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Interview with Margrit Mondavi

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“For me wine is a form of art”. The world of wine owes much to Swiss-born Margrit Mondavi. Together with her husband Robert Mondavi, she built up the Mondavi wine empire, which established the pleasure of wine as a major lifestyle focus.

Interview by Chandra Kurt, Wine Writer, Author and Consultant, for the in-flight magazine SWISS Universe

You are now 87 years old, you go into the office every day, travel round the world, and together with your late husband Robert Mondavi you brought radical changes to the world of wine. Where does so much enthusiasm come from?
I have been very lucky in my life. Everything was possible when I first came to California in the sixties. I was full of ideas and always loved the chance to link wine up with other areas. With music, for example, or with art. For me, wine has never been just wine.

Today, Napa Valley is the embodiment of premium wines from the USA, and California is responsible for some 90 per cent of total US grape production. What was the situation like back in the sixties?
Completely different. In those days, there were only 21 wineries and the sort of wine tourism that exists today was totally unknown. Wine tended to be a rather unexciting and extremely complicated matter. And, back then, it was very much a maledominated business.

How did you get involved with wine?
In 1964, I was looking for sponsors for a musical project and my search took me to six wineries. Five of them sent me packing but one agreed. That was the Charles Krug Winery, where I organised the first concert ever given in a Californian winery. The event proved to be a great success and I was offered a job as a tour guide – at 2 dollars an hour.

That wasn’t very much …
Career prospects were pretty limited when you grew up as a young woman in the closed society of Switzerland in the forties and fifties: you became a teacher, secretary or nurse. There were many more opportunities for women in the USA, which was one of its great attractions for me. America was moving much faster than Switzerland. The 2 dollars an hour didn’t matter, far more important was the totally new world of possibilities that was opening up before my eyes and I was bursting with ideas.

A little later on, you started working at the Robert Mondavi Winery. How did you manage to get big names like Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte and Natalie Cole to perform at your concerts?
I simply asked them. Robert once said to me, “Don’t bother asking me whether it’s a good idea. If you feel something’s a good idea then just do it.” So I was in a position to make a dream come true. When word spread that we were staging concerts at the winery, everyone wanted to come. One of the stars who sang for us there was Ella Fitzgerald. It was pure magic. People sat everywhere on folding chairs on the lawn listening to her music.

Years later, you married Robert Mondavi and together you made California’s wines famous all over the world …
The relationship between Bob and me was like a soap opera with a happy end. We were never interested simply in wine, but in all the pleasure that surrounds wine. We never celebrated just our own wines, but the entire region and everything else involved in the pleasure that wine gives. For me wine is a form of art. I’m a passionate painter, for instance, so it’s important for me to link wine with all areas of art.

How did you learn the most about wine?
By always being curious and sampling a lot of wines – both in restaurants and at wine tastings. The best way is to go out with wine lovers; that way you really learn a lot. It’s also well worthwhile buying an expensive bottle from time to time and making notes about the wine.

Do you drink wine every day?
Of course I do. I drink a glass of wine every day, mostly red wine. I can’t enjoy a meal without wine. Obviously, it’s important to enjoy it in moderation. I love Pinot Noir. Older wines, too. They bring back memories. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is a wine that can age wonderfully.