Charles Krug Winery. Our first ever visit to Charles Krug in 2009 was very special because we had been looking forward to a tasting here for quite some time ever since starting The Napa Wine Project in 2006. They are Napa Valley’s oldest winery still in existence (although the original winery building is long gone) and that deserves special recognition. As a result this was the 300th winery and last open to the public by walk in winery (at that time) that we visited. At the time this meant we were not even 30% of the way through this massive endeavor!
During its long and storied history the winery has only had three owners, founder and namesake, Charles Krug, James Moffitt and currently the Mondavi Family. While Charles Krug is the oldest winery in the Napa Valley – this must be clarified. Patchett’s Grove Winery was the first ever winery in the Napa Valley (1858), although the founder John Patchett stopped producing by 1870. Nearby David Fulton Winery was built in 1861 following Charles Krug. Beringer is the oldest continuously operating winery (1876) and Nichelini Winery is the oldest continuously operating family-owned winery.
Charles Krug first bought land in neighboring Sonoma County in 1853 from Agoston Haraszthy (founder of Buena Vista Winery, one of California’s oldest wineries). Krug planted several varietals on his 20 acres before soon selling the land.
In an interesting piece of history, Charles Krug was Napa Valley’s first hired winemaker and made Napa Valley’s first commercial wine. He was hired by John Patchett in 1858 and produced a vintage later that year (Patchett had recently built a small adobe winery, Napa’s first commercial winery which he replaced a year later by Napa’s first stone winery). From historical records, Charles Krug’s first winery building was completed in 1861 and was a fairly crude small cellar with a thatched roof. A much better structure was built and replaced the original winery several years later.
Also of historical significance, after Charles Krug married Carolina Bale (daughter of Edward Bale who owned a large land grant at the time), the Krug’s inherited a large piece of property which included the Bale Grist Mill (built in 1846). This mill is still standing and is now part of the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park. Open on the weekends for milling demonstrations, it is only a 5 minute drive from Charles Krug Winery.
After Krug passed away in 1894 the winery was purchased by a family business acquaintance James Moffit. Moffit held it for some 49 years until Cesare and Rosa Mondavi purchased the winery for a cool $75,000 in 1943. At the time of their purchase the winery building was really rundown – the floor was dirt and the upper floors were only partially still standing (over the years wood had been removed from the walls).
Their sons Robert and Peter were also involved in the winery operations. Peter Mondavi Sr., (brother of Robert Mondavi) lived and worked on site after returning from his services in World War II until his death in 2016 (our interview with him here) and his two sons Peter Jr. and Marc run the day to day operations. Peter Mondavi was truly the last of the “living legends” in the Napa Valley.
Peter was born in Minnesota (the family initially settled in a mining town of Virginia Minnesota) and grew up in Lodi California where his father Cesare moved the family to work in grape shipping and distribution (at one point prior to owning Charles Krug, Cesare was the president of the large Acampo Winery in Lodi). The family business continued to grow – even more so during Prohibition when demand increased for fresh grapes (heads of households could legally make 200 gallons of home wine during Prohibition).
More recently the winery invested millions of dollars into their vineyards including replanting – from a winery perspective that is the first and smartest investment a winery can make – as producing high quality wine begins and ends with terroir, or location. Many of their vineyards are now organically farmed. With 850 acres under family ownership in the Napa Valley, they are one of the largest family owned vineyard landholders in the area. The winery is located about 1.5 miles north of the town of St. Helena on the east side of the highway. It is just north of the Beringer planted trees along the road in front of their own winery and the impressive Culinary Institute of America building. Drive down a long olive tree line driveway and park in the small lot next to the tasting room.
As you arrive to the property, note the rose bushes planted in front of the vineyard rows. Historically these were planted here because they are in indicator species often showing signs of powdery mildew (a fungal disease) before the vines do – letting vineyard workers know it was time to spray the vines with sulfur. Today vineyard managers have other ways of knowing when to spray sulfur. And of course the roses add a nice visual element to a vineyard.
The wineries’ massive historical stone building and carriage house underwent a major structural & visible renovation (finished in 2013). The company in charge of this project also restored and retrofitted the nearby historical Greystone building, now serving as home to the Culinary Institute of America. Along with this renovation they have been bringing the winery up to modern standards and in effect building “two wineries” as they produce two brands, their Charles Krug / Peter Mondavi Family label as well as their larger production, CK Mondavi.
