ST. HELENA, Calif. -- Peter Mondavi went to work in the wine industry during Prohibition when he was just 12, nailing together boxes for his dad's business shipping California grapes to home winemakers back East.
Eight decades later, the hammer's gone, but he's still on the job at his family's Charles Krug Winery, a survivor of boom and bust with a unique perspective on a year when the bottom dropped out of the market for luxury wines.
"Everything went too wild," he says of recent years when grape prices shot up and wine prices followed. "It just went too wild."
Though he's not as well known as older brother Robert, founder of the Robert Mondavi Winery, Peter Mondavi is an influential figure in the industry. As a college student during the Depression, he started working on cold fermentation techniques that would later elevate his family's white wines. He laughs as he remembers the early days of throwing chunks of ice into cooling towers on hot days. He also pioneered the use of French oak barrels in the 1960s.
Having that kind of experience is a plus right now, says Robert Smiley, director of wine industry programs in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis.
"You know what to do and what's worked in the past, but more importantly you have brand equity. People know the Charles Krug label," he says.
This also is a time when it's good to have more than one brand.
Charles Krug, located at the top of the Napa Valley, took a high-low approach years ago, selling premium Napa Valley wines under the Charles Krug label and putting more moderately priced grapes into the second line, CK Mondavi, a strategy that paid big benefits as recession-harried consumers traded down to cheaper wines in 2009.
At 95, a birthday milestone he celebrated quietly in November, Mondavi has turned over day-to-day responsibilities to his sons, Marc and Peter Jr. But he still has definite opinions about winemaking.
He's not a fan of the big wines of 15 or even 16 percent alcohol. "It's like a wine cocktail."
As for the boutique wineries that have sprung up, making very small amounts of very expensive wines, he thinks they do "a terrific job," but can't help but smile at some of the extremes of the ultra-premium wine world.
"A $1,500 bottle of wine?" he says, shaking his head and laughing.
Back when Mondavi began his career, $1,500 would buy you a lot more than a bottle.
Family patriarch Cesare Mondavi brought the family to California in the '20s and worked in the wine business for two decades before buying Charles Krug in 1943.
Cost of the 147-acre property: $75,000. Today, a single acre of prime Napa Valley land can sell for double that.
Krug, founded in 1861 by Prussian immigrant Charles Krug, was the Napa Valley's first commercial winery and plans are under way to celebrate the 150th anniversary. Renovations are nearly complete at the original winery, a gracious stone building that still has one of the original, towering redwood tanks on display.
Back in the '40s, those tanks were in full use. After the Mondavis bought Charles Krug, they went to work reviving the business.
World War II was followed by a downturn that led the family to think about selling one of the labels, but they hung on. "Thank God we didn't sell anything, especially the CK," Mondavi says now with a laugh.
In 2009, sales of CK Mondavi, featuring varietals such as chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon for $6 to $8 a bottle, were up 14 percent as of the fiscal year ending in August, says Marc Mondavi, who oversees that side of the business.
Higher priced wines have struggled everywhere and even though the Charles Krug brands are reasonable by Napa standards, starting at $18, the family has been able to maintain, but not improve sales, says Peter Mondavi Jr.
As amicable partners in the family business, Peter Jr. and Marc Mondavi have pulled off something their father and uncle couldn't. Peter and Robert Mondavi clashed frequently over the latter's ambitious plans for the winery. Matters came to a head with a fistfight.
"When it was all over, there were no apologies and no handshake," Robert Mondavi wrote in his autobiography, "Harvests of Joy."
A bitter court battle ended with Robert founding his namesake winery in 1966, going on to become a famous champion of Napa Valley wines. Peter Mondavi ran Charles Krug.
Over time, the brothers reconciled, something that was commemorated in 2005 when they made wine together for the 25th anniversary of the Napa wine auction.
By that time, the Robert Mondavi Corp. had been sold to New York-based Constellation Brands, derailed by intense competition and a wine glut.
Charles Krug remains in family hands, with no plans to change that.
"When you go public, you have stockholders and when you have stockholders, they want money," says Mondavi. "They want to know that they're part-owner of a winery, but they want the money. If you don't keep them happy ... the romance goes out the window."
Looking at the present troubles, Mondavi isn't expecting a quick turnaround.
"Let's face it. Sales are not there. The economy's not there. I say until the unemployment is resolved, they're going to have troubles."
The truth is, a family winery doesn't make for a big profitable investment, says Mondavi
But it is a livelihood.
"This wine picture -- for us it's because we love it," he says.