The headlines and obituaries will note that Margrit Mondavi, a pioneer of modern-day California wine, and wife of Robert Mondavi, died today.
But Margrit was much more than that to me. She was a friend and, as Robert’s wife, the leading influencer of a movement to bring together art, music, and food with wine.
Margrit had Class, with a capital C, she had humor, and she set a high bar for entertaining and cooking.
She convinced Bob to start the Great Chefs of France Cooking School back in the mid-70s to prove to rubes in America that Bob’s red wines could stand up to Michelin, three-star food. And she was right.
Margrit and Bob introduced me to Napa Valley in May 1980, forever changing my own life’s direction and focus. They are why I live here today.
On my first visit to Napa Valley, to attend a 3-day cooking school with Jean Troisgros, one of the great French chefs (from his family’s restaurant, Freres Troisgrois, in Roanne), Margrit invited me to her home on a knoll in Yountville to proudly show off her Swiss-made, just-installed, wood-fired, oven with which she was looking forward to bake bread.
The last time I saw Margrit, was at the 50th anniversary dinner of the winery, which she hosted on Monday, April 25th.
During her lifetime, she and Robert built a wine empire which went public, and which the family eventually was forced to sell in a takeover bid.
Theirs was a colorful, but tempestuous life saga.
At the winery’s 50th anniversary dinner in April, Margrit sat beside another wine pioneer and legend, Warren Winarski, who made the 1966, very first Cabernet produced at Robert Mondavi Winery.
Warren then went on to his own fame as proprietor and winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
When the 1966 Cabernet wine was poured for assembled guests, Warren stood up said, “I am Warren Winiarski... and I made this wine.” There was an audible gasp in the room.
What are the chances that anyone ever gets to taste a 50-year-old wine WITH THE PERSON WHO MADE THE WINE 50 YEARS EARLIER?
On top of which, let’s not forget – this wine was sublime!
Between Margrit and Warren in this photo is Mark de Vere, head wine educator at the winery.
These last few years, Margrit had been Vice President of Cultural Affairs at Robert Mondavi Winery, now owned by Constellation Brands.
Margrit joined the winery in 1967. Under her direction, Robert Mondavi Winery developed the cultural and culinary arts programs, which are now benchmarks for the entire wine world.
Margrit created a showplace for painters, sculptors, photographers, jazz and classical musicians, great chefs and winemakers of the world.
Forty-Seven years ago, Margrit founded the winery’s extremely popular Summer Music Festival to benefit the Napa Valley Symphony. This concert series has hosted some of the world’s best jazz, R&B and pop artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett. I know about this because many Saturday afternoons at 5 pm, we would sit on the lawn of the winery to be transfixed by the presence of some of the world’s great musical artists.
Typical menu designed and illustrated by Margrit.
Margrit was an artist in her own right, often designing and illustrating the menus which were presented to guests who dined in the winery’s very special Vintage Room.
I have written elsewhere that some of the very best meals I have ever eaten in Napa Valley were prepared at the winery and served in the Vintage Room. All under the tutelage of Margrit.
Margrit leaves behind three children, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. And a slew of fans and friends in Napa Valley. We will miss your cheery smile, Margrit. May you rest in peace while the rest of us grieve our loss.
The family has asked me to include this detail:
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to The Oxbow School, 530 Third Street, Napa, California 94558 or to the American Cancer Society, 860 Napa Valley Corporate Way, Suite E, Napa, California 94558.