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Charles Krug: After Some Lean Years, Winery Is Making a Comeback

April 19, 1990|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

ST. HELENA — With the number of wineries worldwide growing at an astounding rate, it's possible for some established operations to get lost in the rush to grab the latest star.

The Charles Krug winery is one such property--a winery originally founded in 1861, which has the Mondavi clan behind it and which for decades made some of the best wines in the history of the Napa Valley.

But times change, and sometimes unseen forces cause changes, and the result can be a winery that has so much success it actually deteriorates. Such may be the story of the Krug winery and its up and down fortunes in the last few decades.

Krug, sitting at the northern edge of this central Napa Valley town, was a sleeping giant, one of the Big Four to emerge from Prohibition with a reputation for quality. Yet the others--Beaulieu, Inglenook and Martini--surged ahead in reputation while Krug merely made lots of money with its Chenin Blanc.

In an era before White Zinfandel was a concept, Krug's Chenin Blanc was a certified American trend. The winery sold loads of the wine, made in a slightly sweet style, and it made a tidy sum for the Mondavi family, then headed by brothers Peter and Robert, sons of Cesare Mondavi who acquired the property in 1943.

Through the mid-1970s, Krug counted on Chenin Blanc for roughly half its case sales and more than half its profit margin, even though older brother Robert chafed at the thought of not moving more strongly into the classical wine varieties.

Still, success is success, and Robert stayed with the family business until 1965, when he left on a kind of sabbatical, expecting to return. But a family feud that makes Falcon Crest look like a hay ride ensued. Bob was not invited back.

Robert sued, claiming he was getting no return on his ownership, which he needed to start his own winery. Using borrowed funds, Bob opened the Robert Mondavi winery in 1966 and a decade later, after a long and bitter court fight that split the family, the courts ruled in Robert's favor.

That meant Peter had to pay his brother a large sum of money--the wineries have never revealed how much--and that, more than anything else, put the Krug operation into a holding pattern as far as growth was concerned. Add to those expenditures the downturn in the Chenin Blanc business at the end of the 1980s as White Zinfandel grew and you get the picture: Krug was not a growing company.

But Peter is an innovative and proud man who pioneered a number of important wine making techniques in California, and by 1980 he began to make slow but important changes in how the winery would claw its way back from the morass.

Bob is 76 today, Peter a year younger, and their respective wineries are held in quite opposite regard by the public. Everything Bob makes is great; anything Peter makes is suspect.

Obviously, this is far from the truth. To be more specific, Krug has made great strides to improve the quality of all of its wines, to the point where a number of them are quite good and certainly well-priced. And though the Mondavi wines are also good, a number of them are overrated and all Mondavi wines are priced higher than the comparable Krug wines.

Peter Mondavi invited a few people to sample some of the older Krug Cabernets the other day, and I attended. The list of 16 wines dated back to the fine, grand old 1947 wine, which was a marvel of depth and richness.

However, evident in this tasting was the fact that the Krug wines from the 1970s fared poorly.

This was the era when Peter's attention was consumed by his feud with his brother, by the lawsuit, and other considerations. And it also coincides with 1976, the date the court ruled that Peter must begin paying Robert.

"I think the vintages of the 1970s weren't very successful," said Peter the other day. He said 1975 was cold and grapes ripened poorly, 1976 and 1977 were drought years, 1978 was too hot, 1979 it rained. . . .

He also didn't buy any French oak barrels for the red wines for several years, largely, he says, because he didn't feel they were needed. But he admits they were expensive, and for a long time the winery was being run rather frugally.

It was about 1982 that Peter began to rebuild the old winery, adding new equipment, and by 1985 it was completed, a major renovation that brought in some of the best equipment and computers that money could buy.

It was then that Peter hired John Moynier as head wine maker.

Moynier, it turns out, is a quiet fellow whose name shows up not at all in Krug's press material. But it was he, sources say, who was responsible most for the moves that were made immediately to move Krug Cabernet into the mainstream.

French oak barrels were bought and they had an immediate impact. The new 1985 Krug Napa Valley Cabernet is a most complete and stylish wine, with depth and richness beyond any $10.50 Cabernet I have seen on the market in the last few years. (And one discount shop was selling the wine for $5.99 recently.)

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