Artist, author and widow of internationally renowned wine world icon Robert Mondavi, Margrit Biever Mondavi died at her hillside Coombsville home Friday. She was 91.
Margrit Mondavi had been battling stomach cancer for more than two years.
Considered “the first lady of the Napa Valley” by friends and associates from all walks of life, the Switzerland native — who reminded us often she was “American by choice” — had served for many years as vice president of cultural affairs at the winery her late husband founded in 1966. She joined the staff of the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1967, filling the role of public relations director until she married the boss.
The first female tour guide in the Napa Valley, Margrit Biever Mondavi was respected, like her second husband, for helping put the Napa Valley on the world stage.
While her husband insisted Napa Valley wines belong in the company of the world’s best, Margrit, in efforts based at the Robert Mondavi Winery, focused on wine country cuisine and culture.
Through culinary programs featuring the world’s great chefs, with art exhibits and programs that spotlighted the nation’s leading contemporary artists and an enduring summer concert series, Margrit complemented Bob Mondavi’s remarkable wines with great food and art.
Together, they helped spread the gospel of the cultured good life. They helped endow the Napa Valley Opera House, a new enology and viticulture school at UC Davis and a performing arts center there.
Their biggest local project, Copia, the ambitious “American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts” ultimately failed.
While a student at a Swiss teachers’ college for young women at the end of World War II, Margrit Kellenberger met an Army captain from the United States. Following a brief courtship that included prolific letter writing, she and Capt. Philip Biever were married in the Church of Madonna del Sasso on a wooded hillside above the city of Locarno.
Reflecting on that special day just prior to the publication of “Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook” in 2012, she recalled she had packed a valise so she and her new husband could leave on a honeymoon shortly after the ceremony. It was on the train to Lugano that the newlyweds had a moment to take stock of the situation.
“I can see his face as clearly today as I did then, sitting across from him in the compartment of the train,” she said during an interview at her home. “We had both turned white as a sheet, both of us thinking, ‘What have we done?’
“Phil leaned across to me and when he got close he said: ‘It’s gonna be alright.’ And it was.”
The newlyweds settled in her husband’s new duty station, North Dakota, and started a family that includes three children — Philip Jr., Annie and Phoebe.
Also with the publication of the 2012 book — co-written with Janet Fletcher — Margrit acknowledged that Robert G. Mondavi was the love of her life.
“Bob and I fell in love — we were attracted to one another,” Margrit wrote in the collection of memories from her personal diary. “But I was not going to be his mistress. He was already famous, with a wife and three kids. My marriage was falling apart, and maybe Bob was part of the reason for it. He and I couldn’t live together in Napa Valley without marrying — no way. I was not a personality but I had a profile. It would be impossible.”
“I could have let him go, but he didn’t want me to let him go. He said, ‘I’ll take care of it, don’t you worry.’ You had to be optimistic around Bob; he didn’t have a negative bone in his body. Any obstacle was temporary as far as he was concerned.”
Margrit’s divorce was accomplished without issue, she said. Such wasn’t the case with vintner Mondavi. His lawyers advised against it and his calls from San Francisco made Margrit ill at ease, and, at one point, physically ill. She wondered if she’d have to start her life anew somewhere else, perhaps returning to Switzerland.
Bob Mondavi wound up firing both of his lawyers and getting the divorce he wanted. Two months later, in May of 1980, Bob and Margrit were married in Palm Springs.
“I really did not marry Bob for his money,” she wrote in the sketchbook, “but it’s what came along. I always told him that I would go with him to the end of the world. We could grow grapes and start over again. Bob was very conscious of time, that life is not forever. When I would ask him what he wanted for his birthday, he would say, ‘I want nothing to change.’”
They resided in their home on Wappo Hill until his death in 2008.
The philanthropic work she and her late husband accomplished will resonate for years to come.
One who knew her best is daughter Annie Biever Roberts, with whom Margrit published a cookbook more than a decade ago. Commenting in the sketchbook, Annie said her mother could have been “an incredible actress. She loves to be in front of people. If you watch her at the concerts at the winery, when she comes on stage, her presence is wonderful. You want to look at her. She’s always wearing something flowing and has that accent, and people are attracted to her. She was meant for something grand, and it just took her a while to find it.”
World-renowned chef Jacques Pepin wrote to the Register, “I met Margrit in 1976. It was my first visit to Napa and I came to conduct cooking classes at High Tree farm. Margrit synchronized the wines for the classes. Charming, knowledgeable, helpful and generous, she introduced me to Napa and to the wine industry. She became a friend. Throughout the next 40 years, it would be my privilege and delight to to teach at the extraordinary Mondavi Great Chefs Cooking program that she had created. Her sense of style and superb knowledge of arts made her an asset and an icon of not only the wine world but the social life of Napa, California and America as well. I will miss her as a friend, an artist and a great humanitarian.”
