For Peter Mondavi Jr. (above right)—son of Peter Mondavi, nephew of Robert and proprietor of the Charles Krug vineyard—making good wine is an all-consuming passion and a source of family pride. But there's something else the Mondavi clan has in common: a love of the Napa Valley, arguably one of the greatest agricultural areas in America. It's also his backyard.
"We grew up here," Peter says. "We used to play in the Napa River, which borders the property here, fish there, so on and so forth. We'd see the steelhead running there every year. And over the years, you see that dwindling, just because of the progress of conventional farming."
Conventional farming practices don't just leach chemicals into the soil and water. The process of tilling the soil leaves a lot of loose earth that can be blown or washed away in a good storm, running into the streams and clogging them with silt. Over time, that stopped the steelhead. And so, as the organic movement gained steam in Napa Valley, Charles Krug—Napa Valley's oldest vineyard at 151 years—joined in.
Modifying the farming technique was relatively simple. "When you're working with grapes," Peter says, "if the soil is well balanced to begin with, you're in great shape. Vineyards, unlike some row crops and things like that, don't really extract a lot out of the soil." They began with cover cropping in the off-season to replace nitrogen in the soil; mulching the prunings and leaving them in the rows; even saving their pumice to be reused through a local composting service.
Then they addressed the riparian areas along the river and streams, restoring native vegetation. They found that getting rid of the non-native blackberries was actually better for the grapes, removing the risk of Pierce's Disease. This helped them cut back on chemical applications.
At this point, Charles Krug's vineyards are much more sustainable, and some are certified Fish Friendly. But will you see the word "organic" on the label? No — and for some surprising reasons.
If you've ever shopped for organic wine, you've probably noticed a surprising fact. Unlike in the dairy aisle or the produce aisle, organic wine doesn't command a higher price than the conventional stuff. If you've also been drinking wine for 20 years or more, you might know the reason behind that: Some of the early organic wines produced in America were just not that great.
For Peter, as for many winemakers, the whole problem comes down to one thing: sulfur dioxide. Wines made with sulfur dioxide can't get the Certified Organic label. But wines made without sulfur dioxide are harder to stabilize, and entire batches can fail. "You talk to most any winemaker, it's imperative, critical, required," Peter says. "It's almost as required as yeast to the winemaking process. And if you don't add it, you can get a good wine into the bottle, but six months from now, four months from now, it could be good, it could not be good."
Thanks to that variability, your next bottle of organic wine will be nice and affordable. Too affordable, Peter says. He can't cover the costs of organic production without being able to charge a higher price. To him, that's a shame. "Done properly, organic wine clearly can be as good as non-organic wine. If done properly. If you can use sulfur dioxide."
"In the EU, you can add sulfur dioxide and still call it organic wine. In the United States, you can not add sulfur dioxide. You can add sulfur in the vineyard, but you can't use sulfur dioxide in the winery."
Peter is on one side of a mounting battle in the wine world. As vehemently as he defends sulfites, there are winemakers who vehemently oppose them. In the middle is the CCOF, charged with determining what counts as "organic" and what doesn't. Sulfur dioxide does occur naturally, in places like volcanoes. Not so much in vineyards.
What will become of the beleaguered, yet growing organic wine industry? If sulfur dioxide becomes permissible, Peter believes that organic wines have a bright future. Without it, of course, the future is questionable. Wine is, after all, a relatively natural product. There's no concern over growth hormones or GMO grapes. If your wine is "made with organic grapes," is that good enough? It might have to be.
"There are some arguments that organic wine potentially could be better. I'd like to believe that," Peter says. "I haven't seen definitive proof yet, but I think what's clear is that we have a better local environment the more organic farmers we have. We've seen the Napa River improving over the years through a myriad of efforts of many of the growers up and down the valley."
The steelhead have returned, too, and Peter counts that as a major victory. Though Krug may not be certified organic, they've adopted the goal of not just preserving, but improving the local environment for generations of winemakers to come.
The Charles Krug house grows about 90% of its own grapes on over 500 acres, and produces about 75,000 cases annually. The wine produced here is indisputably delicious, with a lovely sense of purity and tradition. Peter recommends three wines, though there are many gorgeous specimens to choose from.
Charles Krug St. Helena Sauvignon Blanc: Wine Club manager Colin Wright calls this "a perfect summer wine." Light, crisp and with a balanced sweetness, it's ideal for sitting out on the deck watching the sun go down.
Charles Krug Family Reserve Generations: The "Generations" blend is a Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon blend, named after the multiple generations of Mondavis who've continued the blend. "It's got all the qualities of a Cabernet, but it's very smooth," Colin says, "To me, it's a representation of what a winemaker can do with a wine." It also happens to be his personal favorite. With bright berries, chocolate and a long, smooth finish, it might be yours too.
Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon: This one is unmistakably my favorite. I'm not alone: It's been the house's flagship since 1944, and the 2008 vintage scored 92 in Wine Advocate. From the sweet aroma to the rich, complex finish, it's an absolute delight to taste.
Enjoy—and if you're ever in St. Helena, stop by the Krug tasting room and give Mike Doughty my regards.
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images: Charles Krug