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Charles Krug: Napa Valley's Oldest Winery
By Ed McCarthy
Jun 12, 2018
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We often hear about the strong Italian immigrant presence in California’s wine regions, but many Germans were pioneers as well.  In fact, it was Charles Krug, born in Germany, who in 1861 founded Napa Valley’s first winery, in St. Helena.  The Charles Krug Winery also opened California’s first tasting room in 1882; it is still thriving today, but now under different ownership.

Cesare Mondavi, a successful grape buyer, was convinced by his elder son, Robert, to buy the then dormant Charles Krug Winery In 1943.  It was Robert’s dream to get out of the bulk wine business, then prevalent, and sell bottled wines.  At that time, there were only about five serious commercial wineries in Napa Valley bottling wine:  Beaulieu, Beringer, Christian Brothers, Inglenook, and Louis Martini.  Robert and his younger brother Peter went on to turn Charles Krug into a highly successful winery.  The Mondavis also maintained a serious cellar of reserve wines, dating back to their first vintage, 1944.

But Robert and Peter Mondavi had different viewpoints about the future of Charles Krug Winery.  Robert wanted to make fine wines from single grape varieties; Peter wanted to continue making lower-priced blended wines, which was a sound strategy at that time. 

In 1965, Robert Mondavi left the family winery; he opened his own winery, Robert Mondavi Winery, in 1966.  Cesare Mondavi died in 1969, and Peter Mondavi took over Charles Krug Winery.  In a court settlement, Peter Mondavi was awarded complete control of Charles Krug Winery, but Robert was given most of the best vineyards of Charles Krug, in Oakville.  Peter, with the help of his sons, Marc and Peter Jr., spent the next 40 years improving their vineyards.  Today, Charles Krug Winery, specializing in Napa Valley’s best wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, is regarded as one of the great Cabernet Sauvignon producers in Napa Valley.  Peter Mondavi passed away in 2016, at the age of 101, outliving his brother Robert, who died in 2008 at 94.

One of Charles Krug’s great accomplishments, its extensive cellar, was on display recently when Peter Mondavi Jr. led a tasting in New York of five decades of Charles Krug’s Cabernet Sauvignons, dating back to 1964.  The occasion was the 75th Anniversary of the Mondavi family’s ownership of Charles Krug, 

All of the wines we tasted are “Vintage Selections.”  They have been given extra aging, and are the equivalent of Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons.  They retail for around $80 when released.  All of the Vintage Selections up to the 2003 are 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.  Charles Krug also produces a “Family” Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for $30.

As is typical lately in these tastings, we started with the oldest vintage, the 1964 Cabernet Sauvignon, and finished with a barrel sample of the 2016:
 
1964 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:  The 1964 vintage was a very good one in Napa Valley, although very few 1964s were even produced then, and now perhaps a handful are resting in a few collectors’ cellars.  The amazing fact about Charles Krug’s 1964 is that it is still alive and drinkable, although it is showing some age, of course.  Brick red/garnet color, still showing fruit, but fading with aeration.   Another amazing fact about this 1964, only 11.4% alcohol!  That was another era.   88

1966 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:  What a difference the 1966 is to the 1964. Whereas the 1964 was definitely showing age, this 52-year-old 1966 is lively and rich, showing some tannin, with no signs of age, and displaying great Cabernet fruit. Wow! No way anyone would guess it’s a 1966; it tastes more like a 1988. 12.8 % alcohol.  96

1974 Charles Krug Lot F-1 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:  The 1974 Lot F-1, from the Fay Vineyard in the Stags’ Leap District, is majestic--the wine of a very great tasting.  It is loaded with voluptuous, dark red fruits, perfectly balanced, with a long finish.  13.2° alcohol.  It is just perfect to drink now, at the age of 44. 1974 was a great vintage in Napa Valley; this wine should remain at this stage for several more years.  A great wine!    98

1983 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:   The 1983 has a dark garnet color, with cedar and dark berry aromas.  Its tannin is still quite apparent; it tastes much younger than most 35-year old wines, a tribute to the wine itself and its storage. 12.5° alcohol.  It is a very good, well-balanced Cabernet that should last for another two decades.  91

1991 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:  The 1991 is full-bodied and rich, with aromas of berries, plums, and toasted oak.  It is still quite tannic, with great acidity. 13.9° alcohol.  Right now it tastes very young; I would hold on to the 1991 at least three more years before consuming it.  The 1991 was another great vintage in Napa Valley; It should age well for another three decades.   94

1998 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:  The 1998 was a very good but cool vintage, producing more elegant than powerful wines.  As usual, this Charles Krug Vintage Selection tastes very young, although most 1998 Napa Cabernets have been ready to drink for a few years.  It is not quite as ripe as the other Vintage Selections.  13.7° alcohol.  A solid, well-balanced wine.   90

2003 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:  The 2003 is a delicious, spicy Cabernet Sauvignon, tasting beautiful right now.  With some black pepper aromas and ripe cherry, plum flavors, it is difficult not to drink now, but its youthfulness does promise a long future.  13.6° alcohol.  It has 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, with 12% mainly Bordeaux varieties.  95

2015 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:  The 2015 Vintage Selection is not released yet.  It is full-bodied, very dry, with loads of tannin, definitely a wine to hold on to for several years before opening.  The berry flavors are ripe, bordering on baked.  It has 96% Cabernet Sauvignon with 4% Petit Verdot, and a whopping 15.8% alcohol.  Its grapes were grown in Charles Krug’s Yountville vineyards.  2015 was a very warm vintage in Napa Valley.  The wine is difficult to evaluate now, but I rate it 90, subject to change as it matures in the next few years.

2016 (barrel sample) Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon:  The 2016 barrel sample has a very dark red color, with blueberry aromas.  It is full-bodied, with impressive berry fruit and vanilla flavors; its fruit absorbs its tannins.  You can appreciate its potential even now.  Right now, I rate it 93.

Charles Krug’s Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignons are extremely impressive. One quality which stands out for me is the youthfulness of these wines, promising great longevity.  As a group, I rank them among the best California Cabernet Sauvignons that I have ever tasted, and a great value, considering their quality.