Margrit Biever Mondavi was in the midst of a very full life by the time she met her future second husband, Robert.
Born in Switzerland, she had lived in Europe, Japan and different parts of the United States before settling in Napa. There, she raised three children and, an instinctively attuned home chef, nurtured a deep and evolving understanding of fine food and wine.
Of course, much is already known about how the couple conducted the Napa Valley's most famous affair, eventually divorcing their first spouses to marry each other in 1980 at age 68 (he) and 55 (she). They met at Robert Mondavi Winery, where she began as a tour guide and worked up to becoming the head of public relations.
Together at last, they became a magical tour de force for California wine over the next three decades until the passing of Robert Mondavi in 2008.
"We always felt it would be a great partnership," Mondavi said of her time romancing Robert behind closed doors. "He would say, &‘What are we going to do about it?'"
A speaker of European languages that include German, French, Italian and Spanish (she's currently learning Russian), the eternally energetic and intellectually curious Mondavi contributed much to the winery and her new husband's love of food, art, music and philanthropy.
"He was a Stanford graduate, but art had no home in his life," she said. "I schlepped him to his first opera. Believe me, it was hard to keep him there for three hours. The next year he wanted to have a subscription. Music, art, everything became a part of him."
Now 87, Mondavi has put all her memories into beautiful form in "Margrit Mondavi's Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life," a memoir released this month with local writer Janet Fletcher.
It includes original paintings and sketches, as well as three rich sections of memories. Origins is a look at her youth, family and work; Passions is about romance, art and wine; and Pleasures contains detailed remembrances about food, travel and the couple's legacy of philanthropic giving.
"I re-lived my life not only through stories but pictures," said Mondavi, who has kept a diary for 65 years. "I (write) every day. Once you (keep a diary) for so long it becomes like brushing your teeth, you've got to do it."
Superstitious, she never allows herself to write about the events of her day before midnight.
"I do it usually the next morning but know I can't wait too long because memory plays tricks sometimes," she added. "I didn't want anybody to read (my diary), but for certain dates, trips and memories we went through it. I told a lot but not everything."
Weaved throughout are photos of famous friends such as Luciano Pavarotti and Sophia Loren, and reminiscences by a range of people. Robert's younger son Tim Mondavi says she "gave (Robert's) vision content and amplified it." Fellow vintner and artist Eleanor Coppola says since meeting Mondavi in the mid 1970s, "I watched her single-handedly bring culture and arts to the valley."
A passionate cook, Mondavi comes especially alive recounting The Great Chefs Cooking School she helped launch at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1976, when she invited the best chefs from France to the Napa Valley to interact with locals around food. It lasted for 30 years.
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