The Mondavi DNA, strong as steel wire, endures through the generations. Peter Mondavi Jr is (in many ways) as Italian as his grandfather. The legendary Cesare was a sharecropper who left school at eight, sailed for America with his teenage bride Rosa just over 100 years ago, and founded a wine dynasty which counted the Rothschilds and Frescobaldis as its equals.
Peter Jr – a chiselled and handsome 63 – is sitting opposite me in the buzzy pre-lunch hour at 67 Pall Mall in London. He remembers his grandmother well. ‘She was a classic nonna, very stern. She lived in the kitchen, everything was homemade. As a child I used to help her make the pasta, roll the gnocchi. I have the Italian heritage in my blood.’
The Mondavi history isn’t complicated. Cesare and Rosa left the Marche and landed up in Minnesota in 1908. He worked in an iron mine until he saw one of his brothers die in a cave-in; he then ran a saloon which was closed by Prohibition, so he opened a grocery store and started importing grapes from California for home winemaking. Rosa, meanwhile, ran a boarding house for miners, as well as a kitchen winery. The grape business, under the name C Mondavi & Sons, flourished, and in 1943 Cesare and Rosa – and their sons Robert and Peter – bought the decrepit Charles Krug winery, the oldest estate in Napa. The brothers ran the winery together, rebuilding its reputation, until Robert left in 1966 to start his own company, leaving Peter Sr in charge; his son, Peter Jr now runs the 400ha estate with his brother Marc.
The Robert Mondavi branch of the family got all the attention but it is Peter Mondavi’s side which has maintained the direct link to the orignal business. And they are making sure it will stay in the family – unlike Robert Mondavi Winery, which was sold to the giant corporation Constellation, causing lasting trauma. ‘The business is 100 per cent family owned,’ Peter Jr tells me, before explaining how the board is constituted to ensure it stays in the family. Made up of family and non-family members, the board ‘will smooth the transition period, and ensure an education process for the next generation so they don’t just come in as arrogant owners and demand whatever.’ Before getting a job with the winery, Mondavi says, ‘they have to stand on their own feet, not under a golden umbrella.’
He went straight into the winery himself in the late 1970s and by 1990 he needed time out. ‘I took a break. I thought I needed to get some more experience, and it was a toss-up between business school or cookery school. I ended up at business school, worked in tech for a bit and then came back to the family business.’
Cookery school sounds like much more fun. ‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘But business school was more applicable to the winery.’
The Mondavi work ethic is obviously undiluted – as indeed it should be: they are stewards of a slice of pure California history. Charles Krug was famous decades before Prohibition, and the Mondavis rebuilt that reputation (in 2016 Robert Parker voted the 1959 Cabernet Sauvignon one of his ‘Top 3 Greatest Wine Drinking Experiences’). Venerable as it is, Charles Krug is hardly known in Europe, never having exported its wines. They are now ‘looking to tap the global market,’ Mondavi says. The range, from the £100 Charles Krug Family Generations to the mid-range Carneros Chardonnay and Napa Valley Cabernet and Merlot are fresh, restrained wines, concentrated but with a hint of opulence.
As a scion of a dynasty, Mondavi is respectful of his history. He refers to his forbears frequently, particularly his adored father. ‘Dad was an entrepreneur,’ he says, namechecking the innovations Peter Sr was responsible for. ‘He introduced cold fermentation, he was the first to use French oak barrels, he worked with UC Davis to understand malolactic fermentation.’
Whether that spirit of entrepreneurship has been handed down or not, at 63, Peter Jr has inherited the Mondavi energy. He’s a keen hiker, recently completing the 170km Tour de Mont Blanc. He’s even got designs on space (note that childhood ambition to be an astronaut). ‘Would I take a seat on a spaceship? Well, William Shatner has just gone up at 90, so I have 30 years to go. If the price comes down, who knows?’
What exercise do you do?
At home, I do 45 minutes daily on an elliptical trainer, while I watch a Formula 1 race. On the road, I walk a lot. A 10-mile day is not unusual in a city like New York (or London).
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I’m obsessed with long-term planning – I always take the long view. At times I feel it would be nice to live in the moment.
What was your childhood ambition?
To be an astronaut. With the advancements today, it could become a reality in my lifetime. William Shatner has just gone into space at 90, so I have 30 years to go and if the price comes down, who knows?
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
The future! I have experienced the future today from a 21-year-old’s perspective.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
My car: a track-appropriate Porsche Cayman. I am a one-car person and keep a car for 10 years or so. This will be my last internal combustion engine; my next car will be electric.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Northern Italy. The food, the lifestyle and beauty are unmatched, and the wine is pretty nice as well. The family is from the Marche but I grew up in hills so I prefer the north, because of the mountains – and the weather. Southern Italy has great food but it gets hot. Pre-pandemic, when our son Lucio was living there we got there once or twice a year.
If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
I love food so I would become a chef. When I took a break for business school, I was considering culinary school as an alternative option.
What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?
A wheel of 24-month-aged DOP Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s just heavenly to munch on. Not sure what I’d do when that was gone.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
Visit Antarctica. View the Northern Lights. Try my hand at heli-skiing.
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
Enact world peace and a carbon-neutral world.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
Appealing to two of my passions, I would like to invite F1 legend Michael Schumacher, and Albert Einstein.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Indulging daily on a small chunk of 70-80% cocoa premium chocolate. It’s a nice pick-me-up, especially in the afternoon, and a lusciously creamy diversion.
What’s your greatest regret?
Not working outside of the family business when I graduated from college. I am now living vicariously though my two kids, who are working abroad [Lucio, who has just returned home from Italy for business school, and Lea at vegan start-up allplants in London].
What’s your secret talent?
If it exists, it’s a secret even to me.
When were you happiest?
At the dinner table with family, great wine and food.
Whom do you most admire?
My children [Lucio and Lea, both in their 20s]. What can I say? I’m a proud parent.
What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
Though this could be quite a relaxing or educational endeavour, I don’t veg out like this. It drives my wife nuts but I’m constantly moving and producing. I switch off by cooking, and I’m a bit of a data freak – I analyse the weather data. It’s a diversion from daily life which I find relaxing.
What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
Cotton T-shirts and shorts. I could wear them all day (and I did during the pandemic).
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The ones that carry our wines.
What time do you go to bed?
10pm. My wife is nocturnal but I try to keep to a decent sleep schedule.
Charles Krug wines are currently retailing in the UK at Cambridge Wines, Oxford Wine Merchants, Selfridges and 9 Elms Wines.