Margrit Mondavi, a cultural icon of the Napa Valley wine world her late husband Robert Mondavi helped put on the global map five decades ago this year, died today at age 91, the Oakville-based winery reported.
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, the winery developed original cultural and culinary arts programs that are now benchmarks for the wine world. Robert Mondavi backed her creation of a showplace for painters, sculptors, photographers, jazz and classical musicians and the great chefs and winemakers of the world.
Margrit spoke with wine industry attorney Richard Mendelson at the Business Journal’s Impact Napa conference in 2014 about how far Napa Valley had come in five decades:
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, called her the “first lady of wine.”
“Margrit’s name was synonymous with good food, fine wine and great art the world over,” he said in a statement. “She was a one of a kind, a pioneer and a visionary who has taught us all to love life a little bit more and to embrace the richness of our culture. I am privileged and honored to have known her and to call her my friend.”
When Margrit 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,” Margrit said, who was a working artist, in a recollection shared by the winery today. “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 supporting 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,” Margrit said. “By honoring the world of the senses, of memory and emotions, the rites of the table express our humanity.”