Napa Valley Wine Pioneer

Peter Rudolph Mondavi, '36

May/June 2016

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Napa Valley Wine Pioneer

Photo: Courtesy Mondavi Family

Peter Mondavi devoted his life to making wine in Napa Valley and building a business that has been passed down to the fourth generation of his family. Quiet and determined, he was responsible for pioneering techniques that set new standards for the industry: sterile filtration and cold fermentation, resulting in the trademark crisp, fragrant white wines that typify the California style today.  

Peter Rudolph Mondavi, ’36, died February 20 in St. Helena, Calif., at the age of 101.

Born in Minnesota, Peter moved during Prohibition to Lodi, Calif., where his family started a fruit-shipping business. He earned his degree from Stanford in 1938—a little late because he took time off to earn money for his tuition by nailing together wooden crates for his father. He also spent a semester studying oenology at UC-Berkeley, then California’s center for academic research on wine.

Mondavi served in World War II, but not before passing on to his family what he had learned about the latest techniques in fermentation. These were put to good use at Charles Krug Winery, founded in 1861, which the family bought in 1943. It is now Napa Valley’s oldest operating winery, with holdings of more than 800 acres of prime land that Mondavi helped secure in the 1960s and ’70s. 

After the war, the Mondavi brothers joined a group of Napa Valley winegrowers bootstrapping their operations and exchanging notes on their findings. Mondavi’s sons, Marc and Peter Jr., ’80, MS ’82, MBA ’93, remember how their father shared his expertise at the dinner table. “He would explain what he was looking for and what the wines were showing,” says Marc.“He was always researching a better way.”

Mondavi and his brother, Robert, ’36, disagreed on how to manage the business, and, following a legal battle, Robert left to found his own venture. Peter took over Krug after his mother died in 1976. Over seven decades, Mondavi watched Napa Valley change dramatically, from a sleepy agricultural community to boutique investment wineries and trophy properties that change hands and farming methods frequently. Throughout, he focused on building Charles Krug according to an estate-driven business model that allowed control over every aspect of production, from sourcing the grapes to vinification to the ageing of the wine.

His sons recall how their father, in his late 90s, would still take daily walks around the vineyards to see, as he said, that “everything is going as it should be going.” Working 12 hours a day, six days a week, Mondavi enjoyed good health and being surrounded by family to the end. “He sat down in his chair, with a twinkle in his eye, and just faded away,” Peter Jr. says.

Mondavi was predeceased by his wife of 60 years, Blanche. He is survived by his sons; a daughter, Siena; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Vicky Elliott is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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