Boho Awards 2006:
Margrit Biever Mondavi, the first lady of Napa arts patronage, cuts a tiny figure in the airy art gallery at Robert Mondavi Winery. On a recent late summer day, she conferred with photographer Terence Ford (Harrison’s brother) and a friend of his as the two men picked her brain about how best to arrange an upcoming exhibit of Ford’s photographs. Mrs. Mondavi, who practiced art for many years herself, considers before admitting that she has no easy answer. “It is a very hard thing to hang a show,” she says.
She should know, having curated dozens of rotating exhibitions at the winery by such important 20th-century artists as Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn and Helen Frankenthaler over the past 20-odd years.
Mrs. Mondavi has been a dynamic fixture at the winery since 1967, and seems quite comfortable keeping up her ambitious pace, particularly as the winery celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a series of events. She has not only built the Robert Mondavi Winery’s reputation as a welcoming home for the arts, but has also set that relationship as a standard for other area wineries.
Usually referred to simply as Margrit (pronounced “Margaret”) by most who know her, one can’t help but write about her as “Mrs. Mondavi.” It’s not that she herself is formal, but rather that her gravitas demands extra respect. That said, her vibrancy is down-to-earth and warm. For this interview, she pulls her chair up very close, her voice undulating with excitement as she explains the start of the famous Great Chefs series, only one of a host of pioneering arts contributions she has made in almost four decades of working with her husband at their winery. Her chefs series brought luminaries such as Julia Child, Alice Waters, Simone Beck and Wolfgang Puck to the winery’s kitchen over the course of the last 30 years.
Leaning forward in her chair, Mrs. Mondavi explains that her husband had always wanted a food and wine program. “Wine and food is a natural,” she says. But at first, there was no great American cuisine. Elaborating on the Dark Ages of American culinary arts, she says, “The advent of the freezer meant that you could have people over and do nothing–just serve last week’s frozen lasagna and cut up a little lettuce. There was no cooking.” Naturellement, the first chefs of the series were all French. Finally, a few years into the program, America started developing its own great chefs, who were invited to participate in the series.
“I was deeply involved in what they were doing,” says Mrs. Mondavi, who translated for many of the chefs who didn’t speak English (she speaks six languages, including household Japanese). “But I had to listen carefully, because they knew when I translated something the wrong way,” she says. How did it feel to interact with the likes of Jean Troisgros, Marcella Hazan, Thomas Keller and Jacques Pépin? “When you’re in the presence of genius–it’s extraordinary,” she says simply.
Mrs. Mondavi grew up during World War II in a village near Locarno, in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. “My mother cooked like an angel,” she says, adding that “sardines were the only thing that weren’t rationed. My mother would trade her soul for butter.” When asked what her favorite dish was that her mother used to cook, Mrs. Mondavi’s large blue eyes look distant. “Everything!” she exclaims. After a moment she adds, “I have never had chicken as good.”
Three years ago, Mrs. Mondavi collaborated with her own daughter, Annie Roberts, who served as the winery’s executive chef for 27 years, to write Annie and Margrit: Recipes and Stories from the Robert Mondavi Kitchen.
Beyond the culinary arts, Mrs. Mondavi has orchestrated the winery’s famously successful Summer Festival music series. She threw the first one in 1969, just three years after the winery began. “We borrowed the chairs from the church and a portable stage from the local high school,” she recalls. Since then, such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, Ray Charles and Benny Goodman have taken the stage (the winery has its own now). The festivals have raised some $2 million, benefiting community organizations, in particular the Napa Valley Symphony.
Mrs. Mondavi has donated generously to the restoration of the Napa Valley Opera House, where a theater is named in her honor. She and her husband also recently built the eponymous, state-of-the-art performing arts center at UC Davis, and this summer she launched the innovative Taste3 food, wine and art conference at COPIA.
But Mrs. Mondavi doesn’t just support the arts, she understands them. She says that her husband has often wished that he could be an artist in his next life, telling her, “As an artist, you can do what you want; express yourself.” But she quips with savvy, “You ain’t got any idea about what it’s like to be an artist. Often you have to fit a mold. It’s not as free as you think it is.”
Her candid and subtle grasp of the creative struggle make Mrs. Mondavi a truly perfect patron of the arts.