Margrit Mondavi, grande dame of the Napa Valley, and a famously influential part of California’s food and wine movement, has died at the age of 91.
Mondavi passed away on Friday, September 2, 2016, after a battle with cancer. She is survived by three children, six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and countless mourners worldwide who admired her ability to bring people together around food, wine, art and music.
Margrit Biever Mondavi was in the midst of a very full life by the time she met her future second husband, Robert Mondavi. Born in Switzerland, she had lived in Europe, Japan and different parts of the United States before settling in Napa. She had raised three children and, an instinctively attuned home chef, nurtured a deep and evolving understanding of wine and food.
The couple met at Robert Mondavi Winery where Margrit was first a tour guide and then the head of public relations. They married in 1980. Together they became a magical tour de force for California wine for the next three decades, before the passing of Mr. Mondavi in 2008.
“We always felt it would be a great partnership,” she told me of their courtship. “He would say ‘what are we going to do about it?’”
A speaker of many European languages, including German, French, Italian and Spanish, the eternally energetic and intellectually curious Mrs. Mondavi contributed much to the winery and her new husband’s love of food, art, music and philanthropy.
“He was a Stanford graduate but art had no home in his life,” she said. “I schlepped him to his first opera, believe me it was hard to keep him there for three hours. The next year he wanted to have a subscription. Music, art, everything became a part of him.”
At age 87, Mrs. Mondavi put all her memories into beautiful form in Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life.
It included original paintings and sketches by Mrs. Mondavi, as well as three rich sections of memories, beginning with “Origins”, a look at her youth, family and work; “Passions”, about romance, art and wine; and, lastly, “Pleasures”, which contains detailed remembrances about food, travel and the couple’s philanthropic legacy.
Earlier this year, she followed up with Margrit Mondavi’s Vignettes: Stories and Recipes from a Life in Wine.
Mrs. Mondavi kept a diary almost all of her life. Superstitious, she never allowed herself, however, to write about the events of her day before midnight.
Throughout her vibrantly rich life, Mrs. Mondavi befriended the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Sophia Loren, as well as fellow vintner and artist Eleanor Coppola who said after meeting Mrs. Mondavi in the mid 1970s, “I watched her single-handedly bring culture and arts to the (Napa) Valley.”
A passionate cook, Mrs. Mondavi launched The Great Chefs Cooking School at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1976, inviting the best chefs from France to the Napa Valley to interact with locals around food. Among them were three-star Michelin chefs Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé and Jean Troisgros, followed soon after by Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon and Pierre Troisgros. It lasted 30 years.
Later, such luminaries as Diana Kennedy, Marcella Hazan, Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck and Martha Stewart would visit.
Mrs. Mondavi described those days as Camelot, when the winery was full of new ideas and events like the Summer Concert Series, now in its fourth decade, and vintners new to the Napa Valley wouldn’t hesitate to call Mr. Mondavi if they needed something.
His generosity with wine in particular overflowed into his relationship with Mrs. Mondavi.
“He shared, he would invite me out to dinner and he’d order two or three first-growths [Bordeaux],” she long ago remembered about their courting days. “We had tours for the employees and he’d share. At home there was never a day I wouldn’t cook—I called it my finest hour—and he’d go to the cellar and bring out some special wines.”
After Robert Mondavi Winery was sold to Constellation Brands in 2004, Mrs. Mondavi remained a tireless ambassador for the romance, and magic that she and Mr. Mondavi created over all those years.,
“I think she would have been an incredible actress, she loves to be in front of people,” her eldest daughter, chef Annie Biever Roberts once said of her mom. “She was meant for something grand, and it just took her a while to find it.”
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to The Oxbow School, 530 Third Street, Napa, California 94558 or the American Cancer Society, 860 Napa Valley Corporate Way, Suite E, Napa, California 94558.