The Mondavi Story Part 1

The family's ongoing adventure at Charles Krug

The Name Mondavi has been synonymous with Great Napa Valley wines for generations. Through the years the Mondavi family had been at the forefront of innovation and their commitment to quality has remained second to none as their presence in the valley has grown.

Well the times have changed, and with it the wines made by the Mondavi’s, at Charles Krug, the Robert Mondavi Winery, and most recently, at Folio Fine Wine Partners. Well, that might not be the best way to state the facts. I guess the truth is, after tasting the most recent releases from the Mondavi’s, that these are wines, while made by different branches of the family, that share a connection to the past and revel in the glory of the great wines made by the first generation of Mondavis to get a bit of Rutherford dust under their fingernails.

Gregory Dal Piaz is a proponent and admirer of a broad range of wines and styles. During his decades of collecting and tasting he has discovered that a wine need not cost a fortune to drink well. Feel free to ask him questions at the Snooth Forums where he regularly engages with beginners and experts alike.I was lucky enough to taste through some of the current offerings from Charles Krug with peter Mondavi jr. recently and was able to ask him a few questions about the current state of the winery.
Before we get on with the tasting notes and a bit about Charles Krug today let’s begin with the story of Cesare Mondavi, the Mondavi who started it all,. Cesare arrived at New York’s Ellis Island from the Marches region of Italy with $14 in his pocket and hopes of making a new, better life here in the US.  Without much to go on, Cesare found his way to Minnesota in 1908.

After toiling for several years in the mines with his fellow immigrant Cesare decided to make a go of it on his own, opening a small saloon, grocery store and boarding house to service the community.

Within a few years the Mondavis had a son, Robert, and another Peter, who would grow up and revolutionize winemaking in Napa Valley but that’s a story for another day. In the 1910s Cesare was still working had to make a living in Minnesota. Ironically the enactment of prohibition in 1919 turned out to the big break for the first family of Napa Valley wine

Cesare was a member of his local Italian social club back in Minnesota and the members were determined to not have to suffer the ignominious fate of becoming teetotalers.  Under the laws of prohibition each male head of a household was entitled to produce 200 gallons of wine per year.  Now being in Minnesota most people were probably turning out fruit wines, but for this group of Italians that simply wouldn’t do.

So, the Italian Social Club looked around for someone to send to California and buy grapes for their production of real wine. They looked around and saw an awful lot of miners, and one saloonkeeper. Well the choice was obvious and off Cesare went to California in search of grapes suitable for making the table wine everyone so desperately wanted.

After several years of heading off to California on this annual pilgrimage Cesare finally decided it would make more sense to just move to the warm, fertile valleys of California, and he did, in 1922 he settled down with his family in Lodi.

Life in Lodi was all about grapes. Finding the best, shipping them across the country, and of course making wine. It wasn’t long before Cesare realized that the best wine came from the best grapes, and the best grapes came from Napa Valley.

Fast forward to 1943 when Cesare and Rosa Mondavi purchased the famed (first winery in Napa Valley) , but run-down, Charles Krug winery for some $75,000. 147 acres of land and some old buildings were the humble beginning of what would, in time, emerge as forces to be reckoned with.  But back to the beginning.

Through a steady hand, and fine attention to detail, the Ck Mondavi family slowly rebuilt the winery and nurtured the vines back to health. By the middle of the 1950’s Charles Krug’s wine were among the very finest in the country.

By the 1960’s Charles Krug was consistently turning out great wines under the Vintage Selection label. Wines that help to rebuild the reputation of Napa Valley and establish a particular style. Those wines continue to drink well to this day and are among the greatest values in the world of mature, fine wine. Not that I really should be sharing that bit of information, though these wines of Charles Krug, the great vintage selections, somehow continue to fly under the radar and get neither the accolades they deserve nor the prices of their peers.

Let’s hope at least the second half of that statement doesn’t see a drastic change!  I was happily surprised to see, at a recent tasting, that the wine hasn’t seen much of a change over the years either. While Charles Krug has expanded their selection, including other Cabernets in their offerings, the Vintage Selection was instantly recognizable the moment I took a sniff.