Their original tasting room dated from 1882 and was the first tasting room open in the Napa Valley. Tastings were conducted since the 1950’s in a building we commonly referred to as “the trailer” until the “Redwood Cellar”, the old stone winery opened to the public on November 18, 2013. This tasting room was designed by Howard Backen – one of the wine country’s premier architects (the Hamden McIntyre of his generation). His firm has designed a number of premium wineries in the valley including Harlan Estate and another Mondavi family owned winery, Continuum on Pritchard Hill. Redwood from their old tanks (dating to the 1940’s) was in part used during the renovation). Their tasting bar and hospitality center overlooks the Family Reserve Barrel Room – which ages their premium wines. An old redwood tank long since past its use – still stands in this cellar room – a tribute to how wines were made here years ago.
With a kitchen on the first floor, both food and wine pairings are offered. In a nod to family history, it is called the Cucina di Rosa trattoria (Rosa was the original matriarch of the Mondavi Family). The Trattoria is open daily – guests can purchase food items here and take them outside and enjoy on picnic tables on the lawn behind the tasting room. A pizza oven operates seasonally next to the picnic tables – recommended: buy a bottle of wine and enjoy it with a fresh baked delicious thin-crust pizza. All those bottles behind the tasting bar show labels displaying one date on each bottle – 1861 a nice tribute to the year Charles Krug opened.
Krug offers an excellent variety of wines at their tasting counter. Guests who enter the tasting room are greeted with by a concierge and a welcome wine. The staff is friendly and helpful. Choose from two tasting flights – the Classic (some whites and reds) and their Family Reserve (all reds). We highly recommend choosing the reserve option as these wines are produced in small quantities and are individually hand crafted by the winemaker.
We started a recent tasting with a premium Pinot Noir sourced from fruit from the Russian River coast in neighboring Sonoma County. Krug owns about 850 acres in the Napa Valley area, much of which is certified organic making them one of the larger property holders in the valley. The grapes for their Pinot are the only grapes they use that come from outside of Napa Valley. There are only a handful of locations in California that produce a high quality Pinot and the Russian River coast is one of those areas. If you love Pinot, this wine does not disappoint.
We also enjoyed their 2003 IX Cabernet Sauvignon; typically this label is 100% varietal fruit but for the 2003 vintage they blended several Bordeaux varietals which produced a very complex delicious Cabernet. One of their most popular wines is their Zinfandel Port. The one we tried was their Lot XII which contains 12 vintages. There are number of Napa wineries producing a port-styled wine – by far the most common is the Zinfandel Port. Krug’s Zinfandel styled port really displays the Zinfandel flavors, is smooth and strikes a good balance between sweetness, acidity and flavor. The finish lingers for a long time.
History is a key component at Charles Krug; they hold back older vintages, up to 20 years old and have them for sale at the tasting room. Also check out Bottles & Bins, Napa Valley’s first winery newsletter which is now published 3x/year. Krug’s August and September ‘Tastings on the Lawn’ are two very popular social gatherings of wine lovers held annually since 1951. How many wineries were even in business in the Napa Valley in 1951…just a handful! These two events are considered their “open house” and it is a great time to meet other wine-lovers, those in the industry, key Krug employees and try current release wines paired with food and cheese.
Train tracks used to run all the way to Calistoga ending in approximately the location of what is now the the Cal Mart parking lot. A train station called Larkmead was located near the current location of Larkmead Winery. The Napa Wine Train uses the tracks today – with their northernmost stop on the Charles Krug property directly on the east side of the tasting room. The tracks were unfortunately removed in the 1970s from Deer Park Road north – although apparently a right a way still exists and the tracks could potentially be reinstalled. The tracks still run behind (east) of the winery and fall into complete disarray just north of the winery – the final piece of northernmost rail from this historic track still exists on the Charles Krug property a few feet before Deer Park Road – well hidden by trees.
Charles Krug is one of the few wineries in the valley that can legally host weddings. Their wedding package includes the use of the historic Carriage House (built in 1881 by Charles Krug for his wife Carolina to house her horses), the Guest House and Great Lawn. The Carriage House has been beautifully restored with plenty of space on the lower floor and a grand ballroom on the upper floor.
Wondering about the impressive 3-acre garden on the left as you drive in the driveway? The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) farms this vegetable and herb garden – conveniently located almost across from their St. Helena campus. Produce from the garden is sold to select local restaurants and the garden is also used for the CIA’s Farm to Table classes.
Krug also maintains excellent national distribution with their wine shipped to all 50 states. For more information, visit: www.charleskrug.com
Cucina di Rosa
Bale Grist Mill