Robert and Margrit Mondavi personified the glamorous wine country life during their high-profile 28-year marriage. As America's most famous winemaker, Robert Mondavi proved what California vintners could achieve, while Margrit deftly wove wine, the arts, food and celebrity together to create a culture people desired nearly as much.
Now 87 and widowed, Margrit Mondavi tells her story in a charming book, "Margrit Mondavi's Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance and Life" (Robert Mondavi Winery, $35, 147 pages).
It's an apt title. Written with the help of Janet Fletcher, a food writer and author, the book is less of a traditional A-to-Z biography and more of an artist's sketchbook, sprinkled with observations culled from a lifetime of diary-keeping, a selection of her own handsome drawings and watercolors and family photographs.
The book traces Margrit Mondavi's life from a childhood in Switzerland to her days as a young Army wife raising a family at military postings around the world to her arrival at midlife in Napa Valley with a souring marriage then falling unexpectedly in love with both the wine industry and her boss.
"I thought I would be married forever to my first husband. Life is unpredictable," Mondavi says. "Bob was not happy in his marriage. We discussed it a lot of times. Bob did not want a mistress, he wanted a partner. We had 28 years of marriage. It was a most wonderful time."
And they were partners. Margrit Mondavi was Robert Mondavi's envoy, muse, spin doctor, travel companion and soul mate.
Gary Jenanyan, who served as executive chef of the winery's Great Chefs program for 26 years, was one of a number of friends, family members and colleagues who contributed short essays on Margrit Mondavi for the book. He described Robert as "brilliant but a bull in a china shop until the day he died."
Margrit Mondavi, he writes, "was able to polish him up. She was always the executive producer at the winery, and anybody who doesn't think so is fooling themselves."
Margrit Mondavi may not be a wine pioneer like her husband, but she did arrive in Napa Valley in 1961, just as California wine was poised for its big break.
A few years later, she helped stage a fundraising concert to benefit a program bringing music to schoolchildren at Charles Krug, the winery owned by the Mondavi family. That led to a job there as the valley's first female winery tour guide a fact of which she is still quite proud.
When a family dispute led to Robert Mondavi being fired from Krug in 1965, he set up his eponymous winery. She went to work there as a tour guide in 1967, just months after it opened, and was named public relations director a year later. She remains as vice president of cultural affairs.
"There are still some old characters like me hanging around," she says. "People treat me well, and they gave me Bob's old office. I hope to learn a little bit every day or life gets boring."
Margrit Mondavi's voice grows more animated whenever she mentions her husband. So inseparable did the Mondavis become in the public's mind that it's still hard today, nearly five years after Robert's death at age 94, to realize that they are no longer a team.
But then who's to say they aren't? Consider this closing line from the chapter detailing the Mondavis' romance: "I light a candle for Bob every night in my bedroom, and sometimes, when I wake up and look at the candle, I talk to him on his little cloud."
Margrit Mondavi doesn't spell out what those talks are about. And that doesn't matter to this reader. What counts is that the dialogue born amid the vines of Napa Valley and fostered by a love for wine and culture continues.
Baked salmon with fennel and cherry tomatoes
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
From "Margrit Mondavi's Sketchbook." The author writes: "I usually serve this dish with homemade mayonnaise and either rice, couscous or lightly buttered boiled potatoes."
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 skin-on salmon fillets, 5 to 6 ounces each
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 small spring onion or 2 green onions, thinly sliced
4 thin lemon slices
24 small cherry tomatoes, halved
8 thin slices fennel bulb
4 thin, peeled quarter-size slices fresh ginger
4 large fresh basil leaves
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut four 12-inch squares of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Put the foil squares, shiny side down, on a work surface; brush olive oil in the center of each square. Brush the flesh side of each salmon fillet with olive oil; put a fillet, skin side down, on each foil square. Season the fillets with salt and pepper. Top each fillet with one-fourth of the onion, a lemon slice, a dozen cherry tomato halves, 2 fennel slices, a ginger slice and a basil leaf, scattering the ingredients over and around the salmon. Bring the edges of the foil together; fold to seal the packages securely.
Place the foil packages on a baking sheet; bake, 15-18 minutes. Unseal a package (be careful, as the steam will be hot) to check for doneness. If necessary, reseal and return to the oven, 1-2 minutes.
Unseal the packages. Transfer the contents of each to shallow bowls, pouring any juices over the fish.
Per serving: 282 calories, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 428 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.