The wine world is mourning the passing of a legend, Peter Mondavi Sr., who died February 20 at his home on the Charles Krug Winery estate in St. Helena, California. He was 101 years old.
“I am heartbroken to say grandpa said his final goodbye and is now watching over us,” Alycia Mondavi, granddaughter of Mondavi, wrote on her Facebook. “He was my inspiration, backbone and mentor. I will forever miss our cocktail hours and talks of the crazy wine industry.”
Nephew Michael Mondavi had this to say about his father’s brother.
“One of Uncle Peter’s great qualities was that he had a conservative philosophy and in his quest for excellence he really helped lead Napa Valley in the 1950s and ’60s to create far better wines that created a foundation for what we have today. Peter was all about the quality and style of his wines, and he was on the leading edge in terms of a technical standpoint in producing beautiful natural wines.”
The fourth child of Italian immigrants, Peter Mondavi Sr., was born in Virginia, Minnesota, in 1914. He spent summers in Lodi, California, packing 30-pound Zinfandel grapes alongside his brother Robert in their effort to help his father produce homemade wine.
The family soon moved to the Napa Valley and bought the fabled Charles Krug Winery in 1943 for $75,000.
“I give credit to my folks,” said Mondavi, of those early days. “They had very little education but they knew what to do. They were both very strong and had desire.”
Mondavi graduated with a degree in economics from Stanford University in 1937 and also attended classes at University of California, Berkeley, specifically to research the effects of cold fermentation on white and rosé wines.
“Most of the wines at that time were made at higher temperatures, where they would lose their fruit character through oxidation,” he once explained about the importance of cold fermentation.
Mondavi also served in the military during World War II before returning to the family business.
“In those days you just worked at it,” Mondavi recalled during an interview in 2014. “[Wine] was a new business, very little was known about it and there were very few wine drinkers. It was a slow learning process. There was very little good equipment. We concentrated on making each variety separate, to best learn about them. We just relied upon the weather and the varietal, whatever it was. It’s become very scientific. We were just learning by error.”
Peter and his brother Robert Mondavi operated Charles Krug Winery together for 23 years, living onsite alongside their parents, spouses and kids during many of those years. They introduced the use of cold fermentation, glass-lined tanks and French oak barrels to their winery, among many other innovations.
They also launched California’s first winery newsletter in 1949 called Bottles and Bins.
“It was another way to promote our wines and educate consumers at a time when people knew very little about wine,” Mondavi said.
“Uncle Peter was an excellent balance to my father,” Michael Mondavi notes. “My father the eternal optimist; my uncle helping me realize the balance between optimism and to always plan a little more conservatively. Both my father and Uncle Peter didn’t like to delegate too much, but today my cousins Marc and Pete Jr. are carrying on the great vision of their father and executing it in a way that, I’m sure, would make their father proud. We will miss him dearly.”
While not one to seek the limelight, Peter Mondavi Sr.’s contributions to the advancement of California oenology and viticulture have become increasingly appreciated and understood over time. Until his death, Mondavi was the last surviving member of the “Twelve Living Legends in the Napa Valley,” an honor he was granted by the Napa Valley Vintners in 1986.
In 2011, Wine Enthusiast also recognized his long list of contributions and presented him with the Wine Star Award for American Wine Legend, and in 2012, The Culinary Institute of America inducted him into the Vintners Hall of Fame.
Mondavi attributed his good health and happiness to his nightly glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, which he enjoyed with his wife Blanche until her passing in 2010, and his work. And though he let go of the day-to-day reins in 1990, Mondavi didn’t officially retire until 2015.
Charles Krug Winery remains one of the biggest and oldest family-owned wineries in Napa Valley, where Peter’s sons Marc and Peter Jr. continue to oversee C. Mondavi & Family, in addition to farming 850 acres in the Napa Valley.
In addition to his two sons, Mondavi is survived by his daughter, Siena, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A private service is planned.