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Heart and Soul
At the age of fifty-two, I should have been a happy man.
On the surface, life was good. The year was 1965, and America was prospering. I had a lovely, devoted wife, three delightful children — Michael, Marcia, and Tim — and we lived in what I knew was one of the most idyllic spots on the planet, the Napa Valley. For twenty-three years my brother, Peter, and I had been running a small family business, the Charles Krug Winery, and we were doing pretty well. While my wife Marge and I had to be very careful about what we spent, we were secure enough to live comfortably and provide for our children.
I also adored my work. For some people in the Napa Valley, wine was just a business, an agreeable way to earn a living. Not for me. Wine for me had always been something much larger and it still is. Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the Art of Living. Wine has been with us for seven thousand years, almost since the dawn of civilization, and for centuries poets, painters, musicians, and philosophers have sung its praises. Even the Bible applauds its virtues. And wine to me is even more. When I pour a glass of truly fine wine, when I hold it up to the light and admire its color, when I raise it to my nose and savor its bouquet and essence, I know that wine is, above all else, a blessing, a gift of nature, a joy as pure and elemental as the soil and vines and sunshine from which it springs. "Wine is Life," Petronius said two thousand years ago, and I know exactly what he meant.
For most men and women, what I had would have been the makings of a wonderful, contented life. But not for me. In truth, I was feeling stifled at Krug. Like so many people who reach a critical juncture in their lives and careers, I felt I was not making the most of my business savvy and creativity. I was working hard, as always, but my enthusiasm was on the wane. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, we had been making good table wines at Krug. We were considered to be among the "Big Five" of the Napa Valley, along with Beaulieu Vineyard, Inglenook, Louis Martini, and Beringer Brothers. We had built our reputation on the strength of our white wines, and our cabernet sauvignon was considered among the best in the valley. Still, I felt our ambitions were just too tame. We in California had enormous potential; I knew we could become one of the great wineproducing regions of the world. But the American wine industry was still in its infancy, and no one seemed to have the knowledge, the vision, or the guts to reach for the gold, to make wines that could stand proudly next to the very best from France, Italy, Germany, and Spain.
I wanted to move Krug in a bold new direction. In 1962 I had traveled around Europe for the first time, visiting many of the great wine-producing regions of the world to see how they made their wines. In Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, and the Moselle region of Germany, I explored some of the most prestigious wineries in the world. I toured their vineyards and cellars, examined their equipment, talked with their wine makers, and, of course, tasted their wines. Above all, in these vineyards and cellars and tasting rooms, I imbibed the spirit, the passion, and the commitment that inspired the creation of truly great wines.
Much of what I saw was a revelation. At the great chateaus, the way of growing grapes and making wine was far different from what we had been doing for generations in California. While we had one basic approach for our red wines and another for our whites, their approach was far more subtle and sophisticated. They treated each variety of grape differently, and they had a distinct method and style for each type of wine they made. We made wines in bulk, using huge tanks; they kept their output small to maximize quality, and they aged their wines in small oak barrels to create gentleness, subtlety, and complex layers of flavor. The differences ran much deeper than method and equipment. We were a big, young country, oriented toward mass production and scientific research, and in our wine making we emphasized crop yields, sugar levels, and profit margins. The great European wineries, with centuries of tradition and craft behind them, put their emphasis on less tangible qualities such as style, character, and bouquet. To my mind, the contrast was stark: we were treating wine as a business; the great European chateaus were treating wine as high art.
This realization stirred something deep inside me, but I did not understand what until one day when Marge and I had lunch at La Pyramide, one of the great restaurants of France and the world. I still remember that day vividly. I had a meeting that morning in Lyons with a potential business associate, and Marge and I had a huge breakfast with him. Talking, discussing business, we lingered at the table until about eleven o'clock. "My god," I thought, "here we're going to have lunch in one of the best restaurants in the world, one with three stars in the Michelin Guide, and I'm already stuffed! What am I going to do?"
An hour and a half later, we drove into Vienne, a little village outside Lyons, and found our way to La Pyramide. The setting and atmosphere of the restaurant were tasteful and elegant, without being pretentious, and we sat down to a meal that was absolutely unbelievable. Each and every dish we tried was heavenly and distinctive, with flavors I had never tasted before. Nothing was heavy or too filling, and there were none of those rich cream or butter sauces you found in many French restaurants in those days. Every forkful was light and pure in the mouth; in every bite we could taste the passion and the artistry of the chef.
