Napa Valley History in a Glass


How does an iconic Napa Valley winery celebrate seventy-five years of making wine family style? For Peter Mondavi Jr. of Charles Krug Winery, it meant raiding the wine library, corralling family members, and taking the show on the road.

This spring Mondavi hosted a series of masterclasses in New York, Dallas, and Napa Valley, where he guided attendees through a selection of eight Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernets dating back to 1964, along a pre-release sample of 2015 and barrel sample of 2016 vintages. I attended the masterclass in Dallas, then visited the Napa winery less than a week later. This retrospective tasting was truly Napa Valley history in a glass.
In 1861, Napa Valley visionary Charles Krug established the winery. Cesare and Rosa Mondavi moved to the United States as newlyweds from Italy in 1908. After moving around the United States they settled in California, and in 1943 purchased Charles Krug Winery. Upon the death of Cesare Mondavi in 1959, Rosa Mondavi became the president of Charles Krug, running the winery with her two sons. In 1965, Robert Mondavi Charles Krug Winery to start a winery of his own. Peter Mondavi Senior ran the Charles Krug from 1976 until 2016, when he passed away at the age of 101. Today, brothers Peter Mondavi Jr and Marc Mondavi run Charles Krug Winery, continuing the legacy of family values, hard work, and crafting quality wines using European traditions.  

Charles Krug has been a true innovator in Napa Valley. Under the leadership of Peter Mondavi Sr., Charles Krug was the first in Napa Valley to utilize French oak for aging wines. He also initiated the practices of cold fermentation, glass-lined tanks, and sterile filtration for better winemaking control.  

Peter Mondavi Jr. explains, of their Vintage Selection Cabernet: “the whole premise is to be the best of the best.” In the early years much of the fruit was sourced from Napa Valley’s top vineyards, such as To Kalon and Faye Vineyards. Peter Mondavi Sr. would pick the best fruit to comprise the wine. Today, Mondavi Jr. says, the winery has depth in their estate vineyards. “We know which blocks in which vineyards produce the best Cabernet. Those blocks are ear-marked for Vintage Selection. Now the wine begins in the vineyard from canopy management, spacing, rootstock and clonal selection.”

The winery’s library of Vintage Selection dates back to 1944. It was not until the mid-1960s that the now-iconic red strip was added to the label. Vintage Selection wines were only made in the best vintages, but today, with full control over the growing process, the wine is made annually. However, as Mondavi tells me, “It is not a wine driven by the market. Depending on what the vintage offers, the quantity of the production can vary considerably.”

The Vintage Selection library masterclass felt like stepping into a time machine, returning to the days of Napa Valley when the Cabernets contained lower alcohol and less concentration. Although the winemakers changed over the years, Peter Mondavi Sr. was a constant presence in the wine. Today, regardless of the winemaker, Peter Mondavi Jr. explains, “The family has a heavy influence of the wine style of Vintage Selection.”

Two important events took place in the early 2000s resulting in a style evolution of Vintage Selection. Between 1999 and 2000, Charles Krug undertook a massive vineyard replanting, playing close attention to rootstock selection, clonal selections, vine spacing, and canopy management styles. Also, Peter Mondavi Jr. went to Europe with his father to visit family, and while there met with Denis Malbec, winemaker at Château Latour, in Pauillac. They hired Malbec as a consultant, and he brought the Bordeaux blending mentality to Charles Krug. The 2003 vintage is a reflection of this philosophy, along with re-plantings. Mondavi Jr. tells me he is “pleased with the results” of these changes.

1964 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon smelled like Christmas potpourri as it entered the glass. However, as the wine met the air around it, it developed notes of black olive tapenade, moving from a sweeter spice to a more savory wine. The 1964 vintage was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 14 months in a blend of French and American oak, and contained only 11.4% alcohol. I found it elegant, light, and easy to enjoy.

