Columnist, Food

Peter Mondavi Sr., who died last month, was the last of his generation in an American wine dynasty. (2005 file phot by Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Peter Mondavi Sr. died Feb. 20 at age 101. If you like fresh, fruity California white wine, you should raise a glass and thank him. Back in the 1960s, he pioneered cold fermentation of white wines, a now-commonplace technique that protects the fermenting wine from oxygen.

Mondavi was the last of the second generation of an American wine dynasty, a family now in its third and fourth generations producing wine in Napa Valley. Although he was always overshadowed by his more flamboyant brother, Robert, Peter’s contributions to the development of Napa Valley wine were significant. He was the first Napa vintner to invest in barrels made of French oak and among the first to develop vineyards in the cooler Carneros region, famous today for chardonnay and pinot noir.

Ironically, the Mondavi family got its start in wine because of Prohibition. Cesare Mondavi, an Italian immigrant, moved his family to California from Minnesota so he could buy grapes to sell to Italian families back east for home winemaking. In 1943, he bought Charles Krug winery. Founded in 1861, it is Napa Valley’s oldest operating winery.

The brothers helped their father build the business into a post-Prohibition-era powerhouse. Peter concentrated on the wine, while Robert handled the marketing. But it wasn’t a harmonious partnership, and in November 1965, their quarrels over the direction of the family business reached the breaking point. Their mother, Rosa, who had taken over the winery upon Cesare’s death in 1959, sided with Peter. Robert left to start his own winery and helped revolutionize the modern California wine industry. His was a soap-opera story of spectacular success, continued family quarrels and ultimate downfall. Robert Mondavi died in 2008 at age 94, a few years after his winery was sold to Constellation Brands. This year, the Robert Mondavi winery will celebrate its 50th vintage.

Peter, meanwhile, kept Charles Krug winery in the family. He had begun buying new vineyards in the 1960s when land was cheap, eventually amassing a total of 850 acres of vineyard land. In the past decade, the family invested more than $25 million in replanting most of their vineyards and modernizing the winery, according to Wine Spectator magazine. Peter’s sons, Marc and Peter Jr., both have children following him in the wine business.

Although Peter Mondavi didn’t seek the limelight, the industry recognized him for his contributions. In 1986, the Napa Valley Vintners Association named him one of “Twelve Living Legends in the Napa Valley.” He was the last survivor of that group.

Mondavi kept Charles Krug in the family through a period of winery and vineyard consolidation that saw many familiar family wineries sold to larger corporations. Even after he turned over day-to-day operations of the company, including the C.K. Mondavi brand, over to Marc and Peter Jr., the elder Mondavi remained active until well after he passed the century mark.

Peter and Robert reconciled late in life. Yet to the end, Peter remained proud that he did not follow in Robert’s path, which led ultimately to a corporate takeover that wrested control of Robert Mondavi winery from the family.

Asked late in life to describe his proudest accomplishment, Mondavi said: “Never losing control of our family winery. If I could, I would tell my father: I did the best I could during the difficult years. I was determined, and we held on.”