Napa Valley wine pioneer Peter Mondavi, Sr., has died at the age of 101. He passed away on Saturday, February 20, 2016 at his home in St. Helena, California, on the Charles Krug estate.
Mondavi was born on November 8, 1914 in Virginia, Minnesota to hardworking, modest Italian immigrants Cesare and Rosa Grassi Mondavi. He was the youngest of four children (most notably Robert Mondavi, born June 18, 1913). Rosa ran a boarding house for Italian iron miners while Cesare operated a saloon and parlayed it into a grocery store at the onset of Prohibition. Prodded by the local Italian immigrant community, Cesare became a wine-grape buyer, traveling to California to purchase fruit for his home-winemaking neighbors in Minnesota (the Mondavis themselves had no winemaking lineage whatsoever). As a young boy, Peter supported his father’s wine-grape shipping business by nailing the boxes that would hold the grapes. The success of Cesare’s wine-grape shipping business brought the family to Lodi, CA in 1922.
Napa Valley wasn’t event on the “map” of the wine world when Peter’s wine career began. Peter earned his degree in economics from Stanford University in 1938, but found himself drawn to winemaking. He began doing research in oenology at UC Berkeley, taking a short break to serve in the military during World War II.
In 1943, the Mondavis acquired Napa Valley’s oldest operating vineyard, Charles Krug Winery (dating back to 1861) and Peter began working for them in 1946. At the time, Peter made the wines and his brother Robert ran the business. A dispute over how to run the business led Robert to leave the winery in 1965 (the brothers would reconcile decades later) and start his own winery while Peter continued to run Charles Krug. Upon his mother’s death in 1976, Peter assumed the role of president and CEO of Charles Krug. He acquired 800 acres of former dairy land to expand the vineyard and began to build his empire. This land-buying spree established the foundation for the winery’s estate-driven wines.
Mondavi is best known introducing cold fermentation to produce crisper, fruitier white wines and roses. He was also the first in Napa Valley to import French oak to age wines and among the pioneering vintners who planted pinot noir and chardonnay grapes in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. A winemaker above all else, Mondavi was quoted in Wine Spectator speaking to his joy, which was “to linger in the laboratory, testing and experimenting.”
Mondavi invested a lifetime in building, growing and protecting his family’s business. Fiercely determined to keep the winery family-owned in the midst of corporate buyouts happening up and down Napa Valley, he led an effort to preserve the family’s estate vineyards. During a nine-year period ended in 2010, Mondavi invested $22 million in replanting 400 prime acres of vineyards with primarily red Bordeaux varietals, instituting sustainable farming practices and implementing state-of-the-art winemaking equipment in the process.
Mondavi left an indelible impression on the California wine industry, but also on the legacy that passes to the next generations of winemakers within his family. He took steps to preserve the history of Charles Krug, overseeing the restoration of two landmark buildings – the 1872 Redwood Cellar and the 1881 Carriage House – that are now registered on the National Registry of Historic Places and considered California historical landmarks. His efforts were recognized with the Governor’s Historic Preservation Award in 2010.
Asked late in life to note his proudest accomplishment, he replied, “Never losing control of our family winery. If I could, I would tell my father: ‘I did the best I could during the difficult years. I was determined and we held on.’”
In 2015, Peter retired and turned operations of Charles Krug over to his two sons, Marc and Peter Jr., but remained “hands-on” until the end.
Mondavi was preceded in death by his wife, Blanche, and his siblings, Robert, Mary and Helen. He is survived by a daughter, Siena, two sons, Marc and Peter Jr., nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.