1966 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon surprised me by its freshness. Only two years younger than the 1964, its fruit is much more pronounced. It has all the characteristics of a well-made aged wine, with spice, dried fruit, worn leather, and cedar. The tannins are well integrated but still have a vibrancy on the palate. Ninety-two percent of grapes for this wine came from the To Kalon Vineyard. It spent 29 months in French and American oak and weighed-in at 12.8% alcohol.

1974 Lot F-1 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon stole my heart. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Fay Vineyard in the Stag’s Leap Wine District, this 4 decade old wine is drinking beautifully. It has a gorgeous nose with notes of spice, dried red fruit, and dried lavender. It is herbal and savory with loads of vibrancy in both flavors and palate. The structure is alive, the length and finish long. It has 13.2% alcohol.

1983 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon is awake showing no signs of slowing down. Aromas of a worn leather cigar box lined with cedar envelope the senses. Its medium body offers lively tannins with a touch of grip and a long, restrained finish. It was aged 23 months in French oak and has 12.5% alcohol.

1991 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon affirms 2 decades is not old for a well-made Napa Valley Cabernet. This wine is full of life. Layers of dried and baked fruit, spice, dried roses, tobacco, licorice, and dried herbs stand at attention. High tannins and acidity balance a fuller-bodied, richer wine that feels a bit weightier on the palate. Still a stunner. It was aged in French oak for 28 months and is 13.9% alcohol (more prevalent on the palate).

1998 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon was another dazzling wine. Peter Mondavi Jr. explained this was a challenging vintage due to an abundance of rain. Overall the ratings on the vintage were low and initially this wine was lackluster based on the standards expected of the Vintage Selection Cabernets. However, twenty years later this wine is stunning. It offers rich fruit, cassis, dried herbs and roses, spice, dusty cocoa, and black pepper. The tannins are high yet integrated, it has great structure and length. Aged 26 months in French oak with 13.7% alcohol.

2003 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petite Verdot, 4% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Syrah. It is young and full of life. Notes of cherry, plum, spice, roses, cassis, sweet tobacco, cedar, and licorice are layered on the palate. It’s rich and opulent — yet elegant — with high tannins and acidity, full body, long finish. Aged 20 months in French oak, with 13.6% alcohol.

In 2011, Charles Krug hired Winemaker Stacy Clark to carry on the family’s vision. She collaborates with Peter Mondavi Jr. in overseeing the winemaking operations. Mondavi Jr. says, “Stacy has a way of bring balance to all our wines. She is an artist – constantly blending and re-blending, experimenting with picking the same vineyards at different times, always in pursuit of balance.” The following two wines are not yet available but are made under the guidance of Stacy Clark.

2015 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of 96% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Petit Verdot. We tasted a bottle sample; the wine will be released in fall 2018. It is markedly different from its predecessors, with candied violets, spice, vanilla, sweet tobacco.  It is ripe, opulent, and juicy, while pronounced, grippy tannins stand at attention in a wine that is much more luscious than any we had tasted — no surprise at 15.8% alcohol. This wine will need time to integrate and reveal the hidden gems of its predecessors.

2016 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon introduces fruit from Cold Springs Vineyard on Howell Mountain blended with grapes from both Slinsen and Voltz Vineyards in Yountville. It is a barrel sample but I’m told it is close to the final blend. (I prefer not to publish notes on a wine that is still developing and will not be released until fall 2019.)

Tasting through the older Vintage Selection wines felt like opening a time capsule. The wines sharing moments of days past, evidence of evolution and experimentation with vineyards, blends, clones, oak protocols, élevage, and alcohol percentage, each providing insight to a family’s traditions and pursuit of excellence.

“The history, legacy, experience, and wisdom that this family has are our strongest and most enduring attributes,” notes Peter Mondavi Jr., “Experience matters. At the same time, we have to be forward-thinking, youthful, and willing to experiment with our methods to stay ahead of the curve.”

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