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.”
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,” and the follow-up centered on her favorite food and wine experiences, “Margrit Mondavi’s Vignettes” in 2015.
Margrit was married to Robert from 1980 until he died in 2008. She 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, Robert and she 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.
Margrit Mondavi leaves behind three children, Philip Biever, Annie Roberts, and Phoebe Holbrook; six grandchildren: Andrew Biever, Celeste Biever, Quinn Roberts, Nathan Roberts, Sasha Holbrook, and Philip Holbrook; and three great-grandchildren Maeve Roberts, Gemma Roberts, and Landon Roberts.