul Alexander, president of the Bank of America in St. Helena, and went into San Francisco to meet with James Moffitt Jr. (who owned the Krug property).
“My father knew the price was $75,000. We had a 20-minute talk with Mr. Moffitt and then the phone rang. He took the call in another room ... we could hear the conversation. Mr. Moffitt told the person on the phone, ‘I’m sorry, I just sold the winery.’ Then he came back into the room and said to my father, ‘It’s your winery.’ A handshake finished the deal.
“My brother, Bob, had the winery from that point on as I had to return to duty (at an Army Air Corps supply base in Warrington, England). He handled the rehabilitation of the old winery ... that was a major operation ... installing 173 redwood tanks that allowed us to make 1.1 million gallons of wine.
“I had been a chemist at the Acampo Winery and Distillery prior to the service ... so my whole life has been in the wine business. My father didn’t push the business on us.”
Peter Mondavi said his father was an astute, “natural-born” businessman. “He was a quiet man ... whenever he spoke you knew that was it.”
“My mother was an amazing cook and my father relied upon her for entertaining (at their home),” Peter continued.
“I’m glad I got 21 years of her incredible food,” said son, Marc, who had joined his father and brother in the discussion. “She prepared big meals, a lot spur-of-the-moment, for everyone who came. In those days, there weren’t the restaurants there are today. All the entertaining was done at Rosa’s house.”
“My mother was well known for her hospitality,” Peter adds.
“She never learned to drive,” Marc said of his grandmother. “When I got my driver’s license, she asked me to take her shopping. There were three markets in St. Helena and she believed in spreading her money around — meats at one place, produce at another and the rest of what she needed at the third.”
Cesare Mondavi died in 1959 at the age of 76; Rosa was 86 when she passed away on grandson Marc’s birthday in 1976.
Peter has outlived his siblings. Sister Helen lived to 93, while sister Mary was 94 when she died. Brother Robert was one month shy of 95 when he passed away in 2008.
“I’m still plugging along,” Peter declares with a familiar broad smile.
“I call him the Energizer Bunny,” quips son Marc.
On the business side
Peter Mondavi Jr. points out that some 80,000 cases of Charles Krug wine are included in the company’s total production numbers. The lion’s share of the bottlings are under the CK Mondavi label.
There’s also a small, new family-owned brand, Aloft, featuring Thomas Brown-crafted red wines made from 10 acres of Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon, he adds. “It’s less than 500 cases ... we have two vineyards up on the mountain.”
“We’ve had our ups and downs and managed to survive the difficult years,” the family patriarch declares. “We’re in pretty good shape today.”
In fact, the Mondavis have just opened a new hospitality center in one of the 19th-century cellars. Built in 1872, the newly restored Redwood Cellar Tasting Room and Hospitality Center is an inviting space blending heritage with contemporary design. The National Historical Landmark features reclaimed clear heart redwood from the family’s original wine tanks, stone and open beam construction, windows on the working Family Reserve cellar and a large welcoming bar and lounge.
Stacy Clark is winemaker for the Charles Krug wines, while John Moynier is winemaker for all CK Mondavi wines.
“We’re pretty well set for the future,” says the senior Mondavi. “There’s more finishing to do on the property ... I’m working on it.”