Margrit Biever Mondavi, one of America's leading wine ambassadors, died in Napa Valley today of cancer. She was 91.
Alongside her husband Robert Mondavi, Margrit helped promote California wine in its infancy. A presence in her own right, she was known for her class, charm and intellect, creating an atmosphere of warmth and hospitality for visitors that inspired other wineries to do the same. The example she set at Robert Mondavi Winery established it as a showpiece for Napa's wines during the 1970s and 1980s. She was also instrumental in guiding Napa's cultural awakening, helping to shape it into the thriving center of wine, food and art it is today.
When she arrived in Napa in the 1960s, Napa was better known for its natural splendor than for its nascent wine industry. But change was in the air. Led by Mondavi and other pioneers, Napa's wines were gaining worldwide attention and attracting visitors. Margrit recognized the need to demystify wine and make the valley a more welcoming place for guests, to match its growing reputation.
Born in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1925, Margrit grew up with wine and food as part of her daily ritual—her family, the Kellenbergers, considered them part of life's education, along with music, art and literature. After World War II, she married an American soldier, Philip Biever, and during his military postings, the young couple lived in Germany, South Dakota, Japan, Cincinnati and Puerto Rico before settling in Napa.
In 1964, Margrit was hired by the Mondavi family to work at Charles Krug, becoming one of the first female winery guides in Napa. There she met Robert for the first time. When he opened his namesake winery in Oakville, he hired Margrit to look after public relations. Drawing on her diverse cultural background, she helped Robert extend his vision to tie wine to culture. The two married in 1980.
At Robert Mondavi Winery, Margrit developed a showplace for painters, sculptors, photographers and musicians. Her summer music festivals attracted artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett to the area, benefiting the Napa Valley Symphony. With her deep passion for food, she launched Mondavi's innovative Great Chefs of France program in the 1970s and hosted culinary masters like Paul Bocuse and Julia Child.
In his autobiography, Harvests of Joy, Robert wrote of his wife, "Thanks in large measure to her, the marriage of fine wine, fine food, and gracious, healthy living has now become an enduring hallmark of the Robert Mondavi Winery."
Dedicated and generous, Margrit made many contributions to the industry and her community. She was influential in setting the style of the Napa Valley Wine Auction and played a leading role in the creation of Copia: The American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts. (The center closed in 2008, but not before it helped inspire downtown Napa's revitalization.) The Mondavis also donated $35 million to the University of California at Davis to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.
By the early 2000s, the valley was a much different place, thanks in large part to the Mondavis. But Robert's company was facing financial troubles. When a plan to restructure fell through in 2004, the winery's board decided to sell the company to Constellation Brands. Robert remained as a brand ambassador under Constellation, and Margrit took on the role of vice president of cultural affairs for the winery.
When Robert passed away in 2008, Margrit remained a public figure, attending events and working at the winery. She was also a partner in Continuum with Robert's son Tim and his daughter, Marcia Mondavi, and their families. Margrit never slowed down, pursuing her passions, including learning Russian, traveling the globe and painting. In 2012, she wrote a memoir about her life with Robert, Margrit Mondavi's Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance and Life.
Through it all she remained humble and gracious, living up to her role as one of Napa's most illustrious hostesses. She is survived by three children, Philip Biever, Annie Roberts, and Phoebe Holbrook; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.