I’ll let the notes on each wine do most of the talking from here on out, just a few points worth mentioning. All of the fruit for Charles Krug wines comes from vineyards owned by the family. The majority of these vineyards lie in the heart of the Napa Valley, which, no doubt, makes it easy for the family to produce such a broad array of great Cabernet based wines. As this is only the first chapter of the story there remains much to be told. Stay tuned for the next chapter as we will focus on Robert Mondavi and his eponymous winery.

2006 Charles Krug Napa Valley Merlot

 93% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, .5% Petite Verdot, .5% Syrah

 Aged 18 months in French Barrique, 35% new

 14.5% alcohol

Smoky oak scents are prominent on the nose but there is excellent, fresh red, plummy Merlot fruit on the nose edged in cocoa and coffee giving a very balanced appeal. On the palate there is refreshing acidity helping to keep the dark, slightly earthy fruit fresh and lively. The tannins are very fine giving the wine a silky feel and a nice creamy, richness. A thread of sweetness from the wood winds through the midpalate and on through the finish, which offers a nice pure expression of Merlot. 88pts

2006 Charles Krug Yountville – Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petite Verdot, 3% Syrah, 2% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petite Sirah, 1% Merlot  Aged 18 months in French and American oak

 14.5% alcohol

 A light little on the nose with vanilla and herb tones framing sour cherry and cassis fruit. There’s a bit more obvious sweetness from the oak here than with the Merlot and a spice component that accentuates a meaty, beefiness on the nose. Very soft in the mouth, with a broad feel, but somewhat light bodied.. This has good varietal character but finishes a bit short. It has an easygoing style full of red fruits but best over the short term. 86pts

2005 Charles Krug Generations Family Reserve Napa Valley

62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 9% Petite Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Syrah  Aged for 22 months in French oak

 14.9% alcohol

Crisp and balanced on the nose with a violet top note over a core of rich, slightly jammy red cassis fruit with a jammy strawberry undertone. There are notes of vanilla and coffee bean but they are well balanced by the bright fruit. In the mouth this is soft andrich with a velvety feel in a balanced, seamless style. This is still very young but the incipient complexity manages to squeeze through the fruit revealing integrated wood tones with hints of cinnamon, licorice, earth and cedar on the palate. The finish is long and shows nice precision with silky smooth tannins and a lingering note of woody sweetness. I would prefer this with a few more years of age. 2012-2025 92pts

2006 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon

23 months in 100% new French Barrique

14.7% alcohol

Very ripe on the nose with a light note of wood spice accentuating rich black fruits with a candied plum edge and black spice, licorice details. This smells crisp and taut and just a little coy.  Just from the nose this is recognizable as the Vintage Selection. It shares something with its long line of predecessors. Nice ripe yet restrained style in the mouth with rich fruit flavors fitted to a lean, focused structure. This shows excellent balance and while still very youthful exhibits nice length with pure cassis fruits that carries over a bit of creaminess from the mid-palate, but finishes with a gently sweetening note of mocha. You can find more impressive Napa Cabs but for my palate his is about as good as Napa Valley Cabernet gets.  2010-2025 93pts

2006 Charles Krug Limited Release X Clones Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon

Aged 20 months in 100% new French Barrique

14.5% alcohol

The nose here is quite marked by spicy wood and candied, toasted oak tones but there is still sufficient fruit to balance the load. This is youthful and brooding with savory tones of earth and olive rising above the deep, dark berry fruit core. This enters the mouth rather tightly with lots of extract and more than obvious oak. While a bit closed feeling there is a core of rich, dark fruit that supports the fine but abundant tannins. The backend is dominated by tannin and a slight bitterness, but that would seem to be due to the wines immaturity as the overall feel is one of fine balance that blends richness, power and freshness. This needs a few years to sort itself out but should be a fine, complex example of Cabernet in due time. 2014-2025 92pts

Two Great Wines from Charles Krug

2006 Charles Krug Napa Valley Merlot
Smoky oak scents are prominent on the nose but there is excellent, fresh red, plummy Merlot fruit on the nose edged in cocoa and coffee giving a very balanced appeal. On the palate there is refreshing acidity helping to keep the dark, slightly earthy fruit fresh and lively. This is a nicely rich Merlot with very broad appeal at a great price.

