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To the Grape Born

Mondavi's Luscious Cookbook Has Recipes You Might Even Make

June 27, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh no, not another coffee table book with luscious photographs and fussy, impossible recipes.

That was my first thought on seeing the handsome grape-purple and wine-red cover of "Seasons of the Vineyard" from the Robert Mondavi Winery (Simon & Schuster, $40). This is, after all, the outfit that once staged extravagant weeks with great chefs at $3,000 a participant.

Robert Mondavi, who founded the Napa Valley winery in 1966, is an industry legend. His wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, is the winery's director of cultural affairs. Their life is a round of wine festivals, art exhibits, music programs, entertaining and community activities.

Yes, the book contains luscious photographs, as well as drawings by Margrit Mondavi. They will make you wish that you, too, had been born to the grape. But no, it does not foist off on home cooks complex dishes that only great chefs can prepare.

Instead, you get Christmas cookies for the kids, a Mexican barbecue menu, old fashioned Mom-style Italian cooking, fried chicken, pizza, blueberry pie and lots of other things you might really make. Carolyn Dille, the Mondavis' co-author, helped winnow through masses of recipes from their families and from winery chefs to decide which best tell the story of a year at the winery, starting with harvest.

Although several great chefs recipes made the final cut, the book is really family-oriented. It is dedicated to Robert Mondavi's mother, Rosa, who died in 1976. "My mother cooked so beautifully," Mondavi recalls. "It was natural, so fresh. We always had the best."

Unfortunately, it never occurred to Rosa Mondavi to write down a recipe. Those in the book have been reconstructed from family memories. No color photos of Rosa exist either. Black-and-white shots had to be colorized for the book.

The senior Mondavis got into the food business early. Emigrating from Italy to Minnesota in 1910, Cesare and Rosa ran a boardinghouse for other immigrants and started a market and restaurant. They moved to Lodi, Calif., in 1923 and to the Napa Valley in 1943.

Margrit Mondavi also looks back on great food at home. "My mother could have been a chef," she says. "Her style was a little more French than Bob's mother." (The family lived in the Italian part of Switzerland, while the Mondavis came from Sassoferrato in the eastern part of central Italy.) So intense was family interest in food that the topic of lunch conversation was dinner, she says.

Margrit Mondavi is an avid cook who plans to redo her kitchen to make room for a table large enough to seat 12. She is making balsamic vinegar with a group of friends and hopes to house that project in the kitchen.

That means finding a spot for six imported Italian casks ranging in size from 12 to 60 liters. Each cask is made from a different wood--oak, cherry, ash, acacia, mulberry and chestnut--to flavor the vinegar as it passes from one to another. "The whole process takes 20 years, but you can use it after four or five," she says. The first bottling will take place this fall.

She also makes red wine vinegar, using the dregs of Mondavi reserve wines. "It's fabulous," she says. "I don't have to wood-age it because the wine was wood-aged."

The Mondavi winery is such a large-scale operation that it employs several chefs, all of whom have contributed to the book. Annie Roberts, who leads off with a Mexican barbecue lunch, is Margrit Mondavi's daughter. Roberts' menu includes guacamole; shrimp and jicama salad; grilled chicken with Mexican spices; black beans with jalapen~os; rice with tomatoes, and cinnamon ice cream with fresh tropical fruit. It was served to winery employees and vineyard owners following the annual blessing of the grapes at harvest time.

Which wines to serve with Mexican food? Roberts suggests sangria with the guacamole, white Zinfandel with the salad, either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir with the chicken and Moscato d'Oro with the ice cream.

Other recipes come from Michael Chipchase, chef of the Vineyard Room, which is used for entertaining, and Gary Jenanyan, who works with the Great Chefs program. Inaugurated in 1975 as Great Chefs of France, the program has dwindled from a week to a weekend, held three or four times a year. It's still just as costly--$1,550 for three-day weekends, the next of which will take place Nov. 15-17, featuring Pierre Gagnaire, who owned the three-star restaurant of the same name.

High-flying weekends may still draw an audience, but Robert Mondavi says wines are losing their draw as status symbols. "Americans have much more confidence in drinking wine," he says. "Once they took pride in buying rare, expensive wines. Now they want a good bottle at a good price."

The same is true of food. "Americans now want to eat more simply, more casually," he says. Thus, the winery turns out an accessible cookbook rather than one you page through a couple of times, then add to the stack on the coffee table.

SWISS CHARD WITH POTATOES

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