Krug Vineyard | Courtesy of Charles Krug Winery
Krug Vineyard | Courtesy of Charles Krug winery

In Kentucky, we talk a lot about bourbon and, increasingly, craft beer. Yet the wine lists at finer restaurants are nearly always longer than the other two. Wine always has been, and likely will remain for a good while, the leading dinner beverage staple.

Marc Mondavi knows this, and my inquiries about bourbon or beer slurping up wine’s market share prompted only a polite smile from the winemaker at Napa Valley’s legendary Charles Krug winery. I interviewed him at 8UP Elevated Drinkery & Eatery last month prior to a dinner held there in his honor. I didn’t want to miss the chance to speak to part of America’s winemaking royalty, and he kindly accepted my request.

Regarding wine’s prominence in restaurants, he gestured toward 8UP’s long, glass-enclosed wine wall, which houses hundreds of bottles.

“You can see some of the evidence behind you,” said Mondavi.

He was right: Even if you counted every bottle on 8UP’s liquor bar, you’d not match the wine bottle count.

Mondavi continued with some convincing statistics:

  • U.S. wine sales continue to grow at about 3 percent annually.
  • As a country, the U.S. consumes more wine than any nation in the world. (Not surprisingly, our per capita consumption still lags Italy’s and France’s.)
  • Capacity, supply and demand for American wine are well balanced, meaning customers have an incredible range and depth of choices. That also means wine lovers don’t freeze in long lines outside liquor stores hoping to snag a bottle of vino equivalent to a 750ml of Pappy Van Winkle.
Marc Mondavi at 8UP | Photo by Steve Coomes
Marc Mondavi at 8UP | Photo by Steve Coomes

In short, he acknowledged bourbon and craft beer are booming everywhere, but he said wine is doing fine, growing steadily and always improving. Of course, he said much more, so read on.

Insider Louisville: Does it make winemakers envious to see bourbon sales growing exponentially year after year?

Marc Mondavi: That is impressive, but you can’t compare the two. Grapes only grow well in certain areas, so you can only sustain so much growth in sales. Even in Napa Valley, not every piece of ground grows great grapes. So wine is growing at 3 percent, which is great. But if we started growing 5 to 6 percent each year, it starts creating issues … particularly regarding where to get (grapes). Corn is planted and grown in a season, but it takes years to cultivate grape vines.

IL: You’ve been in winemaking your whole life. So is what’s sold today better than when you started in the business 50 years ago?

MM: Oh, no question wine has gotten better at every level. Part of it is we have more experienced American winemakers, and part of it is technology and the impact of science on grape growing. That alone has brought quality up to a new level.

Winemakers are very open about what we do. We talk constantly about what works and what doesn’t. The production side is open and friendly … but the sales side … that’s tough. It’s like everyone carries a knife around and you might get stuck in the back.

IL: Am I mistaken or has the sheer number of American wines on retailers’ shelves grown substantially in the last 20 years? Seems I go into a wine shop and hardly recognize most of them.

MM: Absolutely. That growth has happened across the board in terms of wineries and what they produce. The U.S has in the neighborhood of 9,000 wineries, but those wineries make probably 20,000 brands. There is one winery in Napa Valley that makes 80 brands. There are also so, so many boutique wineries that increases those options.

And all this is good because today’s consumer — particularly the younger consumer — is all about trying new things in order to experiment. Sure, you’ll see somebody grab six bottles of one thing, and that’s what they stick with. But more often I’ll see them grab four or six different ones; probably a mix of some they’ve tasted and some they haven’t. Most of all, they don’t want to get bored.

IL: I hear from lots of wine pros from here and elsewhere claiming Kentucky is behind when it comes to wine.

MM: No, not really. There’s a fair amount of fine dining in Kentucky, places that bring a wine experience to the customer. No, you’re not that far behind.

IL: Do you sell much wine overseas?

MM: No, not much at all. They’re all happy with their own wines in Europe.

IL: Can’t blame them, can we?

MM: Oh, no. Drinking wine made right where they live is very important to the French especially.

IL: So what’s your toughest market here?

MM: You’ll think this is funny: San Francisco! An hour from Napa Valley! It’s more difficult to sell Napa cabernets there than in any other market because they have these new generation sommeliers who are all about the newest thing on the block. To them, Napa Valley is historical now. They’ve been there. They want what’s new. But I’d challenge them to find better cabernets than those coming out of Napa Valley.

Marc and Peter Mondavi | Courtesy of Charles Krug winery
Marc and Peter Mondavi | Courtesy of Charles Krug winery

IL: So do you like our bourbon?

MM: Oh, yes I do. And what’s kind of funny is my dad (Peter Mondavi Sr., who is 101 years old) is also a bourbon drinker. And you know what his bourbon of choice is? Old Crow. It’s what he started drinking 40 years ago, and it’s what he likes.

IL: What else do you like to drink when you’re not sipping wine?

MM: I do like beer — a lot. I like to say that behind every bottle of wine made there’s been a lot of beer consumed. During harvest especially you’ll go to a local bar and see probably 10 to 20 winemakers having a beer or two together. That CO2 freshens the palate — which is something you need after tasting 30 wines. Beer’s especially good when I’m working in the garden on weekends.

IL: Your doctor says you’ll be dead by tomorrow at this time: What are you drinking tonight?

MM: I’m drinking a cabernet, probably from Napa Valley and probably with a Mondavi label on it.

IL: Do you ever get tired of your own wine? And if you do, what’s it like to buy others’ wines?

MM: Well, I don’t really have to buy a lot of wine if I want something other than ours. I do a lot of horse trading or I get wines given to me.

So, if I want something other than ours … that’s a tough question. There are so many great pinot noirs out of Oregon and fabulous wines from Washington. When I’m just drinking wine with my family, I do drink more of my own. But when I have company over, I pull four or five different brands out to share and try.

IL: With this year’s drought in California, what’s the expected impact on grape production?

MM: Too early to tell. (Well water) is really a big issue (for irrigation). There’s not much of it.

We just came off of three good (harvest) years, so it just remains to be seen. We could still get some rain. A challenging year leaves far fewer grape vines, but out of those can still come some great wines.

End note: During dinner, Mondavi shared a little known fact about his gift of finding water using divining rods.

“I’m very skilled at it and am hired to search for water four to six times a week. I charge $750 per visit and provide no guarantees, but I usually find it. … Recently, a nearby farmer hired a team of geologists to find water, and they came with their tools and technology and charged $13,000. What did they do? Drilled two dry wells.”

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.