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Searching for the spirit of Robert Mondavi (and Chick Gandil) in St. Helena

The modern story of Napa Valley, the one that begins after World War II and leads to the boom days of today, is really the story of one man. That man is Robert Mondavi, and the best place to get a feel for his life and legacy is the landmark winery he founded and that bears his name in Napa.

A look at Block 13 with the vineyards in the distance. Mondavi's rock is in the center of the three markers in the foreground.
Photo by Kevin Nelson

But if you’re looking for an out-of-the-way place to better understand who the man was, go to Saint Helena Cemetery on Spring Street in St. Helena. Founded after the Civil War, it is a quiet and quietly beautiful place that transports you into a different world far removed from the hubbub of cars and commerce that is occurring just a few blocks away on the town’s busy Main Street.

I went to the cemetery not just in search of the spirit of Robert Mondavi, but also to see the gravesite of another man who is buried there, Chick Gandil, one of the most famous cheaters in baseball history. A ringleader in the notorious 1919 Black Sox Scandal, he and seven other Chicago White Sox players, bribed by gamblers, deliberately threw games and lost the World Series, an act of ignominy that has followed them all into the grave.

“Why is everyone interested in him?” Carol Sanderlin, the cemetery’s office manager, said to me after I asked her where I could find Gandil’s grave. After I explained about him, she said, “Oh, he was a bad guy? Well then why does everyone want to see him—to make sure he’s still there?”

Sanderlin is chipper and friendly, and did not seem to mind having a person to chat with for a moment. We were standing in her office, a plain building next to the cemetery gates. She explained that every year at least a few baseball fans come to pay their respects to Gandil, who, after his baseball infamy, eventually moved to Napa Valley where he died in 1970. On a map she circled Block 20 and said, “If you can’t find him, let me know. I love going outside.”

I couldn’t find him and had to call Carol for help. She and her chief groundskeeper led me to his marker just off Live Oak Road. Gandil’s wife, who survived by him by a year, is buried with him. Despite a hard life the troubled ballplayer has found a pleasant place to spend eternity. Trees provide shade— redwood, cedar, oak and many more varieties are all over these spacious 25-acre grounds—and his granite marker is set flat into grass, much like the ballfield grass he played on when he was young. That morning sprinklers shot out sprays of water over his section.

Outside Sanderlin’s office is a beautiful black granite memorial in honor of the local soldiers who gave their lives for their country. William Simmons, a Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor winner, has a plot in the cemetery and other veterans of the Civil War (and other past wars) are buried there as well. Ner Tamid Jewish Cemetery is a section within the cemetery that is reserved for Jews and operates according to Jewish customs. The cemetery is also the last resting place for indigent people who could not afford a burial, including psychiatric patients from Napa State Hospital. Hundreds of these forgotten souls have found common ground with one of the titans of Napa Valley, “a visionary winemaker and brilliant marketer” (Wine Spectator) who made even France and Italy pay attention to, and offer grudging respect for, California wines.

Ambitious, energetic, a lover of art and culture as well as the art and culture of wine, Mondavi died in 2008 at age 94 and his burial site is in Block 13 of the cemetery. “When you go to 13,” Sanderlin said, “you can’t miss it. It’s a big rock.”

But I did miss it when I drove past it (the chief groundskeeper had to show me the way again), in part because the rock isn’t that big, at least not as big as I thought it would be. For a man of such accomplishment and wealth—before his death Mondavi donated $35 million to the University of California at Davis to benefit its performing arts center and to establish the Institute for Wine and Food Science—I halfway expected something Gibraltar-like.

But it’s not. His grave marker is quite humble in its way and smaller than the more traditional upright headstones on either side of it. The marker to its right is much bigger and wider. What the Mondavi headstone is, though, is individual. There is nothing else like it in Block 13 or anywhere else in the cemetery.

It is, as Sanderlin said, a rock. It is the size of a small boulder and looks raw and natural and comes to a kind of peak, like a mountaintop. It is set on top of a smooth black marble base. Etched into the face of the rock in all capital letters is “ROBERT MONDAVI,” under which are the dates of his birth and death. Nothing more. No other words or dates, on the front or back. The onlooker is left to fill in the details himself.

Sanderlin told me that until Mondavi came to Block 13, it was not as popular as it is now. Once he arrived it became a much more desirable site, and there are any number of stones and markers in the area. The branch of an oak spreads over the Mondavi rock and the other markers, and there is a nearby bench to sit and think of what is past, passing and to come. Off in the distance, between some trees, you can see a vineyard.

Robert Mondavi, always in sight of those wondrous vines that defined his life and he so loved. Robert Mondavi, a leader. An individual who scaled mountainous heights in his time. Robert Mondavi, a man of action and of the earth. A rock.

Saint Helena Public Cemetery, 2461 Spring Street, St. Helena. 707-963-3544. Weekday office hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m., but the gates are open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Next door on Spring is the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery. It has its own set of contemplative and religious sights, including a stone chapel built in the early 1900s and a statue of Christ, his head bowed slightly as if to signify that respect is due all those who are remembered in these sacred places.