What really dazzled me was how each dish complemented and enhanced the other, the way the sounds of different instruments meld into a symphony. The wines we tasted during the meal were not big and bold like ours in California; they were gentle and complex, and they artfully accentuated the many sensations and feelings that the cuisine inspired. I'd go so far as to say that the food and the wine transported us into a world of gentleness and balance, of grace and harmony. La Pyramide to me epitomized the artistry and aesthetics we had been discovering all across Europe, and it inspired in me both a vision and a vow:
"This is the kind of wine I want to create," I told Marge. "Wines that have grace and style, harmony and balance."
During my travels in Europe, I was impressed with something else: an opportunity. I saw great extremes in wine making in Europe. The First Growth Bordeaux châteaus — Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Lafite, Château Mar-gaux, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Pétrus — made marvelous wine, subtle and complex, with flavors that were always crisp and clean. And I discovered the reason: these top châteaus were all using only new French oak barrels. Almost everyone else was producing wine the exact same way their forefathers had, and the results were not, to my taste, exceptional. I found many supposedly fine wines that proved to have off characters and bacterial defects. And I saw why: they were making their wine in oak barrels that were used, not new. This was one reason for those sorts of defects and "spent" flavors. To my critical eye, many of the European producers seemed to be asleep, content with the status quo; and so, frankly, I saw an opening. I felt certain that we in the Napa Valley could do just as well or better! It would take time, patience, money, and a full-blown education in how to make wine the way the great Bordeaux cháteaus did, but I felt sure we could succeed. And what an exciting challenge it would be!
I left Europe elated. Some of the wines I had tasted there were exceptional, but I believed that we in California could do just as well and, in time, even better. Our soil, climate, and rootstocks were just as good as what I saw in Europe and in many ways better. We also had the right varieties of grapes to make great wine: cabernet, pinot noir, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. True, we did not have the Europeans' know-how or their craft and tradition. But I felt absolutely certain that we could learn quickly and make significant leaps in the quality of our wines. Over the following days, a great business and creative venture took shape before my eyes: I wanted to take American technology, management techniques, and marketing savvy and fuse them together with Old World tradition and elegance in the art of making fine wine. We would need passion, conviction, and courage, along with a willingness to invest in the necessary research, development, and new equipment. But with this combination, I felt confident that Napa Valley and California could ultimately create wines that would stand shoulder to shoulder with the great wines in the world.
I returned to the Napa Valley energized and ready to go. I wanted Krug to take up the challenge, jump in with both feet. I wanted us to shed our inhibitions, our complacency, our contentment with the status quo. I wanted my family and our company to commit ourselves to a true quest for excellence in our vineyards, in our wine making, and in our marketing and sales. The Napa Valley, in my view, was ready for just this sort of challenge. We were, in fact, a sleepy little farm community, with no sophistication, little economic vitality, and no fine restaurants. Our wine industry was by no means vibrant, either. At the time, we had only about twenty wineries in the whole valley, and only a half dozen were making quality wine. The situation around the state was not much better. The bulk of production in California at that time was jug wine, and the largest producers were Italian Swiss Colony in Asti, Roma Wine Company in Lodi and Fresno, and Ernest and Julio Gallo, located farther south in the Central Valley. But to me the potential was clear. We had magnificent climate and vineyards, a beautiful landscape, and proximity to cosmopolitan San Francisco. I was sure that we had what it took to become one of the great wine-producing regions of the world — provided someone would take the lead. I wanted that someone to be Krug.
I pushed my ideas hard inside Krug and with my family, and I did so in my usual ebullient, single-minded way. But the harder I pushed, the more resistance I encountered, especially after my father passed away. My father had always been open to my suggestions. To most of my family, what I was pushing sounded risky and pointless. We already had a respected business, and our extended family lived comfortably on the beautiful, historic grounds of the Krug Winery. So why rock the boat? Why tamper with our modest but stable success?
So I was stymied. We were a family business; I could not make decisions on my own. In our corporation, established in 1946, my parents controlled 40 percent of the stock. My brother, Peter, and I each had 20 percent, and my sisters, Helen and Mary, had the remaining 20 percent. When my father died in 1959, he left control of the corporation in the hands of my mother, who had no experience in business. We were a comfortable family business, but I felt we needed a great dream, a defining mission, a higher calling. I made my case again and again, but no one in the family, apart from Marge and my children, shared my larger vision. So in the months and years that followed, my frustrations only deepened.
