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The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty – Part 1

Read part one of our special four part insight into the Mondavi legacy, looking back over four generations worth of winemaking and the events that bought the family's Californian wines to international acclaim.

L-R: Cesare Mondavi, Robert Mondavi and Rosa Mondavi at Stanford University in 1936. (Image credit: UC Davis Special Collections)

Late in November, the harvest complete, there was a week-end of Mondavi family celebrations in Napa Valley. Peter Mondavi, the family patriarch since Robert’s death in 2008, presided over a large dinner party at the Charles Krug winery, where the full conjunction of the Mondavis with Napa Valley can be said to have begun.

The dinner marked Peter’s 99th birthday while recognizing the transformation of the winery itself. An extensive visitor reception area created from the old redwood tank room, had guests admiring its warm elegance, an inviting space that nevertheless preserved the character of the oldest winery in the valley.

Timothy Mondavi, Robert’s younger son, had given a dinner the night before to celebrate the completion of the first phase of the new Continuum winery at the summit of Pritchard Hill, the venture he had started in 2005 with his father and his sister, Marcia, after the sale of the Robert Mondavi Winery. Michael, his older brother had also invited the extended family and others to a lunch that weekend to mark the progress of the Michael Mondavi Estate, his own family venture, with extensive vineyards high on Atlas Peak and in the cool, bay-side Carneros.

The story started when Robert’s and Peter’s parents, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, originally from Italy’s Marche, moved from Minnesota to Lodi soon after Prohibition started in 1919. They came to organise the buying and shipping of fresh grapes for Italian-Americans – and others – who wanted to take advantage of a provision in the law allowing families to make a limited quantity of wine each year for their own consumption.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Cesare, who had built a considerable business network over years of working with local grape growers, helped them organise their own winery, Acampo (in which he had a personal stake) to absorb their fruit. Soon he had also taken a stake in a bulk-wine facility in Napa Valley: the Sunny St. Helena Winery.

Cesare’s experience had taught him what to expect of grapes from the state’s varied regions, and he saw unique qualities in those of Napa Valley. Eventually, he made a full commitment there by selling his interest in Acampo and buying out his partner in Sunny St. Helena. Robert, his elder son, now graduated from Stanford, where he had studied economics and business while taking summer winemaking courses at U.C.Davis, managed the winery for him.

Sunny St. Helena produced bulk wine for shipment to bottlers in and out of state. The lack of a bottling line placed the winery at a disadvantage: the United States, now at war, imposed price controls on bulk wine (and most other agricultural commodities), but not on bottled, branded wine.

Robert was frustrated by the constraint imposed on him. He heard that the historic Charles Krug winery, just north of St. Helena, was for sale. Though still impressive in scale, and legendary as the oldest in Napa Valley (founded in 1861), the winery had decayed, like so many others during Prohibition and the Depression years that followed.

By 1943, no wine had been made there for some while, but there was a bottling line and, most impressive of all, the winery stood in its own 147 acres of prime Napa Valley vineyard.

Robert persuaded his father to buy it. The family could sell wine more profitably in bottle and owning the Charles Krug name would allow them to promote a brand with a long history while building recognition for the quality of what they produced. With the vineyards, they could also control the source of at least some of their fruit with the guarantees that gave them.

Despite the difficulty of obtaining building materials in war-time, Robert soon brought the winery up to operating condition, and was able to crush that year’s crop there. The family decided to sell only their best wines under the Charles Krug name; the second quality, mostly what would otherwise have been sold as bulk wine at Sunny St. Helena, they bottled under the CK label.

See more:
The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty: Part 2
The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty: Part 3
The Mondavis: A Napa Valley Dynasty: Part 4

Written by Gerald Asher

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