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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Salt Peter: Mondavi & Me

My pix of Peter Mondavi at the Charles Krug Winery
Peter Mondavi passed away this week at the age of 101. You might think you know him, but you’re probably thinking of Robert Mondavi - the champion of California wine and founder of Mondavi Winery. Peter, his brother, helmed Charles Krug Winery, also in Napa, and was and the quieter half of the Mondavi boys. I met with Peter Mondavi when he was 96 for an article for Decanter Magazine on the 150th anniversary of the Charles Krug Winery. (read that article HERE)

Robert Mondavi always received most of the attention – he’s the flamboyant, energetic and electrifying one. But Peter, the salt of the earth kind of guy, had his accomplishments too, and for those who are not blatant extroverts, Peter’s successes, while under the radar, forever changed the wine industry. At Charles Krug Peter focused on innovation - was the first to bring French Oak barrels to Napa Valley as well as cold fermentation techniques, and he constantly blind tasted his competitors’ wines. “It keeps your production staff on the ball,” he told me.

Robert and Peter started their wine careers together in 1944 when they persuaded their father to buy the Charles Krug Winery, but their working relationship soured and there were frequent clashes over wine and marketing. Peter stayed on at Krug, while Robert started the Robert Mondavi Winery. In his autobiography Robert records how he left the family business in 1965 after a fist fight with Peter over a fur coat he bought for a visit to the Kennedy White House. The two were not reconciled until 2005, 40 years later. I asked Peter about it; he fumbled, diverted attention to my question then quietly said: “We were at his (Robert’s) home a few weeks before he passed, and of course he’d had his stroke, so he couldn’t speak. He looked good, he looked relaxed and he managed to eat, so that was satisfying to me.” The brothers were having yearly Christmas gatherings for several years prior to Robert’s death. “It was tough to see him in poor health but at our age you learn to accept some of those things. With all the people in the world, well, we’re all different. We’d put aside our differences years ago.” But I saw in Peter’s eye that in spite of everything, this was still a very sensitive issue. I have no idea why and I will not speculate here. What I understood from Peter is that they made up – in whatever manner and form that took shape. Wine is about land, marketing and farming but it is also about people and these people were some of the founders of the American wine industry – two divergent men who shared the same name but it seems little else.

“This idea of being popular, it didn’t phase me,” Peter told me. “Robert was entirely different from me, he was the promoter and he got carried away with his ego. He was a spender, but he made money too. I’m the quiet one, but that’s my nature,” he said in the sterile confines of the Charles Krug Winery on the second floor. Perhaps that low-key approach helped Peter reach 101. But it was partly the fact that an outside staircase behind the building he walked up and down several times each day to reach his office provided exercise. When I visited I was ushered into an elevator. I would have much preferred the stairs, too. “I keep busy, have reasonable stamina, and I learned that if you don’t keep up a little exercise on a daily basis, you wear yourself out. I do 10 minutes daily and I still drink wine every night, mostly Cabernet.” No surprise there.

“Fundamentally, the Charles Krug style is rooted in Dad’s decades of winemaking wisdom,” Peter Mondavi Jr. told me about his father. “We have gotten considerably more sophisticated and refined over the years, especially when it comes to planting our vineyards. We are very sensitive to the soil, rootstock requirements and the proper representation of the various clones available. Our wines remain balanced and destined for the dining table.”

Both Peter and Robert have passed on and I hope they share a glass of wine together at some other dining table, as we do, to honor our own family, our own accomplishments and successes, and even just the end of another day. Peter will be missed. Robert still is. But make no mistake – both of the Mondavi boys have had an indelible influence on American wine. If nothing else, raise a glass and toast to that.