Margrit Mondavi

A celebration of Margrit Mondavi’s life was held at the Robert Mondavi Winery in September. She died Sept. 2 at age 91. This photo of Margrit was taken in her light-filled kitchen, which she used not only cooking but also for painting.

Proud to be native Swiss, Margrit Biever Mondavi nevertheless was quick to point out she was also “American by choice.”

She came to America as a young bride, and half a century ago settled in the Napa Valley to raise a family. She did a lot more than that.

Margrit set the bar for Napa Valley’s hospitality industry and championed all manner of fine and performing arts.

As the wife of vintner Robert Mondavi, she brought people from all over the world to a table set with exceptional food and wine, and then introduced and entertained them with diverse fine and performing arts. One who had a kind word or a helping hand for anyone in need, later in life she set a fine example of philanthropy.

Last Monday, family, friends, associates and fans gathered to celebrate Margrit’s life at the Robert Mondavi Winery, the Oakville winery where she spent nearly five decades as an ambassador for wine, food and the arts. Margrit left us at age 91 in early September.

Daughter Annie Roberts said her mother lived “a fairy-tale life at the winery for 50 years.” She thanked all at the celebration “for sharing your lives with her and making her life happy.”

Daughter Phoebe Holbrook reminded everyone of one of her mother’s bons mots: “Why drink water if you can drink wine?”

And in a keepsake given to all who attended, another: “There is so much beauty in the world, if we look for it; so much.”

Memories were shared by many who knew Margrit best — Glenn Workman, general manager of the Mondavi winery; Rep. Mike Thompson; Julius Anderegg, former Swiss consul general; Genevieve Janssens, director of winemaking at the Mondavi winery; Jeff Mosher, Mondavi winery chef; Thomas Keller, chef/owner of The French Laundry; Gail Bien, art teacher and friend; Stephen Thomas, founding director of the Oxbow School; Don Roth, executive director of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis; Clay Gregory, president, Visit Napa Valley. Margrit’s grandson, Quinn Roberts and his daughter, Maeve, performed one of Margrit’s favorite songs, “Over the Rainbow,’ as dozens of white doves were released into the dusky sky.

“Margrit’s tenacity and special spirit changed the Napa landscape — bringing together food, wine and culture in special celebration,” said Richard Sands, chairman of the board, Constellation Brands (owner of the Mondavi winery and brand).

“There could be no better ambassador for this special place and its wines,” Sands told the assembly.

“She experienced the wines fully, and knew how to express her absolute love for them through her smile, her boundless enthusiasm, her deep feelings for Robert, and through her passion for the arts.

“The hand that so delicately held the wine stem aloft also caressed a painter’s brush; cradled her children, grandchildren; created inspired recipes; clasped the hands of dignitaries, friends and strangers alike; and welcomed endless people to this winery.

“She provided us a true feast for the senses, and today we are left forlorn at this banquet table. Yet, upon reflection, this feast she set before us remains. We feel her inspiration — in the perfect combination of fine wines, great food, close friends and the timeless arts.

“We will feel this inspiration forever. While Robert Mondavi was the driving force behind our wines, through this lasting inspiration, Margrit was — and will forever be — our muse.”

This journalist and longtime friend of Margrit was asked to speak at her celebration last Monday afternoon, with special attention to the summer music festival. My remarks follow:

“’Hello Pierce — this is Margrit.’ The first time I heard that greeting was nearly half a century ago.

Margrit Biever was calling to ask for a little help to let area residents know something of interest was on tap at the Robert Mondavi Winery.

It could have been one of the hundreds of art exhibitions she curated over the years, showcasing the talents of area and internationally acclaimed artists.

I received many of those calls throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and well into the new millennium. For there was always something of interest going on at the Robert Mondavi Winery — in addition to the outstanding wines produced by vintner Mondavi, his family, vineyard and cellar crews.

Napa Valley’s first film festival took place in the Vineyard Room; Margrit launched the world-renowned Great Chefs program and established a Winter Classical Music series here, among other endeavors.

Perhaps the most enduring of all is the Robert Mondavi Summer Music Festival, which wrapped up its 47th season a few months ago.

It began with a performance on the lawn by the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra in 1969, and continued as not only a program to entertain but also help underwrite orchestral programs and educational opportunities for youth. The festival continues to provide funds for music programs in Napa schools.

Long before we buried our noses in iPhones or connected on the Internet, Napans actually enjoyed one another’s company at weekend picnics and performances here.

Margrit talked to me often as she was putting together festival programs — even asking for thoughts on artist popularity and ability to attract audiences. I didn’t always have the best advice — like the time she wondered if she should book Harry Belafonte. As he hadn’t had recent hits or been on my radar, I wasn’t sure Belafonte was a good idea. Margrit, on the other hand, believed booking Belafonte was a risk worth taking. The tickets to his first appearance here sold out in a matter of days — this was tickets by mail and by phone — no Internet then.

There are lots of great festival stories and anecdotes — like the one year a tropical storm dumped rain on the second half of a Preservation Hall Jazz Band concert, and a streaker — if you remember those — sailed his naked butt across a wet lawn and slid into the plate glass of the then retail room, glass bowing, not breaking.

Della Reese lost her voice; Hampton Hawes performed on drugs; Benny Goodman drank a little too much wine; Herbie Mann’s sidemen were arrested for drug possession the night before the show and performed under the watchful eyes of sheriff’s deputies.

Lena Horne said she didn’t do outdoor concerts — but she did for Margrit.

Margrit convinced stars with international luster to come to the Napa Valley — Antonio Carlos Jobim, Buena Vista Social Club, Cesaria Evora — and superstars like Tony Bennett, Julio Iglesias and Johnny Mathis.

Then there was Ella. In the early days, Margrit did everything, including driving Ella Fitzgerald back to San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. On the way, Ella spotted a full moon overhead and began singing — first ‘How High the Moon’ — then all the moon songs she knew all the way into the city.

Margrit’s ear for talent also led to strong friendships with such greats as Dave Brubeck, Boz Scaggs, Dave Koz, John Pizzarelli and Chris Botti.

Margrit Biever Mondavi enriched the valley’s cultural scene with the summer festival and much more.

Five for Fighting and O.A.R. may not have been on Margrit’s playlist but she was always open to providing a stage for music of all manner.

I’ll miss Margrit’s calls, but I — all of us — know her legacy lives on here where the spirit of Bob Mondavi, as she often pointed out, is in every glass of wine.

Long live the first lady of the Napa Valley.”

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