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Mondavi urges women to explore industry

Pioneer reflects on decades in California wine industry


For the Capital Press

OAKVILLE, Calif. -- Margrit Biever Mondavi, widow of California wine legend Robert Mondavi, shares a passion for the future of the wine industry.

Robert Mondavi was a leading pioneer in the California wine industry. His marketing strategies and technical innovations brought global recognition for the wines of the Napa Valley. He aggressively promoted labeling wine by varietal rather than generically.

He founded the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville in 1966, the first major winery built in the Napa Valley in the post-Prohibition era. In 1968 he made a dry Sauvignon Blanc, an unpopular varietal at the time and called it "Fume Blanc." The wine was a huge success and later the name would be synonymous for Sauvignon Blanc.

One of his favorite quotes was "I wanted to excel at everything."

Mondavi married Margrit Biever in 1980. She brought food and the arts to the winery as the business continued to grow. Their contributions also include the Mondavi Center for Performing Arts at the University of California-Davis and restoration of the 19th century Napa Valley Opera House.

Q: When you were growing up did you imagine you would become a wine icon?

A: When I was growing up in Switzerland, I imagined my future would be in the teaching field, especially art.

Q: When did your interest in wine and food first take root?

A: Wine was always served in our home, where my father would explain the provenance of the wine. My mother was a great cook, so food and wine were part of the good life on the beautiful shores of Lago Maggiore.

Q: What brought you to the wine country in California?

A: When my children were young I took a part-time job at Charles Krug Winery. I was possibly the first female tour guide in Napa Valley. So, my wine life started professionally.

Q: What is the first thing you remember about meeting your future husband, Robert?

A: I saw him a few times at Charles Krug, but did not get to know him. I worked at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1967. Of course I could expand and tell 1,000 wonderful things about my husband. But, when you "first flip" I always remember the sparkle in his eyes.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most important changes in California's wine making that occurred in the last 30 years?

A: A number of things -- from vineyard management to clone selection, designation of vineyards for specific varieties and advances in wine-making technology. All resulted in great recognition of our fine wines.

Q: What programs did you initiate at the Robert Mondavi Winery?

A: Forty-one years ago I brought the Great Chefs program, including master chef Julia Child, to RMW (with Bob's consent, of course). This brought together a new interest in wine and food pairing. I have always been the curator of our art shows and Summer Festival and we plan to have cooking classes again soon.

Q: What advice would you give to those wanting to get into wine making?

A: A career in wine making is an excellent choice, especially for women, notably because women have great palates. I would suggest that they get a degree in enology and viticulture from University of California-Davis. It is a rewarding profession and should give you a good life.

Q: Do you like being called a woman pioneer?

A: If I have contributed to the wine industry, I like to be recognized as a pioneer.


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