renovating mondavi

Friday, October 30, 2009

I have watched in dismay as the corporate owners of the Robert Mondavi wineries have expanded, diluted and in my view diminished the value of that storied name. Not that it isn’t their legal right – they bought it all, lock, stock, barrels and trademark – but it would be nice to see some hint of stewardship. So far, I’ve seen none.

I raised the subject this week during a conversation with Peter Mondavi Jr., the son of Robert’s brother Peter. Peter’s branch of the Mondavi family motored along quietly over the decades, managing hundreds of acres of prime Napa valley vineyard, and churning out rather ordinary wines under two labels.

But in 1995, Peter Jr. recounted, a “pivotal point” was reached. He and his brother sat down determined to take over the reins from their (then) octogenarian father and “re-invent ourselves.”

“Back in 1968,” he continued, “we had 27 different SKUs [separate wines]. By 1995 it had come down to around 16. We cut that in half in one fell swoop.” These third generation Mondavis also invested in new facilities, upgraded vineyards, and brought their winemaking in line with modern practices – some $30 million in the past decade. The results of all this effort have been increasingly apparent. Their Charles Krug wines, which now number eight in all, are very soundly made, estate grown, fair value –

Wait a minute! Charles Krug? Who the hell is Charles Krug? What is he doing sniffing around the last family-owned Mondavi winery?

Well, according to the website, the Charles Krug Winery was established in 1861, claims to be the first in the Napa Valley, and has been owned and operated by the Mondavi family since 1943. In James Conaway’s “Napa – The Story of an American Eden”, the purchase is described as having been instigated by Robert, who heard that Krug was for sale and set about to convince his brother and parents that it was a must-purchase opportunity.

The parents were convinced, the purchase made, the vineyards replanted, and within a couple of years two labels were set in motion. Charles Krug, revivified, was to be the more prestigious label for dry, European-style table wines. CK Mondavi would be the bulk wine label.

And so it has remained. Following the famous split between the brothers, the Peter Mondavi family gained control of both Krug and CK Mondavi. Today, as a result of the third generation’s hard work, the Krug wines are much improved. I tasted through the lineup of all eight current offerings, and was especially fond of the 2008 Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc ($16) and 2007 Charles Krug Chardonnay ($18). The 2006 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon ($23) and 2007 Charles Krug Zinfandel ($25) also impressed, with good concentration, excellent varietal character, and well-managed tannins.

Following my meeting with Peter Jr. I found myself thinking about the marketing of the brands. Is it just me, or is anyone else bothered by the fact that the Mondavi name is still attached to the cheap jug wine. (Apparently the CK stands not for Cesare – Robert and Peter’s father – but for Charles Krug, rearing up like a zombie yet again.) Legal restrictions (due to the Robert Mondavi trademark) prevent the prestige wines from being labeled as Mondavi, though they carry an almost-invisible note that reads “Peter Mondavi Family” under the bold Charles Krug script.

So I’m thinking, why not flip the brands? The family owns the CK Mondavi name and label free and clear, as it pre-dates the Robert Mondavi trademark. Why not make CK Mondavi the prestige wines, and let old Charles Krug carry the jug wine load? Let it honor Cesare Mondavi (who knows, maybe his middle name was Kevin?) – whatever – it’s the Mondavi moniker that carries the tradition forward.

I’m sure there are a zillion objections, and reasons not to, but there is one good, solid reason to take such a bold step. Renovate the Mondavi name, and restore it to its rightful place as a Napa Valley icon.

http://charleskrug.com

10 comments:

NicoRiesling said...

Not "Kevin", "kaiser"....
Wouldn't that be a good name Cesare Kaiser....
May be you should have a piece about wine dynasties. Did not hear much about the Gallo - Boisset marriage for example... Just sayin'...

Timinspokan said...

Mondavi does make some excellent reserve wines, and even their Napa Valley cab, which runs about $28, is really nice for a Napa cab. I personally never buy the cheap Mondavi wines, since I can the same thing or better for less. And comparably priced wines from Columbia Crest, and even a few of the newer Hogue releases, among many others, drink better for my palate. You are right - the Mondavi name is more synonymous with the 4th shelf cheap California wines, which is a shame. I suppose that is why I don't buy more Gallo wines. Some of them are pretty tasty, but I just can't get past the name...

Keith Miller said...

The Mondavi name has turned into "Jug Wine" for consumers... Things happen and it is kind of sad. And a note about Peter Mondavi... I have interviewed him 3 times in 10 years and I'm sorry he is about as exciting as a leaky faucet. Nice guy but as far as a guy out in front of people, which means getting people excited about his brand.. ain't gonna happen (oh the brand / name sells boxes)

Keith Miller / The Winery Group

Tiny said...

