Remembering Napa Valley wine pioneer Peter Mondavi

The news came over the weekend that Peter Mondavi had died, at the age of 101. Son of Cesare Mondavi and brother of Robert Mondavi, Peter owned Charles Krug Winery in the Napa Valley with his family since the early 1940s, with Peter serving as the winemaker from 1944 to 1961.

Robert left the family business and started his own winery in 1966, in the process changing the history of winemaking in the Napa Valley and in all of California.

Peter was far less the showman than his flamboyant brother, but in many ways he was as innovative, as steadfast and as dedicated to establishing Napa as one of the world’s premier wine regions.

It was Peter, and not Robert, who drew the Napa Valley’s oldest commercial winery out of its post-Prohibition decrepitude and reestablished careful winemaking practices, acquiring important properties up and down the Valley floor. It was Peter who replaced the traditional redwood tanks at Charles Krug with French oak barrels, a rarity and an extravagance at the time, but one that the entire valley eventually adopted.

Through the '60s and '70s, Peter Mondavi and his family managed an ever-growing empire under the Charles Krug umbrella, a brand that, like that of his more famous sibling, became synonymous with tradition and quality.

Handsome, soft-spoken, devoted to his family, Peter Mondavi retired, at least officially, only last year. He is in the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintner’s Hall of Fame and is a recipient of the Napa Valley Vintners’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Owing to his age, he has had more "living legend" citations than perhaps any winemaker alive.

But his greatest achievement, he liked to say, was to establish and sustain his winery as a family business, steering it through several acquisitive periods in Napa’s history, a fate to which his brother’s winery finally succumbed in 2004.

Peter's century-plus on earth amounts to a timeline for the most cataclysmic shifts in wine history, where technology, taste and interest in this iconic California beverage advanced at breakneck speed. Mondavi and Krug kept pace, but it remains a brand with a strong sense of tradition, not only in its image but in its wines.

More than this, Peter Mondavi was one of the last and greatest links to Napa’s past, a visionary winemaker and owner who was instrumental in shepherding the Valley from its earliest roots into the 21st century. The Krug name survives because of him, but the Mondavi name — a shared legacy, to be sure — carries on alongside with equal potency.

Peter Mondavi Sr. is survived by two sons, Peter Jr. and Marc; and a daughter, Siena.

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