Previewing “Arts in April,” a monthlong celebration of the connection between arts and the wineries of the valley, members of the press arrived at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville for a tour of the winery’s art collection and a luncheon with Margrit Biever Mondavi, vice president of cultural affairs.
While musicians from the Napa Valley Symphony performed, we dined with Mondavi, a petite woman with a huge smile. Her friendly, down-to-earth good nature, coupled with numerous invitations to drink and eat, helped us overcome our collective shyness, but not our awe or respect as she graciously responded to our questions.
“Collecting (art) is addictive and I need to be surrounded by beauty,” Mondavi said. “I have never been sorry for art that I bought, but often sorry for art that I did not buy.
“I was fortunate to have come to Napa Valley in 1960, when it was still a very rural valley, more prunes than vineyards and no paved road in Yountville,” she continued. “When I started working at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1967, I was still one of the very few women working for a winery.
“With Robert Mondavi’s encouragement, I started the Robert Mondavi Summer Festival in 1969 and the art exhibits in 1970,” she said. “It was the best way to introduce wine. Bob called it the ‘soft sell.’”
Mondavi, a lifelong art collector, went on to establish a permanent art collection at the Mondavi winery. “My upbringing in Switzerland was always surrounded by art,” Margrit said. “My parents had excellent taste and I went to art school so I would collect a bit — whatever I could afford — $10 down, $10 a month.
“Later, when Robert and I built Wappo Hill, we were able to add some more important pieces.”
Upon arriving at Mondavi Winery, visitors are greeted by a large sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s only one of several sculptures of St. Francis at the winery in recognition that it was the Franciscan friars, whose order was founded by the saint, who first brought grapes to California 200 years ago.
This bronze, as well as much of the permanent art collection at Mondavi, was created by 20th-century sculptor Beniamino Bufano. He worked on a grand scale, creating pieces that had mass and stature, always with smooth edges and slick surfaces.
Bufano was born in Italy and immigrated to New York City with his family as youth. In 1915 he moved to a San Francisco, but traveled extensively to Europe, China and India, where he picked up new ideas and techniques. The medium was as important as the finished piece to Bufano, so he chose marble, steel, granite and wood as his vehicles of expression. From these seemingly unyielding materials, Bufano released loveable creatures and graceful human forms.
When she met Bufano’s son, Mondavi was able to create a permanent collection of the renowned artist’s work at the winery. “Bufano’s work illustrates a deep love for animals, peace, harmony and St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals,” she said.
In the main courtyard, Bufano’s “Muse” greets visitors. Created by Henry Wadell, this bronze nude has playfully been clothed in various garments by attendees of summer concerts over the years.
Mondavi has also supported both celebrated and emerging artists by featuring their works in rotation in the Vineyard Room at the winery.
“It was an honor to show artists like Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Nathan Oliveira and so on in our gallery, but it gave me such pleasure to introduce new young artists,” Mondavi said. “Maybe having Robert Mondavi Winery on their portfolio helped their future careers.”
Currently, the work of St. Helena artist Nancy Willis is on exhibit in the Vineyard Room. This coming week, Willis will be present to discuss her work, which includes a series about the bed, the dinner party and the chandelier. Her works were most recently shown in “Global Perspectives” at Worcester State University, Mass., and the World Print Annual in Sofia, Bulgaria.
In 2011, Willis curated “Discrepancy: Living Between War and Peace,” an exhibit at the Napa Valley Museum that featured 23 artists. She teaches painting and printmaking at Napa Valley College and Nimbus Arts and the principals of design at the Culinary Institute of America.
Under Mondavi’s direction, the winery developed cultural and culinary programs that became a showplace for painters, sculptors, photographers, jazz and classical musicians, and the great chefs and winemakers of the world. Mondavi said this was done with the enthusiastic support of her husband, who always told her to “Do it, don’t talk about doing it.”
The Mondavis made substantial contributions to UC Davis to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and to launch the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, as well as continuing to support the Oxbow School, the Napa Valley Opera House and other arts organizations.
“Maybe our most important statement for Napa was the building of Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts,” Mondavi said. “Today, when it is no longer ours, I feel it was not bricks and mortar but it was spirit, the legacy that has brought the city of Napa forward. I look at the future with great confidence.”