They held the annual blessing of the grapes at Robert Mondavi Winery Wednesday, and it turned into a tribute in words and song to Margrit Mondavi, who died in early September at age 91.
Margrit was the wife of Robert Mondavi, the late founder of the landmark Napa Valley winery, an artist, and a cultural and artistic ambassador for Mondavi wines and Napa Valley for decades. Her passing added a special poignancy to the formal ceremony that marks the beginning of harvest.
Employees at the Oakville winery, the media and others gathered in the To Kalon Cellar as Mondavi’s General Manager Glenn Workman began the ceremony with a toast to her, noting how this was the first harvest in nearly a half-century in which Margrit did not participate.
“While it does bring sadness that she’s not here, we know how she loved to celebrate,” he said as he and the 75 other people who were there raised glasses in her memory. Small tastes of Fumé Blanc, Mondavi’s trademark version of Sauvignon Blanc, were handed out to celebrants as they arrived for the ceremony.
The ceremony took place near a sorting machine used to clean twigs and other unwelcome material from the grapes before they go into tanks for fermentation. The machine was turned off for the moment, and a half-dozen Mondavi workers in neon green vests and white gloves stood by watching and listening as Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens also spoke about the woman who was such a presence at the winery that she even advised Janssens on when it was time to pick the grapes for harvest.
“Margrit is everywhere with us in the vineyard,” said the French-born winemaker who has been at Mondavi since the late 1970s, the decade after Margrit arrived at the winery, starting in public relations before eventually marrying Robert and rising to prominence in Napa Valley and the wine world. “She was the first person to tell us when to pick. Margrit, you are with us in our hearts. You were incredible.”
Janssens added glowing words about the 2016 vintage to date, saying that the relatively cool August and September—which changed dramatically over the weekend with the onset of hot weather—had made for an ideal growing climate especially for chardonnay. “Just superb,” she said.
“It’s been cool, beautiful foggy weather. Exactly what we want to bring in the grapes in a fresh condition,” she added.
Father Gordon Kalil, pastor of the St. Helena Catholic Church, performed the ritual blessing of the grapes, sprinkling holy water on bins of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that had been picked in the To Kalon vineyard that day. He lightly sprinkled more holy water on some of the employees and media, saying how “it is a blessing to remember Margrit and Bob. In remembrance of their great love of the land, the beauty of nature and her love of art, how grateful we are to have known them.”
An artist and a great supporter of the visual arts, Margrit founded in the 1960s the winery’s summer musical festival that helped turn Napa Valley into a travel destination not just for wine, but for music as well. The Mondavi summer festival, which continues to this day, became a model for other wineries to import musical acts and performers to the area.
Bob Thiesen, a Mondavi employee who sings at local churches, delivered a stirring a cappella rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” His singing seemed to have particular feeling, perhaps he also had the Mondavis in mind. Someone gave the word, and the sorting machine started up. A man flicked grapes from a bin onto the conveyor belt, and the workers in vests and gloves started whisking away stems and leaves as the vibrating grapes passed by them.
Afterwards the celebrants gathered for lunch at the Margrit Mondavi Vineyard Room, a bright and sunny gathering spot in the winery that was named after her last year. A plaque devoted to her hangs at the entrance with one of her paintings, and there are photos of her and Robert Mondavi in the room.
Many tributes to Margrit have appeared in recent days; here is a remembrance of her by the English wine critic Jancis Robinson. Meritage Resort in Napa is holding a celebration of Margrit’s life at its winemaker dinner Oct. 7 featuring Robert Mondavi Winery; a portion of the proceeds will go to the Oxbow School in Napa, which Margrit co-founded. See here for more details on the event.—KEVIN NELSON