“Margrit was my friend — the dearest friend a person could have — for 55 years,” said Thomas Bartlett, who was Mrs. Mondavi’s frequent escort after the death of her husband. “We traveled together in California and Europe, and our conversation never lagged. She was a total Renaissance woman who lived more than most people would in two lifetimes. Her zest for life never waned. In my last conversation with her she said, ‘Thomas, if I could have one last wish, it would be to go one more time to your home in Mexico where we could paint and draw — and go out dancing, preferably to a Cuban band. This is a great loss.”
Napa Valley vintner Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, who worked for Robert Mondavi early in his career and became a lifelong friend of the Mondavis, wrote,
“I met Margrit when I started working at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1968. My laboratory was in the winery tower, and when I told her that it was modern, practical and scientific but certainly not interesting, she understood. She delivered a huge flowering plant, which transformed it into an inviting, living place.
“Years later when we were designing the label for my winery, Grgich Hills Cellar, our artist created a beautiful cluster of Chardonnay grapes. I liked it but felt something was missing. I asked my friend Margrit to help me. She immediately knew what to do. ‘Mike, you should make the grape clusters a little longer so the grapes form a triangle,’ she said. We incorporated her suggestion and have used the same label throughout the years.“Margrit Mondavi, the First Lady of American wine, was a living example of how wine, food and the arts are an essential part of daily life,” Grgich added. “Her passion for life was infectious, and her influence wide-reaching. She brought great joy to everyone she touched and inspired in others the desire to live life well and to the fullest. I was proud to call her my friend.” Another longtime friend, Beth Nickel, of Far Niente Winery, said, “We have just lost one of the most beloved and iconic figures that Napa Valley will ever know. Margrit was an inspiration and a joy to the legions of people she came in contact with. She made gigantic contributions in so many areas of wine, food, arts, education and community service.“When my late husband, Gil, and I arrived in the valley almost 40 years ago, she and Robert were among the first to welcome us. They were always very complimentary and encouraging about all of our efforts at Far Niente and our ventures that came along after that. They set an extremely high standard of excellence for all of us to look up to and elevated all of us in the process.“Margrit’s friendship to me will be something that I’ll treasure all of my life. There has never been another one like her.
Vintners Shari and Garen Staglin, owners of Staglin Family Vineyards in the Napa Valley, sent this comment to the Register: “Margrit was the architect of Napa’s culture of glorious entertaining. She had this amazing ability to match and describe the perfect dish with the perfect wine, and she propelled Napa to the international map of fine wine and cuisine. Her grace, combined with unending energy, made her the perfect hostess or guest at any event. The never-ending passion she had for art led to a transformation of music and visual arts in the Napa Valley. Her warmth and wonderful smile made you feel great at every interaction you had with her. These memories will live with us forever and we believe for anyone who was fortunate to know her. Her favorite toast, ‘cent’anni,‘ or ‘100 years’ is a wish she leaves with us all.”
Clay Gregory, who also worked for the Robert Mondavi Winery and went on to become president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley commented:
“There is no way to overstate Margrit’s enormous impact on Robert Mondavi Winery and the Napa Valley itself. The programs she started at the winery were groundbreaking, from the Summer Music Festival and Winter Concert series to the Great Chefs program, to the rotating and permanent art installations (and, of course, she was a great artist in her own right). She brought an international flare and awareness that raised the cultural level of the winery to heights that would never have been reached without her.
“She was generous with her time and gracious with everyone she met. Her contributions to charities both in the valley and beyond are wonderful examples of the person she was. She had a brilliant mind as well as a wickedly funny sense of humor. Margrit has left an indelible and charming mark on the Napa Valley, and she will be greatly missed for decades to come.”
Ralph J. Hexter, acting chancellor UC Davis, called Mrs. Mondavi “one of the university’s most generous and visionary supporters, an incredible champion of our campus and our students. Her commitment to fostering the arts and furthering our research in food science helped UC Davis achieve yet greater heights and greater recognition in these areas.”
The Mondavis’ $35 million gift million led to the creation of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2002, he noted, and they also helped establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.
Margrit Mondavi made a $2 million gift to the new university art museum scheduled to open in November and funded scholarships, he said.
Rick Walker, CEO and president of Festival Napa Valley, which marked its 11th season in July with a tribute to Mrs. Mondavi, told the Register, “Margrit’s humanity, warmth and graciousness were matched by her force of will — able to move mountains and achieve what others could not. She inspired me to dream big and to act on those dreams. She was the guiding light in creating Festival Napa Valley, nurturing it to become a celebration of all that she stood for — joyful living, generosity, bringing people together through food, wine and culture. She brought out the very best in everyone lucky enough to know her.”
Sasha Paulsen, Register features editor, contributed to this story.