Readers Speak Out
Farewell: Words on the Passing of Margrit Mondavi
Author: Christopher Sawyer
October, 2016 Issue
Writing obituaries is never a pleasant task. That’s especially true when you have to talk about an iconic woman like Margrit Biever Mondavi, who died in Napa Valley on September 2 at the age of 91.
After joining the staff at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1967, Biever’s impact was immediately felt when she created a series of innovative programs that integrated wine with food, art and music. At the time, Napa Valley was a sleepy agricultural zone. To liven it up, she founded the winery’s Summer Music Festival in 1969 to benefit the Napa Valley Symphony. Since the winery wasn’t equipped for large numbers of guests, she borrowed chairs from a local church to accommodate them, and collected the admission money in cigar boxes.
As the popularity of the summer series and Festival of Winter Classical Music Series she subsequently developed took off, they began attracting top acts, including Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Herbie Hancock and other world-renowned pop, jazz and R&B artists from around the globe.
Margrit married Robert Mondavi in 1980 and soon became an important innovator of the Napa Valley food culture. She established the extremely successful string of seminars, food demos, intimate dinners and larger-scale events focused around the Great Chefs of France, Great Chefs of America and an internationally respected culinary series that are now known simply as Great Chefs at Robert Mondavi Winery.
After her daughter, Annie Roberts, became the executive chef at Robert Mondavi Winery, she released a collection of their recipes and stories called Annie and Margrit: Recipes and Stories from the Robert Mondavi Kitchen in May 2003, which won the 2003 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards’ “Best in the World” distinction in the “Best Easy Recipes Book” category.
As vice president of cultural affairs at Robert Mondavi Winery, Margrit traveled the globe representing the business. In recent years, she also promoted the release of her personal memoir, Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook
(2012), the follow-up she did with Bay Area writer Janet Fletcher focused on her favorite food and wine experiences, Margrit Mondavi’s Vignettes
(2015) and was in attendance at the momentous 50-year Anniversary celebration at the winery in June.
Outside the winery, the Mondavis were founding patrons of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, which opened in downtown Napa in November 2001. Later that year, they made a large personal contribution to the University of California at Davis to establish both the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and the lovely Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in October 2002.
As a close friend of Margrit through the years, culinary personality Joel Riddell of Dining Around on Talk910 and iHeartRadio has fond memories of encounters at her home with international star chefs like Jean Troisgros, Francis Mallmann, Thomas Keller and Las Vegas-based entrepreneur and art collector Steve Wynn, listening to her stories of dining with the Japanese emperor, dignitaries and international artists.
“Margrit always had such an adventurous spirit,” says Riddell. “While she would always surround herself with fantastic people, she also had the rare ability to include them in local activities, fundraisers, and humanitarian efforts. She was a true lady, who, through her graciousness, humility and friendly demeanor, was able to help plant the seeds that made Napa Valley the epicenter of charitable causes, fine cuisine, music and the arts, and one of the great destinations of the world.”
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