Fighters don’t go down easy here on Wappo Hill. So far this year, Robert Mondavi has won bouts with pneumonia and the shingles. The former a deathly threat to someone who’s 94 years old, and the latter is a similarly painful and threatening disease.
Yet he has fought back and rebounded and he’s still hanging in there.
How many more rounds are left in Mr. Mondavi hardly mattered last night, and we sat down with a couple of close friends for dinner at their magnificent home.
Wappo Hill has been the Mondavi’s residence for 28 years. It’s a sweeping, multilevel, 10,000-square-foot one-bedroom home atop a knoll that overlooks Yountville to the west and Stags Leap to the east.
The walls are lined with an art collection that would fill a room or two at any modern museum. There’s a swimming pool in the living room, where Bob, aided by attendants, still works out four times a week.
Margrit, his wife, still cooks and donned a colorful watermelon-patterned apron last night as she prepared a four-course meal. She and I sipped Champagne in the kitchen and she helped Bob take a few drinks.
I’ve known the Mondavis for 30 years and dined with them on many memorable occasions, usually at their namesake winery in Oakville. I seldom turned down an offer to sit at their table, as Bob was both a mentor and subject and knowing and hearing him talk about his wine, the business, the global wine scene, you name it, was something not to be missed.
Last night I was pleasantly surprised to see how well Bob looked, since he has been fighting against time and his age. He was alert, had good color and was seated in a wheelchair. He was dressed impeccably, as he always is, in a dark shirt and pants and a gray sweater vest. He doesn’t, or isn’t able, to talk. Occasionally he manages to turn his stoic facial pose into a slight grin. But he likes to be around people, still likes to eat and drink, and did rather contentedly last night, and he likes to listen to the conversation, if he’s just a listener observing.
I was reminded of how down-to-earth Margrit is. Her dinner was simple and elegant. We sat around the dining room table and she served a celery-and-anise soup, lamb and fresh vegetables, a cheese course and dessert, which I skipped. On my way out she jokingly (I think) said I was the first person who had ever left one of her dinner parties before dessert! Some distinction. I did help her drink the To Kalon Fumé Blanc, the 2001 Mondavi Reserve and the 2005 Continuum, which is a new wine venture headed by Robert’s son Tim that also includes Bob and Margrit as partners.
We talked mostly about the simple things in life and how precious they are as time moves on. Casual meals with friends. The importance of family dinners. Serving wine and introducing wine to younger people. And we wondered who would champion the cause of bringing more wine drinkers to the party, which was one of Mondavi's crusades. We didn’t talk much about Bob or his legacy, which is secure as one of the titans of our modern wine world. Yet the Mondavis, Margrit in particular, are troubled by the ongoing struggles at Copia, yet pleased that the contributions they’ve made to U.C. Davis, with the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, and their donations to help fund and rebuild the Davis wine department.
I was struck by Margrit’s drive and determination to keep pushing her and Bob’s agenda. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. They have always been driven, goal-oriented leaders and even in Bob’s twilight days or weeks or months ahead, she will against any odds or obstacles push ahead.
Seeing and having Bob sitting placidly in his wheelchair still gave me a good warm feeling and a sense of reassurance that he’s still in the game. I hadn’t expected that. But I felt rewarded at being at the same dinner table with him and Margrit. As I drove home I wondered if I'd see Bob again, which saddened me, since he's been such a positive and nurturing influence on my career and that of countless others. Yet I reflected on the simple emotion that it will always be a better world with him and her in it.