Margrit Biever Mondavi: The Passing of a Napa Valley Legend

Glass of cold red wine, bouquet of red roses, on a caf terraceI had planned to devote today’s blog to the harvest in Austria — a place with which Michelle and I fell in love during our all-too-short visit in late 2014 — but the passing of Margrit Biever Mondavi will push that post to next week.

Mrs. Mondavi passed away on Friday, just as the Labor Day weekend was getting under way. I met her briefly back in the 1980s during my one and only interview with her legendary husband, Robert, and recall being struck by the notion that she should have been thought of as “legendary,” too.

But we live in a society that is still evolving when it comes to giving women their due, and at least outside of their home in the Napa Valley, Mrs. Mondavi always took a “perception backseat” to Mr. Mondavi.

With her passing, I thought it was important to have a record in the Vinesse Today archives of just how influential Mrs. Mondavi was. So, as our way of showing respect to a truly great lady, we share this post from the Robert Mondavi Winery’s website…

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Margrit Mondavi of Napa Valley, widow to Robert G. Mondavi and pioneer of the modern-day California wine industry bringing art and culture to the industry, died [September 2]. She was 91.

Margrit Biever Mondavi was Vice President of Cultural Affairs at Robert Mondavi Winery. A pioneering woman of the modern-day California wine industry, she joined the winery in 1967, pursuing a life-long interest in uniting wine with fine arts, music and culinary artistry. Under her direction, Robert Mondavi Winery developed original cultural and culinary arts programs that are now benchmarks for the wine world. With the enthusiastic support of her late husband, Robert G. Mondavi, she created a showplace for painters, sculptors, photographers, jazz and classical musicians and the great chefs and winemakers of the world.

When she started working at Robert Mondavi Winery, there were very few visitors frequenting Napa Valley. “I had a dream to show wine with art, music and food,” said Margrit, who was a working artist. “We began modestly, with a Sunday art show under the arches, accompanied by wine and food.” Gradually, the fine arts program evolved to the stature it holds today, where Margrit encouraged talented unknown artists and supported established ones such as Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud and Nathan Oliveira.

She founded the winery’s popular Summer Music Festival in 1969 as a benefit for the Napa Valley Symphony. This concert series has hosted some of the world’s most recognized jazz, R&B and pop artists. Headliners have included Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett. “I am very proud we have contributed to the success of the Napa Valley Symphony through our annual donation,” said Margrit. “Now this beautiful valley has a beautiful symphony.”

In 1984, the Festival of Winter Classical Concert Series was created, with the proceeds benefiting local musical organizations like the Napa Valley Opera.

Together with Veronica di Rosa, Margrit and a small group of other dedicated Napa Valley art lovers formed a board of directors to rebuild the original 19th-century opera house in the city of Napa. She organized fundraising events, including art auctions, to keep the opera house alive. In 1998, the opera raised significant funds for the restoration as part of a challenge grant from Margrit and Robert Mondavi; the renovated opera house opened in October 2002.

After 10 years at the winery, Margrit introduced a program of cooking classes to develop guests’ appreciation of great food paired with fine wine. She introduced the Great Chefs of France and the Great Chefs of America programs — internationally respected culinary series that are now known simply as Great Chefs at Robert Mondavi Winery.

“Like painting and music, wine and food speak to the heart,” said Margrit. “By honoring the world of the senses, of memory and emotions, the rites of the table express our humanity.” The respect for California wines that has resulted from this program, especially among European chefs like Paul Bocuse and Jean Troisgros, gave Margrit a great sense of pride.

In May 2003, Margrit and her daughter Annie Roberts, then the Robert Mondavi Winery’s executive chef, released a collection of their recipes and stories called “Annie and Margrit: Recipes and Stories from the Robert Mondavi Kitchen” (Ten Speed Press) to rave reviews. In early 2004, the mother-daughter team took home the 2003 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards’ “Best in the World” distinction in the “Best Easy Recipes Book” category. In 2012, Margit released her memoir, “Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook.” The 2015 follow-up, “Margrit Mondavi’s Vignettes” centered on her favorite food and wine experiences.

Married to Robert Mondavi from 1980 until his passing in 2008, Margrit traveled with him around the world. Upholding the family’s philosophy that all the arts contribute to an enhanced quality of life, the couple worked together as founding patrons of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Margrit played a key role in securing the downtown Napa location for the center, which opened in November 2001, sparking the artistic life of the city. Also in 2001, she and Robert made a substantial personal gift to the University of California at Davis to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, and to launch the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in October 2002. In addition, the couple supported the Oxbow School, a new art school in Napa that gives grants to and provides instruction for art students in their junior year of high school.

Margrit remained an active ambassador for the winery and Napa Valley culture until her death.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to:

The Oxbow School

530 Third Street, Napa, CA 94558

American Cancer Society

860 Napa Valley Corporate Way, Suite E, Napa, CA 94558

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