As the author of this bi-monthly column devoted to the arts in Napa Valley, I would be remiss not to dedicate a remembrance to arts maven Margrit Mondavi who passed away on Sept. 2.
Technically, it’s the second “Arts Landscape” column I’ve written to honor Margrit’s legacy and her impeccable taste — and influence — in all things wine, food and the arts.
The first, “It’s (Not) Just Lunch” (July 2011), describes the delectable, three-course meal we shared in the Vineyard Room at the Robert Mondavi Winery. (The Vineyard Room was re-named the Margrit Mondavi Vineyard Room in 2015 on the occasion of her 90th birthday.)
That first day of summer was unseasonably warm and the probable cause of a power outage that closed winery operations and prevented my taking home one of Margrit’s famous printed lunch menus (colorfully enhanced by her original watercolors).
She, on the other hand, looked, as they say, “cool as a cucumber,” and our date was sandwiched (no pun intended) between her recent business trip to Hong Kong and an upcoming jaunt to Italy for a family wedding.
Befitting her “take charge” manner, Margrit exhibited neither a whisper of jet lag nor fragile appetite, and we engaged all our senses during that memorable afternoon. I, however, feeling satiated and full (having devoured a super-rich, apricot blackberry, upside down cake a la mode), was ready for a long nap!
On first meeting Margrit in 2004, I was more than a little intimidated by her legendary status, worldwide wine expertise and charismatic personality. I had just been hired as executive director of the Napa Valley Opera House on whose board she sat (like so many other lucky arts nonprofits in the valley). I later understood that her approval of my hiring was de regueur, and an important part of my job was creating a mutually-beneficial, inclusive relationship with her.
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We should all have such pleasures in our work! I grew to respect Margrit’s wisdom and often solicited her advice. I so appreciated her brutal honesty and valued her informed opinions. She was perpetually in demand socially, and her mere presence at a special occasion, gala or performance was sought after and earned a host’s bragging rights.
Margrit especially enjoyed attending jazz shows at the Opera House and knew personally many of the well-known musicians who played the venue. It was not unusual for her to sneak backstage post-performance, shake a hand or three plus gift a bottle of wine.
In hindsight, I recognize that I had a guardian angel watching over me from the Opera House wings. With generous support from Robert and Margrit Mondavi, the upstairs theater was designated the Margrit Biever Mondavi Opera Theater. With her name etched on the wall, Margrit is forever “in the house,” and for that I am grateful.
The arts in Napa Valley have been forever changed thanks to Margrit’s generous patronage. She was both a participant in creating art through her paintings, and an enlightened, world-traveled arts connoisseur who enjoyed bringing cultural excellence to audiences young and old.
Her imprint is eclectic and all-encompassing: jazz (the Mondavi Winery concert series, Napa Valley Jazz Society); visual arts (diRosa, Oxbow School, Napa Valley Museum); performing arts venues (Lincoln Theater, Napa Valley Opera House, COPIA, UC Davis); and music festivals (Music in the Vineyards, Festival Napa Valley), among many others.
So if, by chance, you happened to have heard the clinking of wine glasses en masse at dinner parties a few weekends ago, it was surely a collective toast celebrating the amazing life of Margrit Biever Mondavi. She would have been deliciously pleased by the gesture.