Cheers to Mondavi

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Wine, that ancient brew, has the power to soothe, warm and unite, as any drinker or winemaker can tell you.

I had the rare opportunity to sit down with a glass of red -- OK, a couple of glasses -- and speak with Peter Mondavi Jr., current proprietor of Charles Krug Winery, the oldest Napa Valley winery and one of the few that has remained in the hands of the same family since the Prohibition era.

Charles Krug, a Prussian immigrant and novice winemaker, originally established the St. Helena, Calif., winery in 1861. James Moffitt bought the winery in 1893 after Krug's death, and he wanted to pass ownership onto someone who could continue the prestigious Krug tradition.

Moffit sold the winery to his close friends Rosa and Cesare Mondavi in 1943 for $75,000. The Mondavis were a natural choice -- they were already involved in the world of viniculture, with their business distributing California wine grapes to other Italian emigres in the area.

One of their sons, Peter Mondavi Sr., inherited the vineyard in 1966 and became a trendsetter in production techniques, introducing the use of glass-lined tanks and cold fermentation, which preserves the fruit character of the wine.

Peter Mondavi Jr., 49, now heads up Charles Krug Winery.

Recently, his father, Peter Sr., and uncle Robert, who in 1966 established his own winery in nearby Oakville, Calif., were given a well-deserved lifetime achievement award at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.

Peter Jr. has kept the custom of working with family alive and runs his winery with his brother, Marc. The brothers and their cousin, Robert's son Tim, led a seminar at the festival. The seminar featured sips of wines from Charles Krug Vintage Select 1965 and 1994, as well as a comprehensive tasting of more-recent vintages.

At the event, brothers Peter Sr. and Robert were reunited and poured the 2004 Ancora Una Volta Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was given its title, which means "together again," because it was the first wine the elder brothers produced together back in the 1960s at the original Mondavi family winery.

Why did the brothers split up in the first place?

"[My dad and my uncle] just had different visions, and those were difficult times," Peter Jr. told me. Robert had a grandiose, worldwide vision for the brand that differed from Peter Sr.'s and the rest of the family's views, which were geared toward a localized, hands-on family business. (Robert Mondavi's winery was eventually bought by Constellation Brands (STZ) in 1993.)

Lifelong Oenophile

Since he was a young child, Peter Jr. has been around wine.

At 8 years old, he was doing odd jobs around the vineyard for 50 cents an hour, and in subsequent years, his grandmother Rosa taught him the finer points of food and wine pairing.

Peter Jr. eventually had a hand in all aspects of wine production, from viniculture to tasting, but then he left for Stanford University, where he earned a master's in engineering management and an M.B.A. However, "wine ran in my blood, and I immediately came back [to it]. It's a wonderful business to be in," he said.

Now, decades later, his responsibilities certainly have increased: Peter Jr. and Marc are spending $21.6 million to replant the 850-acre Mondavi estate.

The plans include converting to sustainable organic agriculture, restoring fallow acreage with native vegetation and renovating a landmark building on the grounds.

Peter Jr. is aiming for 100% organic certification within five years. Organic wines are free from pesticides, herbicides and fertilization, and he wants to convert the vineyard in part to protect the natural environment.

Many Napa Valley wineries, like his uncle Robert's was, are acquired by international wine conglomerates, but Peter is resolute in his intention to remain independent. "I'm a control freak. I want to be immersed in everything, and I really want the winery to be a reflection of the family," he said.

I asked whether he was planning on passing the winery on to his two children and continuing the family-owned tradition.

"They are still young to decide at this point; I would want them to pursue their [own] ultimate endeavors," he replied.

Mondavi's Picks

The Mondavi winery sells two brands of wine: Charles Krug, which focuses on Bordeaux-style reds, and C.K. Mondavi, which encompasses Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots.

Peter Jr. speaks about all his wines enthusiastically, but he told me that one of his favorites is the Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, because of how true the final taste is to the grapes.

The ripe grapes were picked at night, because they would otherwise deteriorate at higher temperatures. They were then minimally handled, which yielded a wine with fruit notes of peach, green apple, melon, banana, guava and grapefruit.

This wine was not put in barrels but rather stainless-steel tanks, which allowed the flavor stay as true as possible to the grapes and not pick up any other overtones. The 2006 vintage is priced at $18 a bottle.

Another of Peter Jr.'s favorites is the 2003 Family Reserve Generations, a Bordeaux red varietal which includes a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc Malbec. This rich wine has deep notes of nutmeg, licorice, mint and wild-berry jam. "Making this wine didn't happen overnight; it took about two years to make," Peter Jr. explained. It retails for $42 a bottle.

"There is a beautiful romantic side of the wine business, but it's important not to lose track of the business side," Peter Jr. said -- good advice for future wine proprietors.

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