When I was a whippersnapper in the wine business in the late 1980s, I wondered what kind of woman Robert Mondavi’s wife could be and how anyone could possibly match his good looks, charm and charisma. When I was fortunate enough to finally meet Margrit Biever Mondavi and have lunch with her in the early 1990s, I began to realize that maybe he was the lucky one.
Many years later, in the summer of 2010, I got a call from Margrit asking to meet her about moving some objects from her home on Wappo Hill to her new residence in Napa. She showed me a collection of Roman glass bowls, cups and little vases, all ancient and precious, each a variation on a misty bluish green, like sea glass.
After our meeting, I thoroughly and somewhat nervously researched how one might properly move such fragile artifacts, looking into professional art movers, antiquities dealers, and the proper acid-free materials and crating that could be necessary. I put together a neat little presentation for her and brought it to Wappo Hill.
I started to outline to Margrit my findings and she stopped me abruptly. “I thought you could just put them on a blanket in the back of your car,” she said, clearly unconcerned. I came to find out that this was typical Margrit—she loved and greatly appreciated beautiful treasures such as the Roman glass collection, the stunning art and the heavy walnut Spanish antiques throughout the home, but she didn’t stress about them. Everything was meant to be used and enjoyed. If something broke or got damaged, that was life.
Even though she didn’t go for my complicated Roman glass transportation strategy, she appreciated the effort and hired me to help her with her entire move from Wappo Hill to the new home that she called, The Ruin. We spent weeks going through every book—and there were thousands—because she was notorious for sticking treasures into books. We found her Swiss passport in one— she was thrilled.
A downsizing from 10,000 square feet to 3,000 square feet requires a lot of pruning, and soon she was referring to me as ”Angela Out.” If she was on the fence about keeping something, I would immediately say, “Out.” She had her own endearing sound and gesture for anything that didn’t make the cut. It was sort of a “Phoot” sound with a quick left to right motion of a flat hand at chest level.
Although we donated hundreds of books, Margrit kept every volume that had been personally inscribed to her and/or Mr. Mondavi. It was an impressive collection by some of the world’s great artists, chefs, wine writers, photographers and celebrities. When we got to the new house, we had to have all the book shelves super-reinforced to hold the crème de la crème of the Mondavi library—even with the pruning it was a lot of heavy books.
There was always an enormous stack of books by her bed as well. She was an avid reader, curious about many subjects, and, of course, she could speak and read at least seven languages fluently and subscribed to several foreign language publications. Her correspondence was also in several languages, and she was always learning—becoming more proficient in Russian and in Japanese was on her agenda. She had no patience for my weak attempts to learn Spanish.
She was also not a fan of the fact that I don’t eat bread or drink wine. To her, that was unthinkable. If only I had her talent for moderation!
Margrit used the heck out of her clothing, shoes and jewelry. There was never any saving things for “someday”—if she loved it, she wore it. She inspired me constantly to have fun with clothes, not take my appearance too seriously, and to not worry too much about a little spot on a hem or a few pills on a sweater.
Unlike Audrey Hepburn, who famously stated that any woman with a little black dress, some sunglasses and a pair of ballet flats could copy her look, Margrit’s style is impossible to copy. For such a petite person, she could carry off enormous hats, huge baubles around her neck and lots of volume in her clothing, such as items from the designers Issey Miyake and Missoni that she favored.
Lately, she had been wearing some fabulous sequined Ugg boots and looked great in them. I tried them on and looked like a stumpy, wannabe Ziggy Stardust. Not too many of her clothes translated to other bodies and personalities, so when she was finished with them they were hard to consign—who else could carry off an asymmetrical Turkish lambskin vest?
The word “costume” in its meaning “garment” suited Margrit more than the practical sounding “clothing.” She always played herself and she was always the most stylish—and usually the most comfortable—woman in the room. I never saw her adjusting or fretting with her clothes.
Yes, Margrit owned many beautiful and valuable things. But her things never owned her. She was vastly more interested and engaged in people. Anyone who met her remembers how special she could make each of us feel. Her joie de vivre was unmatched, her gifts to Napa Valley too numerous to count. I will treasure every moment I got to spend with her.