Pollywood: Lunch with Margrit Mondavi

by Laura

The “First Lady of Napa Valley” talks love, travel and California wines.

By Jordan Wright

Margrit Mondavi, the “First Lady of Napa Valley,” is most at home in the vineyards. (Photo courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

Margrit Biever Mondavi’s book tour to Washington, DC dovetailed seamlessly with the opening of “FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950 – 2000”, an enticing new exhibition at the National Museum of American History chronicling a half century of American food and wine from farm to table. As Vice President of Cultural Affairs for the Robert Mondavi Winery, she was there to witness the opening.

Wearing a fire engine red shawl and snappy silver sequined boots, she diligently signed copies of her book, “Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook – A Reflection on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance and Life.” If that seems like a rather lengthy title, the sprightly octogenarian has unquestionably earned it. Her far-flung adventures and indelible legacy are the proof of the pudding.

It is a refreshingly candid pentimento written by a woman and accomplished artist who has found both pleasure and passion in her work and life. It reads like a private conversation with a close friend and is beautifully composed with personal photographs, recipes, tributes by friends and family, along with her whimsical watercolors that capture the couple’s private dinner menus, tablescapes and plein air landscapes.

Mondavi’s new book has reflections on everything from family to wine. (Photo courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)

From a childhood on the shores of Italy’s Lago Maggiore, to meeting the love of her life, Robert Mondavi, in 1967, she writes of the Napa Valley winery. Together, she and Robert  made it into a cultural destination for the performing arts as well as a world renowned culinary school, where three-Michelin-starred French chefs Joel Robuchon, Alain Chapel and Paul Bocuse, and American icons like Julia Child, the institute’s first guest chef, took turns teaching classes.

Over a leisurely lunch at a downtown District watering hole, I interviewed the legendary Margrit, as she prefers to be called. As she twirled lengths of truffle-topped pasta around her fork, we spoke of many things from wine to the price of olive oil, which she knows off the top of her head. She met most of my questions with questions of her own; her curiosity is insatiable. Below are just a few of the memorable anecdotes she told me over lunch on life, love, cooking and everything in between:

On life and family:

“I love life. I think everyday is a present, and as my husband would say, I have no secrets. I cannot tell a lie, because my memory is too short. In general, I like to be on the joyous side and be remembered for that. I have wonderful friends and family, but I realize that you have to accept life and I try not to ponder it too much. It’s important to participate and enjoy life as long as you can and I do with three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren whom I adore.”

On cooking:

“Once, we were in Salzburg to do a television show. They had found a wild turkey, but it weighed only about two pounds. After the tiny bird was cooked – they actually had prepared one in advance to speed up the show – we shared it with the manager and his staff. It was the most delicious turkey I’ve ever had in my life!”

On wine:

“There was a time when the French turned up their noses at California wines. Not anymore! The tasting of 1976 with un-aged wines proved that we could do what Bob said we could do. Twelve years later they did another tasting at COPIA and proved that California wines age well if they are properly made and properly stored.”

On love:

“Love is excitement and Robert was always exciting. Our life was enjoyable, but challenging,too. I was the person who brought art into Robert’s life, because he never had time. We started the music festival and the cooking schools and he was always very supportive. And we loved to travel. When Bob was eighty-two we bought a pair of worldwide American Airlines tickets for unlimited first class travel, so we went everywhere for free.  He would say, ‘Let’s go to Berlin. Let’s go to Beijing.’ And we did!”

On letting go:

“I have to learn about tossing things aside. I want to and don’t know how to begin. I have to simplify my life. I go to work every day and I feel very betwixt and between because with my husband it was always people, people, people. It was a wonderful time.”

In a ceremony at the winery in January 2013, Margrit Mondavi will be honored as the thirtieth recipient of the Monteith Wine Bowl Trophy, given to the stalwarts and icons of the wine industry.

Margrit was recently in Washington to attend the opening of this exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on which the Robert Mondavi Winery was a consultant. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian)

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