Margrit Biever Mondavi: A life committed to beauty

Margrit Biever Mondavi

By Sarah Colwell

On September 2, 2016 the University of California, Davis, community mourned the passing of one of the university’s and region’s most honored and treasured philanthropists, Margrit Biever Mondavi.

“No words can adequately express our deep sadness on the occasion of the passing of one of our most treasured friends, Margrit Mondavi,” said UC Davis Acting Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter. “She was a true visionary and we feel so fortunate that she shared so much of her time, generosity and spirit with us. She left such a positive lasting impression on UC Davis — one that will be remembered for hundreds of years to come.”

Matriarch of Philanthropy at UC Davis

Mondavi was known by many at UC Davis as “the matriarch of philanthropy,” according to Vice Chancellor of Development and Alumni Relations Shaun Keister. It is an endearing and apt title because of her philanthropic support of numerous programs at UC Davis, her long-time volunteerism, and her efforts to inspire others to give to UC Davis, which ushered in a new era for the university.

“Margrit had a one-of-a-kind grace and would light up any room with her infectious smile,” Keister said. “She enlightened any conversation with her perpetual pursuit of infusing beauty in all things. She inspired this university to pursue and achieve a dream that we otherwise could not have done on our own.”

Wine, Food and the Arts

A Switzerland-native who is most well known for her work as Vice President of Cultural Affairs with the Robert Mondavi Winery, Margrit Mondavi took her passion for the arts, food and music and infused it into the winery’s business model, helping to take the reputation of both the young winery and the Napa Valley to a new and higher level.

“There is so much beauty in the world, if we look for it,” Mondavi said in a 2014 interview, “so much.”

Just as she did for the Napa Valley, Mondavi’s efforts helped bolster UC Davis’ reputation for excellence in wine, food and the arts on a global scale. Many of UC Davis’ most innovative and inspiring buildings were made possible by the generosity or involvement of the Mondavis.

“It’s another dimension,” Mondavi said in a 2010 interview. “(For students) to go to a school that has an art department and a museum; to go to a school that is visible and that is beautiful; to go to a school that has developed in all the faces, gone upward and is more and better known. That’s what you want—a great university.”

The Art of Giving

The couple’s connection to UC Davis started through alumni from the university’s world-renowned viticulture and enology program. At the height of Robert Mondavi Winery, the winery employed 16 UC Davis alumni, according to Mondavi.

“You really are only worth as much as the people who work for you,” Mondavi said. “And so we felt a great gratitude and commitment to a university who produced people in the wine and business world…and that of course also gave us the incentive to do something about it.”

In 2001, the Mondavis made a gift to name the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which opened a new era of opportunity for UC Davis and its widely acclaimed wine and food programs.

Then the Mondavis made a significant gift to name the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. Since its opening in October of 2002, the Mondavi Center has become an internationally renowned center for the arts that has hosted acclaimed artists and speakers including Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis and Madeleine Albright.

“It’s much more than just a building,” said Mondavi in a 2011 interview, referring to her and Robert’s donation to name the Mondavi Center. “It’s the content, the idea and a dream.”

After Robert’s passing in 2008, Margrit made a $2 million gift during The Campaign for UC Davis toward the construction of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. She was also an ardent advocate and ambassador of the project and played a vital role in the projects success.

“My aspirations would be that the students take advantage of it,” she said of her gift to the Manetti Shrem Museum. “That they are inspired by something that otherwise they would not find. And to that, that it adds to their life, in a good way. Maybe in a way that they become more creative, that they appreciate what they see, that they bring their children to museums. That it continues.”

She also created numerous scholarships and fellowships to help students in the arts, humanities, and viticulture and enology programs. In total, the Mondavis donated more than $37 million to UC Davis during their lifetimes.

“It was a kind of a little concept, and now in a dream form and now it’s becoming a reality,” she said. “When I go to Davis and I see the wine school and the new winery, and the food science school in their great bright colors with their performing arts center. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful village of the things that we love: wine, food and the arts.”

An honored commitment

Margrit also generously gave her time to UC Davis as co-chair of the volunteer committee that led the successful Campaign for UC Davis, which ended in May 2014 having raised $1.1 billion from more than 100,000 donors. She also served as a founding board member of the Manetti Shrem Museum.

In 2004, Margrit and Robert were awarded with the UC Davis Medal, which is the highest honor bestowed by the university, and in 2011 the Cal Aggie Alumni Association awarded Margrit the Distinguished Friend of the University Award. In November 2015, UC Davis dedicated a sculpture garden, named Margrit Mondavi Art Garden, to inspire people to consider life’s beauty, just as Mondavi inspired the arts in so many ways at UC Davis.

“Our sympathies go out to Margrit’s family and the numerous friends who had the honor of knowing her and who were moved and inspired by her spirit and grace,” said Acting Chancellor Hexter. “Directly or indirectly she touched thousands of lives at UC Davis, and most especially our students. My hope is that they will carry on her legacy and seek beauty in all areas of their lives, just as she did.”