PAUL--THIS IS WHY I LOVE YOUR BLOG,LOTS OF FOOD FOR THOUGHT. I'M SORRY WAWINEMAN-MONDAVI MEANS EVERYTHING TO YOU, THE MONDAVIS ARE A BIG PART OF THE WEAVE IN THE FABRIC OF WINE-MAKING,DRINKING AND BUYING. IF I OPENED A BOTTLE OF MONDAVI OAKVILLE RESERVE CAB 04 YOU WOULD BE HAPPY. IT'S TOTALLY UNFAIR TO LUMP THE TWO MONDAVI WINERIES TOGETHER. I'VE HAD CHARLES KRUG AND CK MONDAVI WINES ON MY WINE LISTS THROUGH OUT THE YEARS. THE WINES AND PRICE POINTS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN MORE THAN FAIR. I THINK THEY ARE AHEAD OF THE CURVE THE SO MANY WINERIES ARE HAVING TO LEARN TODAY. GOOD WINE AT A FAIR PRICE. AS FAR AS BEING A LEAKY FAUCET, THERE ARE MANY WINE MAKERS THAT ARE JUST THAT NICE GUYS, MAYBE HE FOUND THE INTERVIEWING PROCESS BORING. WINE MAKING ISN'T ALL ABOUT HYPE. I LIKE YOU GUYS THAT WRITE AND BLOG ABOUT WINE-I HOPE PEOPLE ARE READING WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY--I LOVE THE BANTER AND THE THOUGHT PROCESS A QUESTION FOR YOU -----DOES ANYBODY THINK THAT WINE LISTS NEED TO BE REINVENTED? WHO IS BEING CLEVER AND WHO IS STUCK WITH THE BIG WINE BOOK? WHICH LISTS DO YOU THINK ARE SELLING WINE? SPEAKING OF JUG WINE, I SEE ALLOT OF LOCAL WINE AT A LESSOR PRICE--DOES THAT MAKE THEM CHEAP?

Rob said...

Charles Krug founded the Napa Valley wine industry. The Mondavis actually have the first Napa Valley wine press he used in the back of the tasting room. In his day, he was the personification of what Robert Mondavi has been in our era -- bold, visionary, entrepreneurial, well-known and admired by all. When he died, thousands came out for his funeral, and Frederick Beringer delivered the eulogy -- in German, no less. Today, Krug is in the International Vintners Hall of Fame. A bulk wine named after him would dishonor his reputation and make little sense.

PaulG said...

Charles Krug may have "founded" the Napa valley wine industry, but he made jug wine. Started out with Mission grapes and worked up from there. So no disrespect to put his name on a well-made jug wine, in my view. Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments. Makes it fun to dedicate time and energy to the blog.

Note to Tiny: there's some good discussions on Heimoff's website re: wine lists. Also see www.winemag.com for a very good and detailed post on the subject (about a week ago). Last thing - for future reference - please avoid using all CAPS. It's a bit like shouting at people.

Larry the Wine Guy said...

Mr. Gregutt,
I full disclosure I am in the employ of the owners of Robert Mondavi Winery and the other Robert Mondavi brands. Regardless of my obvious bias I vehemently disagree with your opinion about these wines and it is in fact only an opinion and I challenge you to provide support for your assertions that we have diminished the value of the brand and done nothing to defend the legacy of the most important figure in modern California wine history. Have you visited the Napa Valley winery in the last 5 years? Have you ever spoke to our vineyard managers or wine makers? Have you tasted the Robert Mondavi Winery wines against comparable wines in a blind format? I ask the same questions of you about the other wines that carry the Robert Mondavi name. You have offered negative opinions about these wines in the past and you are certainly entitled to those opinions but may I ask how these wines were tasted? Further when you level accusations of diminishment of value and a lack of stewardship you move beyond opinion. I would advise an unannounced, incognito visit to the Napa Valley winery followed by a request for journalistic access to the grape growing and wine making teams. Perhaps you have done this but I doubt it. Let me take it a step further. Let me offer you the opportunity to taste the wines of the Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley, Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, and Robert Mondavi Private Selection against comparable competition. I certainly make no claims of superiority but I am supremely confident that the Robert Mondavi wines will acquit themselves at minimum equitably against all comers. Yes, I thumb my nose at the sir. Will you take up the gauntlet?

PaulG said...

Larry: It is true that I have expressed my disappointment in the direction of the Robert Mondavi brand. I have not, however, unilaterally dismissed all the wines. Some very good wines are being made, as I have stated. I am concerned with the unbridled brand extension – the dilution and lack of stewardship to which I refer. I have made it very clear that this is opinion, and of course there will be those who disagree. In fact I will take up the challenge you offer - happy to do a blind tasting on your terms, and visit incognito (or otherwise) on my trip thru Napa this coming winter. Please contact me via my e-mail and we'll arrange particulars.

Jason said...

ummmm......what has Constellation done to the Mondavi name that Bob, Michael and Tim didn't already do? Remember, Michael was the one who famously said that they're expanding to every corner of the globe and will soon have "vines on Mars". Papio by Robert Mondavi was created before Constellation took over, Woodbridge many years before. I'm not a Constellation apologist, but what, specifically, can you point to that wasn't done before?

Fred K. said...

I agree with Jason, I used to work at Mondavi Oakville in the '90s and we routinely had people drive up and say "Mondavi makes Napa wines too?" All they knew was the supermarket stuff.

To lay this at the feet of Constellation is to grossly misunderstand what happened to the Mondavi brand before it came under their control.

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