A beautiful life
Published: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 10:23 p.m.
Margrit Biever Mondavi was in the midst of a very full life by the time she met her future second husband, Robert.
Born in Switzerland, she had lived in Europe, Japan and different parts of the United States before settling in Napa. There, she raised three children and, an instinctively attuned home chef, nurtured a deep and evolving understanding of fine food and wine.
Of course, much is already known about how the couple conducted the Napa Valley's most famous affair, eventually divorcing their first spouses to marry each other in 1980 at age 68 (he) and 55 (she). They met at Robert Mondavi Winery, where she began as a tour guide and worked up to becoming the head of public relations.
Together at last, they became a magical tour de force for California wine over the next three decades until the passing of Robert Mondavi in 2008.
“We always felt it would be a great partnership,” Mondavi said of her time romancing Robert behind closed doors. “He would say, ‘What are we going to do about it?'”
A speaker of European languages that include German, French, Italian and Spanish (she's currently learning Russian), the eternally energetic and intellectually curious 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.”
Now 87, Mondavi has put all her memories into beautiful form in “Margrit Mondavi's Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life,” a memoir released this month with local writer Janet Fletcher.
It includes original paintings and sketches, as well as three rich sections of memories. Origins is a look at her youth, family and work; Passions is about romance, art and wine; and Pleasures contains detailed remembrances about food, travel and the couple's legacy of philanthropic giving.
“I re-lived my life not only through stories but pictures,” said Mondavi, who has kept a diary for 65 years. “I (write) every day. Once you (keep a diary) for so long it becomes like brushing your teeth, you've got to do it.”
Superstitious, she never allows herself to write about the events of her day before midnight.
“I do it usually the next morning but know I can't wait too long because memory plays tricks sometimes,” she added. “I didn't want anybody to read (my diary), but for certain dates, trips and memories we went through it. I told a lot but not everything.”
Weaved throughout are photos of famous friends such as Luciano Pavarotti and Sophia Loren, and reminiscences by a range of people. Robert's younger son Tim Mondavi says she “gave (Robert's) vision content and amplified it.” Fellow vintner and artist Eleanor Coppola says since meeting Mondavi in the mid 1970s, “I watched her single-handedly bring culture and arts to the valley.”
A passionate cook, Mondavi comes especially alive recounting The Great Chefs Cooking School she helped launch at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1976, when she invited the best chefs from France to the Napa Valley to interact with locals around food. It lasted for 30 years.
“The French chefs were very happy to come here if you paid for their trip and their girlfriends,” Mondavi recalled. “At first they brought their own foie gras and truffles and salt. They even brought their own butter ... but (over time) they were amazed at what we had. As time went on, word got around, and they didn't bring their own stuff anymore.”
Aiming for three-star Michelin chefs, Mondavi first brought over the famed Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé and Jean Troisgros, followed soon after by Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon and Pierre Troisgros, among others.
“Bob (Mondavi) had an epiphany about wine and food, that he was going to put his wines next to three-star French food,” said Gary Jenanyan, former executive chef of the Great Chefs Program. “But without Margrit's ability to reach out to those French chefs and relate to them, it wouldn't have happened.”
Later, such luminaries as Diana Kennedy, Marcella Hazan, Jacque Pepin, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck and Martha Stewart would come. Many of them contributed reminiscences for the book.
Mondavi doesn't hold back on any of them, calling Kennedy “difficult” and saying of Stewart, “I don't think Martha is a great culinary talent, but she was the hardest-working woman I had ever seen.”
Mondavi describes 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 Robert if they needed something.
“He was a generous character,” Mondavi said. “Schramsberg, Chappellet, Phelps were all new. They would call Bob. He was so free with everything, if they needed to crush wine, if they needed a truck, if they needed money, they never forgot his generosity. That was his spirit.”
His generosity with wine in particular overflowed into his relationship with Mondavi, and that's how she learned a world's worth more about the subject than she already considerably knew.
“He shared. He would invite me out to dinner, and he'd order two or three first-growths (Bordeaux),” she 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.”
Mondavi remains the “only living Mondavi” (her words) still working for Robert Mondavi Winery since it was sold to Constellation Brands in 2004. She is a tireless ambassador for the romance and magic that she and Robert 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, said of her mom. “She was meant for something grand, and it just took her a while to find it.”
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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