Celebrating the life and times of Margrit Mondavi.
COURTESY OF ROBERT MONDAVI WINERY
Margrit Biever Mondavi was considered the First Lady of Napa Valley, and the nickname was apt.
There’s really no other way to describe her importance to the region. She was perhaps the biggest and most visible patron of the arts. She championed live music in vineyards. She was one of the first vintners to recognize—and capitalize on—the connection between wine and food. She spearheaded the first Auction Napa Valley, which has raised more than $150 million for charity. She also happened to know a lot about wine.
Naturally, then, when the icon died of cancer in September at age 91, the entire valley felt the loss.
The Switzerland native joined the staff at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1967 as a tour guide and then went on to become the public relations director a few years later. In 1980, after she married the man behind the brand, Margrit moved into a larger role, eventually serving as vice president of cultural affairs. She did her best work in this role: launching concerts, advocating for the arts, and donating money to UC Davis and other local and regional cultural institutions.
When she started working at Robert Mondavi Winery, very few visitors frequented Napa Valley. “I had a dream to show wine with art, music, and food,” Margrit once said. “We began modestly, with a Sunday art show under the arches, accompanied by wine and food.” The Mondavi cultural programs took off after that.
Margrit launched a summer concert series in 1969. She started a winter classical music series in 1984. Cooking classes came next. Then, a sculpture program.
But Margrit and her husband didn’t stop there. The Mondavis’ $35 million gift to UC Davis led to the creation of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2002. The duo also helped establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which helped solidify UC Davis as the number one university in the world for agriculture.
It’s also worth noting that the Mondavis’ biggest effort, Copia, a museum of food and wine to which they contributed a large sum of money during the 2000s, ultimately failed, though it is being resuscitated in another form this year, with an investment from the Culinary Institute of America.
Everybody, it seems, has a Margrit story. Like the time in 1998, when she swooped in and single-handedly saved the Napa Valley Opera House with a huge donation and countless hours of advocacy. Or the time she brought chefs from France and the U.K. to host the Great Chefs event in Napa Valley. Or in 2003, when she wrote an incredibly detailed and heartfelt cookbook with her daughter. She even penned a memoir four years ago.
She excelled in the little things, too—art (she was a working artist), pleasantries, conversation, and making people feel important.
I met her at a press lunch a few years back. Even though she was seated at the other end of the table, she engaged me for the better part of 10 minutes about my daughters and my taste in music (folk and country). I left that day feeling like she gave a damn. And I think she genuinely did.
So it is with the heaviest of hearts that in this issue, during the 50th anniversary of Robert Mondavi Winery, we remember Margrit and raise a glass of wine in honor of her outstanding contributions to our beloved Wine Country.
Recollections of Margrit
Margrit Mondavi touched thousands of lives in and around Napa Valley. Here, some of her biggest fans share their fondest memories.
“Margrit was one of Napa Valley’s finest treasures. Like her late husband, Robert, she was a champion for our region’s high-quality wines, and she was also one of the most generous patrons our community has ever known. We will be forever grateful for her leadership in founding our annual charity wine event, Auction Napa Valley, in 1981, and for setting the standard for Napa Valley’s gracious hospitality.” —Linda Reiff, president and CEO, Napa Valley Vintners
“The arts in Napa Valley owe a great deal to Margrit’s philanthropy and steadfast love of the arts. She gave generously to help a variety of arts nonprofits create that special project, or take a risk or innovate when it was not in the budget. She was fashionably stylish, well-traveled, adventurous, and charismatic. When Margrit attended an event or performance at the Napa Valley Opera House, she grabbed attention just by being in the room.” —Evy Warshawski, executive/artistic director, Napa Valley Opera House, 2004–2011
“I fractured two vertebrae in my back in 1997 [when working at Robert Mondavi Winery], and Margrit took it upon herself to make sure I recovered. She gave me a hand-drawn card every day I was out. The first week, she delivered the cards herself; the weeks after that, she had her assistant deliver them. Each of the cards had slogans. ‘Sit on a barstool; it’s good for your back,’ or ‘Drink red wine; it’s good for your back.’ Those cards and the thoughtfulness she displayed in giving them to me really helped me get well and get back to work. I framed them and had them in my office for the rest of my time at the winery.” —Clay Gregory, CEO, Visit Napa Valley; general manager of Robert Mondavi Winery, 1997–2003
“Margrit’s humanity, warmth, and graciousness were matched by her force of will—able to move mountains and achieve what others could not. She inspired me to dream big and to act on those dreams. She was the guiding light in creating Festival Napa Valley, nurturing it to become a celebration of all that she stood for: joyful living; generosity; bringing people together through food, wine, and culture. She brought out the very best in everyone lucky enough to know her. It was a privilege to have honored Margrit at this summer’s festival.” —Rick Walker, president and CEO, Festival Napa Valley
“I loved her complexity best of all. She was such a complex thinker. And so quick! She saw everything in a matter of one-third of a second. She knew everything instantly. She was incredibly quick and bright. And sensitive. So much intuition. Beauty was her muse in life. When I say beauty, I mean harmony among the chaos of the world. I believe she is still around, that she has not left. I see her when I’m shopping or when I am admiring beautiful flowers. She is everywhere.” —Geneviève Janssens, director of winemaking, Robert Mondavi Winery
“Together with her husband, Robert, [Margrit] has left a wonderful legacy for the campus and Davis communities. There is the beautiful Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, of course, which is a regional jewel, but there is much more: the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which houses UC Davis’ world-renowned Viticulture and Enology, as well as Food Science and Technology programs. Mrs. Mondavi’s love of the arts [also] led to the establishment of the Margrit Mondavi Fellows program that provides grants to graduate students in the humanities. More than anything, I will remember [the] warmth and kindness that she showed to me and to so many of us in the UC Davis community.” —Ralph J. Hexter, interim chancellor, UC Davis