Friday, April 13, 2012
An Interview with Margrit Mondavi
(The third installment in a series of interviews with notable figures in the wine industry)
I interviewed Margrit Mondavi on March 15, 2012 in the beautiful Vineyard Room at the Robert Mondavi Winery. I was joined by her old friend and colleague, Harvey Posert. It was a pleasure to share an excellent lunch with the two of them. In true Mondavi fashion the lunch was artfully paired with signature Robert Mondavi wines. Overlooking the beautiful spring vineyards, I learned a lot about Margrit, with the most important things being that she is a charming hostess and an engaging person. During lunch Margrit reminisced about her past, and brought me up to speed on how she ended up where she is today. There are plenty of things published about Margrit Mondavi and the Mondavi family, but here are her thoughts on how she found herself in the wine industry and what she learned along the way.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Growing up in Switzerland when I did [before and during World War II] there were few options for a woman outside of getting married or being a teacher. I thought about becoming a doctor and went to a clinic with a family friend who was a woman doctor but realized it wasn’t really what I wanted. I knew I wasn’t interested in the prospect of being a secretary or a nurse, so I was planning to be a teacher. I also took lots of art classes because it was something I was interested in.
What encouragement did you get from family, teachers, or others? I think my family knew we all had dreams; mine involved drawing and painting. I immersed myself in art, but there was always the reality that you had to make a life and find a way to support yourself. When my soon-to-be first husband expressed his wishes to marry me, my family encouraged it. As he was an American, my mother had visions of Hollywood. My father had more worrisome visions, but allowed me to be married.
Margrit married an army officer, and after their wedding they moved several times for his assignments. After World War II they moved to the US. Their first assignment was in South Dakota, quite a shock for Margrit. Every couple of years the couple, and soon their young family, would move to a new destination. They lived all over the globe, including several spots in the US and in Okinawa. Margrit was busy raising her children but was always very involved in cultural and community projects wherever she found herself.
What drew you to the wine industry and your role? When my children were teenagers, they wanted to stay in the US, and asked us to find a place and stay there. We had friends from South Dakota who had moved to Napa, so on a spring weekend we visited them. It was such a beautiful place and having friends there was so nice. Our friends found us a house to rent and we moved to Napa in 1960. Living in Napa Valley, I got involved with a young music group through the children’s school and started getting active in the community. With the wineries all around, I started learning about wine and just got so passionate about it, learning all I could about it.
Margrit started working at the Charles Krug winery, and then later went to work at the new Robert Mondavi Winery. At the new site she took on the marketing and public relations position. In 1980 she and Robert Mondavi married, and she continued to be a major contributor to the winery, to its art and culture programs and to the wine industry.
What helped you accomplish what you did? My forte was really that I spoke 6 languages. Bob’s mom only talked Italian, and when I worked at Charles Krug she always came out to talk to me. It was so nice for her and for me to be able to talk. I also got to meet some interesting people because of my language skills since I was the only person around the winery who could lead them on a tour and understand their questions and answer them.
What mentors did you have in your life?
Robert Mondavi: My biggest mentor was Bob. He supported me completely. He was also the big love of my life. He was such a believer in ideas, and when he would hear of an idea would often say “Don’t talk about it, do it!” Bob supported me 100%. Bob was also very focused--to make the best wine. He was on a mission. When he met me he realized he was missing out on some things by being so single-minded. I took him to his first opera, schlepped him to museums. We found each other at the right time in life.
Mr Griswold: Mr. Griswold was also a huge supporter; helping me figure out what I needed to do and helping me accomplish it.
Harvey Posert: Harvey was also a great friend and supporter, helping get so many ideas off the ground and supporting Bob’s vision for the winery.
Did you have any protégés? I learned from all the people that I worked with and maybe they learned a little bit from me too.
Is there any advice you would like to have given yourself years ago: That is very hard to say. When I grew up everything was so restricted due to the war. Women had been able to move around before the borders [of Switzerland] closed, but after they closed, women could not leave. Women were completely isolated until the borders opened. I took the path of least resistance by marrying a young US Army officer whom I happened to like.
What changes in the wine industry have you experienced? Women are so much better represented in the wine industry than before. I was the first female to give wine tours at Charles Krug. Early on, women were in administration and in the lab. Now women are in positions throughout the wine industry, including some women winemakers and winery owners, whom I am so proud of.
A change that I am sorry to see is that Robert Mondavi Winery sold, but the organization became too big. We had joint ventures in Italy, France, Chile, Australia, etc. and we had to sell. I would have liked the family to retain ownership of Robert Mondavi Winery.
What was it like to be a woman in the role? In the wine industry? In Napa? It was hard. I was the only woman in situations often, and I had to be smarter, better, funnier, nicer than everyone else. I read everything I could get my hands on and tried to learn everything. When I took on the PR role I had to overcome a lot of people’s doubts. I worked hard to prove I could do it.
Are there any mistakes you made or lessons learned that you would like to share? I wish I had gotten a formal education in public relations. I worked at Robert Mondavi Winery in a marketing and PR role, but it was something I learned as I went along. It would have been a good idea to get some education in that area to be more effective. Bob Mondavi was a great supporter, and when I expressed my doubts in taking on the role at the winery he said “Who is really qualified?”
How could you have been more successful? (Laughing) I don’t want to be successful. I don’t feel successful. I am humble about everything that has happened to me and very thankful.
What advice do you give your children, grandchildren, and other family members about their careers? I think you give your children and family members advice during their development. Some kids have ideas and some flop around for a while. I want them to know I will support them in anything they want to do, and that they are also wise enough not to make irreparable mistakes.
During her legendary life Margrit has been a hostess and a guest at some wonderful and memorable events. I posed the following question to her: What event stands out in your memory the most? I think the partnership with Baron Philippe de Rothschild was a great collaboration. During the end of the Baron’s life we were involved in Opus One, and put on so many big events. Here were two people, Bob and Philippe, who came from completely different worlds and shared a great passion for wine. They were truly joint partners in the project, and got along very well. Toward the end of the Baron’s life he would mostly only speak in French, and with my French I was his translator, and sometimes, confidante.
After our interview Margrit was off to host a charity event in her home. Still going strong and always supporting the wine industry and good causes, Margrit was a pleasure to interview. In the Vineyard Room a new art exhibit was being hung and Margrit took time to discuss the installation and art with the staff. As I was leaving, Margrit asked me what kind of wine I liked. I had to say I really enjoyed the frozen Moscato d’Oro that we had just had with our gingerbread cake. “Stop by the tasting room and I’ll have some set aside for you.” What a treat. This was the wine Robert and Margrit had first tasted frozen with Baron Rothschild decades earlier, and is still a spectacular present. Thank you for your time, Margrit, your candid thoughts, and the true hospitality. Merci beaucoup, danke vielmals, arigato gozaimasu, grazie mille, muchas gracias, thank you very much.