Peter Mondavi, Sr., who retired from Charles Krug last year, died on February 20, 2016, at the age of 101. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Mondavi, in the spring of 2011, when he was 96 years old and still active at his family winery. —Joshua Greene
I graduated from Stanford in 1937, and started working at Woodbridge Vineyards Association. Also, I worked at Acampo Winery and Distillery, just below Sacramento. I was a chemist, working in the lab.
I went to Berkeley after Stanford and did research work on cold fermentation and French oak barrel aging. I was the one who pioneered cold fermentation. [Later at Charles Krug], I developed a chenin blanc that was very popular in those days. It had 1.5 percent natural unfermented sugar because I knew how to sterile filter the wine and prevent secondary fermentation. It was a lovely luncheon wine. It was cold-fermented.
We have 150 glass-lined tanks; they were originally brewery tanks. I went for these tanks because white wine, in particular, is delicate. You didn’t want too much wood aging. If you didn’t want to bottle it all [at once], you needed an inert tank to store it.
For reds, after two years of barrel aging, if you didn’t have enough bottling capacity you were limited. You had to take it out of barrel after two years, when it reaches maturity. If you can’t bottle it, you need to put it into something inert. At that time, we had redwood tanks and the wine would pick up redwood flavor—you killed the barrel flavor. We considered stainless steel unacceptable, so we put it in glass tanks. They are real glass, not epoxy. To make them, they build a steel tank, spray a sand mixture inside, then put it in a furnace, and that builds a coat of glass on it.
I spent three and a half years in the Service—I was schedule to be in officers’ training in chemical warfare but they didn’t use chemical warfare [during World War II]. So I remained in the supply division at an airbase in Warrington, near Manchester, England.
I’ll never forget, while I was in the Service, I went to the city [San Francisco] to meet the owner of Charles Krug, a banker, Mr. Moffat. The property was up for sale. We knew what the price was, $75,000—today, a far cry. My father and the bankers kept on talking with Moffat. Then [Moffat] had a telephone call and went to take it. He made up his mind that he was going to sell to my father. He came back into the meeting and said, “It’s yours.”
In the early days, when dad bought the property, they had to renovate the interior. It was a dilapidated winery; it was all antiquated. The original cellar was built in 1861; it burned down. The Redwood Cellar was built in 1874. The redwood tanks are all gone now; we’re only using it for premium wines; two thirds of it is a big barrel room with temperature control.
I joined the family winery in 1946. My role here was winemaking; I was in charge of production. I spent all those years in production until the 1960s. That’s when my brother [Robert] branched off on his own. [Robert Mondavi left Charles Krug and founded Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966]. I ended up being in charge of everything, sales and marketing and all. We made up our minds to hold onto the winery during all its ups and downs, and there were plenty of ups and downs over the years.
As brothers, we’d been a close family. As we grew up, we took different interests. But it’s just family and as time goes on you get over your problems.
The wine we’re all most proud of making is the cabernet. The 1958 was one of the top cabernets we made. It was a good growing season. You rely on the quality of the grapes, number one. Then you have to know how to process it, and whatever we did was right. I probably have a few cases of that wine at home. The cellar goes back to 1944, not all but most of the vintages of cabernet. I consider that the king of the red wines. Now there’s a lot of blending, but cabernet sauvignon is still king. I haven’t had a bottle of the 1958 in a long time. A lot have matured, but some have maintained their maturity well.
The most interesting thing I’ve come across in my wine library—I found some low-fill bottles of gamay and they still had quality and life. That’s one that bugs me: Gamay was never considered a wine that ages. I couldn’t believe it.
The cult wines, that was a new niche for wine and it created an awful lot of interest. Those are the wines they put a high price on. And, of course, with the thinning of the crop, it’s an expensive wine to make. But I don’t think they are so popular now. They went to high alcohol, for one thing. A wine is meant to enjoy with meals, and the high alcohol is a killer. There is a place for it, with young people getting enthused about wine—they want the big wine. But the serious wine person, they don’t go for that. There are some good ones, but you drink a second glass at dinner and afterwards you don’t feel that good.
In high school, I used to make model airplanes. I thought I might become an engineer. But that went by the wayside. Pete [Jr.] is an engineer, but even being an engineer, he joined us here for this lifestyle. Peter’s in charge of Charles Krug. Marc [his brother] is in charge of CK Mondavi.
I’m 96 and still plugging away. You’ve got to love your profession.
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photo by Robert Mondavi Winery