2005 Charles Krug Generations Family reserve
Crisp and balanced on the nose with a violet top note over a core of rich, slightly jammy red cassis fruit with a jammy strawberry undertone. There are notes of vanilla and coffee bean but they are well balanced by the bright fruit. In the mouth this is soft and rich with a velvety feel in a balanced, seamless style.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Nicki Gig
    Hand of Snooth
    178306 4,201

    I enjoyed learning the history of this world renowned winery and look forward to part 2!

    Feb 08, 2010 at 4:53 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,113

    Thanks for this piece, Greg, and look forward to the next, hopefully with plenty of tasting notes. ;-)

    Are you going to be covering how Robert's children are faring since the family sold the Oakville winery?

    Feb 08, 2010 at 4:54 PM

  • Snooth User: tedN
    325502 20

    blending syrah with tradition bordeaux grapes in a meritage? intersting!

    Feb 08, 2010 at 5:20 PM

  • Snooth User: guymandude
    292055 16

    Cool story. The video was interesting as well. Look forward to more.Great !

    Feb 08, 2010 at 8:46 PM

  • Snooth User: Hliguori1
    369824 11

    I always thought Charles Krug (two buck Charlie) was just a cheap wine sold in Trader Joe's. Thanks for the info.

    Feb 08, 2010 at 9:46 PM

  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,549

    tedN - adding Syrah to a Bordeaux blend is an old tradition, used to beef the wine up a bit, you can read a Wine Spectator article about it here:

    Hliguori1 - I think you are thinking of Charles Shaw, which is 2 Buck Chuck. Charles Krug is a much older winery and has been in the Mondavi family, owned by Robert Mondavi's brother, for decades.

    Feb 08, 2010 at 11:49 PM

  • Snooth User: Hliguori1
    369824 11

    Thank you, for the correction. I thought it was strange.

    Feb 09, 2010 at 1:17 AM

  • Snooth User: FOG Pres
    117368 9

    Great article, Greg, many thanks and I am looking forward to the next installment.
    I was fortunate enough to have visited Napa in 1976 when it was in it's "formative" years. I fell in love with the region and with the wines. The Mondavi tour was by far the best at that time, and the guides were part of the production team. I still go back to Mondavi when I am in the area, but the crowds tend to drive me elsewhere. I was surprised to read that Folio is also part of the Mondavi favorite "Tuesday night" wines.

    Feb 09, 2010 at 12:08 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 204,320

    Thanks everybody. I'll be following up with a look at Robert Mondavi, with tasting notes, next week and wrapping up with Michael Mondavi the week after. It's a great story and I am glad to be able to tell event his small part of it!

    Feb 09, 2010 at 12:42 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,113

    Perhaps some background to Peter Mondavi's visit with Snooth:
    '“It’s an understatement to say it’s a buyers’ market, even for a smaller distributor like me,” said Lou Bock, whose wholesaler business is based in San Francisco. “The guys in Napa are shellshocked.”

    '“Wineries that need to move inventory have gotten desperate,” said Peter Mondavi Jr., president of Charles Krug Winery. Like a few other major, time-honored brands with ample lower-priced offerings, Krug has been shielded to date from such dire scenarios.

    'For the less fortunate, haggling from wholesalers is merely insult added to continuing injury: Recent consolidation in the distribution industry has left many wineries believing they’re getting the bum’s rush. Distributors, they say, pay attention only to their biggest accounts, while small independent wineries, which predominate in Napa Valley, have to figure out ways to promote themselves.

    'But even wineries with good distributor rapport need to recognize that times are changing, Mr. Mondavi said. “Direct-to-consumer sales are becoming more critical,” he said. “We want to grow that segment of our business.”'

    'From a recent New York Times article on changes in business practices in Napa resulting from the bloodbath in the industry ensuing from the ongoingly abysmal economy:

    Feb 18, 2010 at 5:25 AM

  • there's a book... "The House of Mondavi" written by Julia Flynn Siler... in case anyone wants to learn more about this fascinating family

    Feb 24, 2010 at 2:51 PM

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