For about a half hour, we were like long-lost girlfriends, talking, laughing and catching up with gossip about life, husbands, adventures, recipes and art. As we did, Margrit Mondavi made me feel like the most important person in the room, and fascinating, to boot.
It’s the highest social art.
Sure, newly arrived guests gave her effusive greetings and hugs as we were talking. After all, the 87-year-old widow of famed wine entrepreneur Robert Mondavi was on a quirky promotional itinerary that includes book signings at such notable spots as the Smithsonian Institution and the museums of modern art in San Francisco and New York— and The Bucket of Blood, a revitalized old saloon in Cambria (plus quick stops in Greece and Switzerland).
But, during our chat-fest interview, the petite author-artist always returned quickly to telling me about herself and making me feel special.
So, why did the octogenarian dynamo choose to plug her newest book in a small coastal town she’d never stopped in before to raise funds for a Cambria-library cause she hadn’t even known existed?
At a January art class in Mexico, Mondavi had reconnected with Jim Evans, a dapper charmer whom she’d first met some four decades ago.
Evans, 82, and his business partner, Tom Gerst, 84, just moved to Cambria, bringing their Gerst & Evans Antiques store in West Hollywood, which began in Long Beach about 40 years ago with treasures bought from William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon warehouses.
So Mondavi came to Cambria Aug. 18 to help them launch their endeavor and, in the process, promote her latest book … “Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life,” $35, part biography, part diary, part cookbook and part sketchbook.
“How can you not love a place called The Bucket of Blood?” Mondavi told me in her still-thick Swiss accent. “I’m so glad Jim didn’t change the name. It is fantastic, so unique and all filled with the history of the West.”
The late-1890s building has housed a wild assortment
of businesses, from a blacksmith shop to a newspaper office, Painted Sky Recording Studio (now relocated to Harmony), and in the mid-1940s, Rip and Riley’s saloon, restaurant and dance hall. Saturday-night dances there reportedly included fervent fistfights. Cambrians nicknamed the place The Bucket of Blood Saloon.
Evans has had extensive restoration done to The Bucket of Blood, is re-establishing the antiques shop inside and hopes to expand the building so they can continue their practice of living on the premises.
He grew up on a ranch north of Piedras Blancas Light Station and is a 1948 Coast Joint Union High School graduate. He and Gerst first met while attending junior college in San Luis Obispo.
This was Mondavi’s first visit to Cambria, and she likened the beautiful area to something out of a Steinbeck book. She’s a Swiss immigrant who came to this country to marry a U.S. Army captain. Eventually, she and her family landed in Napa, and she went to work for Robert Mondavi.
In 1980, about 13 years and two divorces later, Robert and Margrit married. Together, they
helped establish Napa as a premier wine region and founded legendary events, including the Great Chefs cooking-class series and jazz, opera and classical music festivals.
Her flamboyant Italian was “generous, fun, focused, a perfectionist who went for a dream,” his widow reminisced fondly. “He believed in living life in moderation, with glorious exceptions…He was a piece of work!”
It was a whirlwind of a marriage, filled with travel, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and romance. He died in 2008, at the age of 95.
Evans had recommended Friends of the Cambria Library as a beneficiary of the book-signing/shop launch party.
Friends President Jeri Farrell estimates some 200 people attended the invitation- only fundraiser. They bought about 90 books. Mondavi donated the entire $35 for each book, so the Friends group made approximately $3,000 at the event, which counts toward the $70,000 the nonprofit group still needs to turn an empty shell of a building at 1043 Main St. into a fully outfitted new library.
“We were so lucky to have her here,” Farrell said of Mondavi. “She’s such a charmer.”
They were, and she is, indeed.