I gave my younger brother, Peter, the most heat. Ever since childhood, our temperaments and ambitions had been to very different, but we had followed parallel paths. In high school I played football, then he played football. I went to Stanford, then he went to Stanford. After graduation, I spent part of my summer vacation being tutored in wine making by Professor Vic Enriques of U.C. Berkeley. Peter later studied wine making at U.C. Berkeley. Then I did an apprenticeship in wine making in the Napa Valley; Peter did an apprenticeship at a winery down in California's Central Valley. In 1943, when I talked my father into buying the Charles Krug Winery, Dad had only one condition: that Peter and I run the business together. We agreed. Peter was serving in the U.S. Army, at the height of World War II, and so I set up all the wine-making operations at Krug. After the war, I took charge of marketing and sales and turned over the wine making to Peter. In the years that followed, we often clashed about wine making and other business matters, but whenever we failed to sort things through, my father would always step in and settle the dispute. After he died in 1959, we held an even keel for a while. But when I returned from Europe in 1962 and urged Peter to make dramatic changes to upgrade the quality of our wines, he really got his back up. I guess Peter felt I was encroaching on his turf. For my part, I felt Peter just did not share my ambition to commit Krug to the challenge and demands of making world-class wines. Peter, of course, might dispute that, but then again we always seemed to disagree and see things from very different perspectives. We still do!
At heart, I think it was a question of temperament. Peter was quiet, gentle, and self-effacing, a family man who loved to fish and adored spending time with his wife and children. When he was a small boy, the family affectionately nicknamed him Babe, and more than forty years later everyone in the family still called him that. By contrast, I was always hard driving and ambitious, and no one ever accused me of being quiet or self-effacing. I never had enough time to fish; I was always too busy thinking of ways to improve our wines and grow our company. My business goals were clear and far-reaching: I wanted Krug to pioneer a whole new approach to wine making in America. Through our work and that of like-minded wineries, I dreamed of putting the whole Napa Valley onto the map of world-class wines, right beside Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Tuscany. Peter, I imagine, thought I was an ego out of control.
My vision for the Napa Valley did turn out to be prophetic, of course, but Destiny did not play out quite as I had anticipated.
Looking back now, I guess the turning point came the year after I returned from Europe, on a fall afternoon when we were busy harvesting at Krug. In the mail that day, in an envelope with fancy lettering and a golden seal, I received a startling invitation. President John F. Kennedy was inviting me and Marge to attend a state dinner at the White House. The dinner was to honor the prime minister of Italy, and I was asked to attend as part of a group of prominent Italian Americans. I took the invitation as a tremendous honor and a golden opportunity for the Charles Krug Winery. President Kennedy and Jackie apparently wanted to show the Italian leader that our young country was starting to make some pretty good wines.
Flattered though we were, Marge and I were very nervous. After all, we came from what was then a small, struggling farm community. We had no wealth and next to no big-city sophistication. We were just small-town people running a small family business. So Marge and I were worried: How in the world would we fare at the Kennedy White House, with the charismatic president and his famous wife, surrounded by all the glamour of Camelot? Marge also had a more specific worry: What in the dickens should she wear to a White House dinner? What dress? What shoes? What bag? What jewelry? What coat?
Marge was particularly worried about a winter coat. She had a coat that was fine for the mild, damp winters in St. Helena, but it was not stylish, nothing suitable to meet a first lady who was always elegantly outfitted by the finest designers in Paris. In search of a solution, Marge went to the modest shops in St. Helena and the town of Napa, but she found nothing to her liking. So one day I took off from work and we drove into San Francisco to shop in the big department stores and fashionable boutiques around Union Square.
We both knew, though, that we had to be careful. The Charles Krug Winery was by no means booming and we had three children to feed, clothe, and put through school. As I recall, at that time I was earning only about $24,000 a year; hardly a princely sum. So after a thorough review of what we could afford, I had budgeted up to $1,500 for a coat for Marge. Even that was a stretch, but how many times in your life do you get invited to the White House? We went to I. Magnin and Marge tried on several different coats. None really caught her fancy and none seemed suitable for a dinner at the White House. Then the saleslady brought out something special: a mink coat. Mink! And it was gorgeous. Right away we both knew it would look perfect on Marge and it was just the thing to wear to the Kennedy White House. Alas, we also knew it would be way too expensive for our modest means. Prudence told us to stop right there and run out of the store. On a lark, though, Marge decided to try on the coat, just to see how she'd feel wrapped in mink. Well, the coat fit perfectly and Marge looked smashing. She loved the way it made her look and feel. Still, the price tag was a staggering $5,000, way beyond our means, and that was that. We left I. Magnin thinking, "Oh well, maybe one day, maybe one day ..."
Excerpted from "Harvests of Joy"
Copyright © 1998 Robert Mondavi.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
Heart and Soul,
A Passion for Perfection,
The Extended Family,
Good as Gold,
Marrying Wine and the Arts,
Bring on the Baron,
Prices to Pay,
To Be a Pioneer,
The Future of Wine Making,
About the Author,