Quality: the simplest way to publicise a wine

Quality: the simplest way to publicise a wine

Winery takeovers and makeovers come in such a steady stream these days that I go numb from all the announcements. Winemakers change jobs as often as parents change diapers. Consultants come and go, to polish both wines and marketing campaigns. Everyone has a new brand, alternative closure, hi-tech sorting table, solar energy system, fundraising dinner, organic, biodynamic or sustainable farming scheme, and a child who has just graduated from university and returned to tout the above accomplishments as a PR manager.

But no PR ploy works as well as putting quality wine in the bottle, and it didn’t take a press release for me to know that changes were afoot at Charles Krug Winery, Napa Valley’s oldest commercial winery and, in the last decade, one of its most lacklustre. In recent blind tastings, Charles Krug wines have emerged as more than pleasant surprises, showing a marked improvement particularly in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. The excitement of unveiling a bagged wine to find it’s made by Charles Krug, a winery that had fallen off my radar, was enough for me to call the PR manager to book a visit.

Charles Krug, owned by Peter Mondavi’s family, fell into mediocrity in the 1990s, a victim of its own success with its CK Mondavi wines, which sell at $5–6 a bottle. Peter Sr, 92, and his sons Marc and Peter Jr, produced 1 million cases of CK Mondavi a year, and the 60,000–70,000 cases of the higher-end Charles Krug Napa Valley wines were made alongside the cheaper stuff, with the same equipment and winemaking team.

That’s all changed. Peter Jr, 49, who previously headed sales, marketing and finance for the entire company, now oversees just Charles Krug, leaving the CK Mondavi brand to Marc, 52. Separate teams now produce the two lines, and in 2006, Aldolfo Alarcon was hired away from Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Winery in Sonoma County to be the winemaker assigned only to Charles Krug.

Peter Jr built a new crush pad and barrel room for Charles Krug, bought $1.2 million of new barrels, installed open-top fermenters for Pinot Noir, moved the Chardonnay from American to French oak, and initiated a massive replanting programme, with 140 of the family’s 345 hectares in St Helena, Yountville and Carneros already converted to modern rootstocks, clones and trellises, and more work to do. An additional 25ha site has been purchased on Howell Mountain, to be planted this year. Three vineyards are certified organic, and two more should gain CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) approval this year.

There are eight wines in the Krug line-up, down from 16, as Peter Sr agreed to pull out his beloved yet unprofitable Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Muscat Canelli. The focus is on Cabernet Sauvignon from Yountville ($26), a Napa Valley Merlot ($22) largely from the St Helena home block, the Bordeaux-blend Generations Reserve ($42) and the flagship Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($51). New plantings of Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot contribute to the increased complexity of the Cabernet-based wines, and the brightness of the previously moribund Merlot might be attributed to healthier soils achieved through organic viticulture. A minerally, pungent Sauvignon Blanc ($18) is fabulous, and while it’s made from purchased fruit, 10 new hectares of estate Sauvignon will contribute to the 2007 vintage.

These new-look Charles Krug wines are tremendous value, and while some modest price increases have been taken – $2 a bottle for the Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon, for example – the wines are likely to continue to taste more expensive than their price would suggest.

‘We’re playing catch-up, and we have to run twice as hard and do twice as well to keep up with the pack,’ says Peter Jr.

By keeping Charles Krug in the family, it appears Peter Mondavi Sr and his sons have taken a lesson from Peter’s brother, Robert, who lost his own Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004, after it first went public, then was purchased by Constellation Brands (see Stateside, last month). Robert and Peter worked at Charles Krug until the mid-1960s, when they feuded and Robert went off to start Robert Mondavi Winery. His sons, Michael and Tim, had difficulty working together too, and it seems the ‘other Mondavis’ have learned from this, keeping their cool as they work to make better wines.

What Linda’s been drinking this month

Pinot Noir

The recent World of Pinot Noir event on California’s Central Coast had so many lovely wines from visiting producers from Oregon, Burgundy and New Zealand, yet the most memorable bottle was a local wine, the intensely ripe yet very fresh-tasting Foxen Sea Smoke Vineyard 2004 from Santa Rita Hills. It accompanied a meal of pork belly and venison, scuttling the notion that rich California Pinot can’t complement food. Another favourite: the sleek Peregrine Pinot Noir 2005 from Central Otago.

Written by Linda Murphy