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Margrit Biever Mondavi

Swiss-born Napa Valley matriarch dies at 91

By swissinfo.ch and agencies

Margrit Biever Mondavi, the widow of California wine pioneer Robert Mondavi who served as the company’s cultural affairs director for decades, has died at her Napa home. She was 91.

“She was the great lady of Napa Valley and the wine world in general,” Keith Roberts, her son-in-law said. “She and her husband invented the modern wine business in California, and the United States.”

Margrit Kellenberger was born in the village of Walzenhausen, canton Appenzell Ausser Rhoden, in 1925. Nine months later the family moved to Orselina overlooking Lake Maggiore in Italian-speaking canton Ticino.

She studied in French-speaking Switzerland, where she met and later married US Army Captain Philip Biever, moving to South Dakota – “90 miles from the nearest tree. No electricity. Badlands”, as she told a Swiss magazine a couple of years ago.

After several postings, they moved to the Napa Valley in 1960, where she worked at the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, owned by the Mondavi family.

“Cows and fruit – those were the main things [in Napa Valley] back then. The effects of prohibition [which ended in 1933] could also be felt. Palm trees in front of a cellar were a sign that there was wine there. And my word did people drink it! It was dirt cheap: a gallon of simple wine cost 50 cents. Cabernet $2. For $1,000 you could buy two-and-a-half hectares. Today the price would be $300,000-$400,000.“

Visit to Switzerland

Margrit Biever joined Robert Mondavi Winery in 1967, a year after it was founded. She married Robert Mondavi, himself son of Italian immigrants, in 1980. He died in 2008.

The Mondavis were among pioneering Napa Valley producers who helped turn the agricultural area northeast of San Francisco into a world-renowned wine growing region.

It took hard work and time, though. No one believed wine could make money, she said. “Wineries were being flogged off and turned into churches – or they just closed down. Robert was the only one who had an unshakable faith in the future of wine.”

She explained how her future husband invested in steel tanks and small wooden vats he had seen in France. A Sauvignon Blanc, which he named Fumé Blanc, became Mondavi’s first hit, with red wine following at the end of the 1960s.

On a visit to Switzerland, the couple got to know Ueli Prager (1916-2011), the founder of the Mövenpick restaurant and hotel chain. “We clicked immediately,” Margrit Mondavi said.

Mövenpick became the first vendor in Switzerland of the then completely unknown wine from the US.

“That was wonderful for me, because I could show Robert my home,” she said.

Wine and art

Margrit Mondavi, an accomplished painter, was the winery’s vice president of cultural affairs and had a dream of combining wine with fine art, music and food, according to a statement from the winery.

She founded the winery’s Summer Music Festival in 1969 as a benefit for the local symphony. Over the years, it has drawn performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett. A winter classical music series was created later to benefit local music organisations.

Mondavi also introduced cooking classes that evolved into a “Great Chefs” series at the winery.

She and her husband also endowed arts centres and schools and a local opera house.

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swissinfo.ch and agencies


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