In our family we were particularly sad to learn that Margrit Biever Mondavi died at the end of last week. We were very fond of her, and had considerable evidence that she was fond of us. When she was still travelling the world – at a frenetic pace when her second husband, quintessential Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi, was at the peak of his power as a major international figure – she would often get in touch when in London and we would join her for a meal. If it were tea at her hotel, she was likely to have brought something special for one of the children.
I remember her from my very early visits to the Napa Valley in the late 1970s when she was head of public relations (a novel role then) at the stylish Robert Mondavi Winery. She was not at that stage married to her boss but made no secret of her enormous personal admiration for him. With her strong Swiss accent, blonde bob, innate chic and almost constant Cheshire cat smile, she was always difficult to overlook.
She was obviously clearly hugely superior intellectually, creatively and emotionally to any run-of-the-mill PR person. It was Margrit who was the force behind the amazing range of cultural and gastronomic activities associated with Robert Mondavi and the winery. Thanks to her, the standard of cuisine there was always outstanding; her daughter Annie Roberts with whom she produced distinctive cookbooks was the in-house chef. She was a gifted artist herself and initiated all sorts of art and music ventures at the winery and in the city of Napa, including Copia and Oxbow. She was also surely a major influence on the couple’s generous philanthropic activities. The University of California at Davis was a particular beneficiary.
We attended several of the headline summer concerts at the winery with her, not long ago one of them featuring Margrit, obviously much loved by the audience, on stage with Blondie. Appropriate really.
She could make virtually anything happen in the Napa Valley, including conjuring up reservations at The French Laundry at a moment’s notice. She had us to stay in the guesthouse (once used for Robert’s massages) of the extraordinary house that she designed for her and Robert on Wappo Hill (now occupied by their successors as leading wine power couple Jean-Charles Boisset and Gina Gallo). It was clear that it had been designed as a place for lovers of good food, great wine and parties. She may have been born in the 1920s but at heart she was a child of the sixties.
She eventually moved from this palace of pleasure on the hill, flanked by her beloved llamas, to a more modest house in Coombsville but continued to be prolific, writing and illustrating a memoir Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook in 2012 and a final cookbook Margrit Mondavi’s Vignettes as recently as last year.
She will be much missed, not just by the Napa Valley community but as a civilising influence on the whole wine industry.