A Chat With Peter Mondavi Sr.

charles krug winery

With Spring finally here, we decided it was time to celebrate possibly our favorite drink of the season (or every season for that matter): Wine. On our recent trip to Napa, we had the pleasure of sitting down with wine legend Peter Mondavi Sr. – who turned 100-years-old recently, and has overseen Charles Krug Winery (the oldest one in Napa) for more than half a decade. We’ve always been fans of family businesses here at The New Potato, so we thought we’d share the story behind a remarkable one that includes Cesare (Peter’s Father) buying a winery for $75,000 back in 1943, a split between brothers Peter and Robert Mondavi, and an incredible reverence for the grape that brought all things full circle…

charles krug cabernet

On his familys background… 

Let’s face it: We have to give all the credit to my father, along with my mother. They migrated in the early years. My father came first. He had a brother in Minnesota that had come before, and my father was interested in advancing. He didn’t have much of an education, but he had business sense. He figured the United States was where he wanted to settle, so he went back to Italy and proposed to my mother. She was only seventeen-years-old. They married over in Italy and came back to Minnesota. There, my father had boarders. There were quite a few Italians working in the mines, so my mother prepared meals for the fifteen of them. Those years after she settled in Minnesota, she was taking care of the boarding house, and preparing the meals. In the meantime, my father had a saloon, but when Prohibition happened he had to close. My mother always said, “I would have bootlegged if you’d let me” (Laughs) Of course, some of the big politicians were bootlegging on the quiet side. So then my father started a grocery store business. My father made about three or four trips each harvest season to come here [to California] because he had customers at the store that wanted to make homemade wine, and they urged him to come. The harvest season was a month and a half to two months long. Here he had to estimate the grapes— the tonnages. He’d estimate the crop and argue the price with the grower. Can you imagine coming from Minnesota and having to buy grapes? Then after the third or fourth year, he decided that was the business he wanted. So he got out of the grocery store business and moved to Alta, California and settled in Lodi in San Joaquin Valley. He took us all to California, started in the grape shipping business, and then he got into the wine business. He became president of Acampo Winery and Distilleries. That’s how much of a businessman he was— starting off in a new business and speaking very little English. We just fell into it. He would migrate to St. Helena and Santa Rosa in Napa Valley, and eventually came to the conclusion that it was the best table wine area. He eventually he bought the Sunny St. Helena Winery. Of course, we loved the wine business; we never thought of any other kind of a business. My brother was working here during the war years, and urged my father to buy the property. My father said, “If the two of you work together, I’ll buy the property.” My father and mother bought the property, and we [my brother and I] eventually ventured into it ourselves and became owners. There were some tough years at the beginning. It was hot when Prohibition was repealed and then it had its ups and downs. It was very exciting, but then after that it was a question of business. Business slackened off after the surge. In all those years from then up to now, the value of property jumped either this way, that way, and every which way. In other words, it wasn’t very stable. There wasn’t the appreciation of wine that there is today. Actually in the past fifteen years, the appreciation of Napa Valley wines has escalated and become very popular.

On working with family

My brother was quite a promoter and very energetic. I was making the wine but my brother got carried away. He wanted to buy us out. Typical; he was aggressive. But I said, “we won’t sell. “So we had to buy him out. And my sisters were involved. There were four of us— two boys and two girls. We were never making enough money to pass out a lot of dividends, so we just kept puttering away and making a living off of it. It was rather meager, all those years. But we were in love with the wine business. Then came the split between my brother and I. I was devoted to the business as a family business; he wanted it for himself. We didn’t agree. (Laughs) So we came to an agreement on the price and we [my sisters and I] took it over.

On what sets the wine apart

Cold fermentation and the French oak barrels were major in improving the industry. Without that, we wouldn’t have the wine that we have today. And that goes for the reds and the whites. So it’s been a long history. I didn’t realize until recent years how important that is. When I did the research, I came to the conclusion that the French oak was terrific, but in those early years we didn’t dare order the barrels because they cost thirty-five dollars. Today they’re a thousand dollars, two thousand dollars a barrel. And they’re only good for two years. Then you have to demote them for secondary wine. It’s amazing. There are different types of oak barrels and different producers making a different style, so today, it’s a question of judging all the different producers. Some of the barrels are probably three thousand dollars a barrel. Of course those wines are very, very expensive. They vary in their quality so you have to judge them accordingly. We have pretty good lists of who are the better ones, but we’re careful on how much we use. We use them only for the elite wines and we use the blends on the others. It has to be on the elite or else you can’t afford it.

On the food he grew up with

My mother used to put on fabulous meals. She was a very good cook. My father would invite some of the bankers for dinner and my mother would put on a big fabulous pasta dinner because she always made homemade pasta. The pasta quality was very unusual and very good. She started cooking when she was about seven years old. She loved to cook, so the more the merrier.

I wish I knew how to cook because I could enjoy it. I’m always looking for the best foods. It’s hard to find meat of real quality. I buy veal from the East Coast. I’m so used to veal cutlets. It’s very tender meat. We get it from New Jersey. The veal that was being sold here was terrible. In fact, you can’t get a good piece of veal! You pay twenty-five to thirty dollars a pound and it’s too tough. So from New Jersey, they do the shipment through air freight overnight. It costs a little bit more than the veal itself. The veal comes to about fifteen dollars a pound, and the air freight is costing more than the meat. But that’s the only way they’ll ship it! Wherever I can get good meat, I’ll buy the whole slab.

*Peter Mondavi Sr., photographed at Charles Krug Winery in Napa, California by Danielle Kosann.