It was a gray, chilly February morning in Napa Valley, too dank even for the season’s hearty bright-yellow mustard crop to light up rows of vineyards. Two dozen aspiring and accomplished wine writers braved the drizzly day for a tour of Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW) with Director of Winemaking Geneviève Janssens, and for the opportunity to interview Margrit Mondavi. Even if she hadn’t been wearing blue-sequined Ugg knock-off boots, she absolutely lit up the room (and the day) with love stories of “Mr. Mondavi” — I swear, she really said that.
If he had still been alive in 2013, Robert Mondavi would have been 100 years old about four months after our visit. Margrit Mondavi brought him to life for us, regaling us with stories about their life together over a 28-year marriage. She had us at “I married the boss!”
As her story begins, Margrit was in charge of PR, making $2 an hour after working at RMW for about a decade, and had recently introduced the innovation of a tasting room to showcase the wines, food, and art. “At 5:30, we (the staff) pulled the chain across the driveway and drank the dregs of the day’s wine. One day, when Mr. Mondavi came out to discuss money and how we could improve things, he said ‘Why don’t you come out to dinner with me? I have a couple of questions.’ We went to Chez Panisse — there were others we knew who asked us to sit with them — but from then on we looked just at each other.” (We will never know if there is a he said/she said version of this story.)
The room gave up a collective sweet sigh as Margrit shared small glimpses of the couple’s long romance. Her advice? “Well, you have to be lucky, go to great places, and cultivate and talk about the relationship.” According to Margrit, Mr. Mondavi always sent flowers with a note: “For my wife, who I love more than the day I married her.” Their daily ritual during dinner prep, the most natural part of their day when not traveling, was to build a fire, cook together, and sip on a bottle of RMW from the cellar. Mr. Mondavi apparently loved pastina in brodo (chicken soup!!) as well as classic homemade pasta smothered in fresh parmigiano reggiano cheese. Oh, and around the edges she “schlepped him to museums” to make sure that her love of art was fully integrated into his intense focus on wine. Listen up folks! This might be a good recipe.
As our interview drew to a close, Margrit Mondavi looked wistfully out toward the dormant winter To Kalon vineyard, and softly pronounced it to be exactly as it had been for 50 years. Almost as if speaking to herself, Margrit shared a favorite Robert Mondavi quote, “moderation with glorious exceptions.” Shifting quickly out of her reverie, back to the person who asserts that every day should be full of passion and creativity, looking forward, Margrit reminded us that there are “more old winemakers than old doctors.”
When asked to speculate on what the future holds, she twinkled with energy worthy of those sequined boots and said “I have a secret”! She might be taking that little secret with her. We never learned what exactly it might be.
So just a guess: 2016 is the 50th anniversary of Robert Mondavi Winery, the first post-prohibition winery to be built (in 1966) in Napa Valley. Margrit was the self-described keeper of Mr. Mondavi’s passion and story. She would be duty bound to honor his many innovations, pushing the industry to grow, excel, and achieve high levels of worldwide brand recognition for American wines.
I have no doubt she put all the finishing touches on her vision of a fitting celebration. Rest in love and peace, Mrs. Mondavi.
Kathy Merchant photo credits from an old iPhone!