By Michael B. Dougherty
NEW YORK — Margrit Mondavi seems almost embarrassed to be ordering a cup of chamomile tea at Jean-Georges, sheepishly overexplaining to the waitress that her stomach is feeling a bit off. (She was “party hopping” back in Napa, before arriving in New York, her dinner companion offers.)
Mondavi eyes her untouched rosé Champagne and reassures me, “I’ll be fine in five seconds.” The former first lady of American winemaking, Mondavi, 86, has a reputation to uphold.
Mondavi is in town to promote the release of her memoir, “Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life” ($35). Told through personal anecdotes, commentary from friends and family, vintage photographs and recipes, and illustrated with her own adept watercolors, “Sketchbook” comes off less as legacy-burnishing autobiography than as-it-happened diary. Which is fitting, since Mondavi has been keeping a daily record of her life for the past 65 years.
“It was interesting for me to be there at that time,” recalls the urbane octogenarian, elegantly cool in her blond bob and Issey Miyake ensemble. “There” was Napa Valley in the late 1960s, where Mondavi worked as a publicist for the Charles Krug winery, which her future husband’s family operated. (She still refers to her late husband, Robert, as “Mr. Mondavi.”)
It would be another eight years before the “Judgment of Paris” legitimized the town as one of the world’s great growing regions, but already Mondavi was positioned to have a driver’s-seat view of the rise of America’s wine industry, especially as she and her employer grew close. There was only one snag: They were both married.
Born in Clarens, Switzerland, Mondavi spent most of her life as Margrit Biever, wife to an American G.I. The couple raised a family together, doing the Army shuffle between such disparate places as South Dakota and Okinawa before finally arriving in Napa. Although the marriage waned, Mondavi says she would have “stuck it out” had she not met Robert.
“I remember when I fell in love … it was a high time in my life.” (They eventually would marry in 1980, after divorcing their respective spouses.)
Much of “Sketchbook” reads as a love story, too, along with a woman’s awakening into a fairy-tale life of international travel, fine dining and celebrity encounters. But there’s nothing smug about the retelling. If anything, Mondavi just seems generally thrilled at how well everything turned out.
That includes her pursuit of art and food, two interests that Mondavi was able to explore beyond mere hobbies, with some rather impressive results. After Robert left Charles Krug to start his namesake winery, Margrit Mondavi spearheaded a number of cultural initiatives at the new property that presaged an era where music, food and art were all natural corollaries of the wine experience.
A summer concert on the lawn in 1969, with free wine and a $2.50 entrance fee, featured the likes of Ella Fitzgerald (who once serenaded Mondavi on a car ride all the way back to San Francisco), Dave Brubeck, Roberta Flack and Dizzy Gillespie just a few years later.
Mondavi also convinced her husband to integrate a cooking school into the winery. Known as the Great Chefs series, the program has hosted Alice Waters, Julia Child, Joël Robuchon and Thomas Keller, who contributed the book’s introduction. One of the most intriguing parts of the book is the collection of Mondavi’s illustrated menus from the many dinner parties the couple hosted over the years.
Serious oenophiles looking for new insights into the California wine industry’s early days, or the inside dirt on Robert’s famous schism from his brother Peter (and Charles Krug), probably will be disappointed, although Mondavi does have a few frank words about both topics.
But that’s not the point of “Sketchbook.” When pressed as to why she wanted to release a memoir, Mondavi once again turned to her husband’s favorite maxim: “If it’s a good idea, don’t talk about it, do it.” Adding, “When I talk about the great moments of life, they’re around a table. We had the best moments around the kitchen. I wanted to share that.”
Braised Rabbit in Wine Sauce
I usually serve rabbit with polenta or with risotto bianco, a plain risotto made with only broth, no saffron. If you fear rabbit, as many people unfortunately do, you can substitute chicken.
1 rabbit, 3½ to 4 pounds, preferably fresh
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 spring onions, white part only, or 1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled, in 1-inch chunks (halved lengthwise if large)
2 celery ribs, in 1-inch chunks (halved lengthwise if large)
3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup white wine
¾ cup chicken broth, homemade or low-sodium canned
½ chile serrano
4 to 6 sprigs Italian parsley
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1. Ask the butcher to cut the rabbit into 10 pieces. Or, if you have a heavy cleaver, you can do it yourself: with a boning knife, detach the two hind leg-thigh sections and cut each one in half at the leg-thigh joint. Detach the two forelegs but leave them whole. Where the ribs meet the loin, use the cleaver to cut across the body to separate them, then cut the loin crosswise in two pieces. Do the same with the rib section. Season the pieces all over with salt and pepper.
2. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large heavy Dutch oven or deep skillet over medium heat. When the butter melts and foams, add the rabbit pieces and cook, turning with tongs, until browned all over, about 10 minutes. Brown the pieces in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pot. Set the rabbit aside on a plate.
3. Add the onions, carrots and celery to the fat remaining in the pot and sauté, stirring, until the onions begin to brown slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté briefly to release its fragrance. Add the wine and simmer for a minute or two to drive off the alcohol, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to release any meaty bits. Add the broth, chile, parsley and rosemary.
4. Return the rabbit pieces to the pot. If the pieces don’t fit in a single layer, put the legs and ribs on the bottom and the loin pieces, which cook more quickly, on the top. Cover and adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook until the meat is no longer pink at the bone and the thighs are tender when probed with a fork, about 30 minutes for the loin pieces and 45 to 60 minutes for the remaining pieces.
5. Remove the pieces to a platter as they are done, and tent with aluminum foil. Discard the parsley and rosemary sprigs, then taste the pan juices for salt. Raise the heat to medium-high and simmer the juices until they thicken to a sauce consistency.
6. Return the rabbit pieces to the pot to reheat, basting with the sauce. Divide the rabbit and vegetables among 4 dinner plates and spoon the sauce over the top. Serve immediately.
Excerpted from “Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life.”