The wine world lost a giant last month. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, the man who thrust California wine onto the world’s stage, died at age 100 at his home in Calistoga in the Napa Valley.
Grgich, more than anyone, is responsible for California’s reputation as a place that could make great wine when his 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay took first place at a wine competition that pitted France’s best white Burgundies against upstarts from California. And he did it unintentionally—more about that later.
The late Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop in Paris, organized the competition in 1976 (now dubbed “The Judgement of Paris”) in celebration of America’s bicentennial.
Just consider the array of white Burgundies that Chateau Montelena upended: Domaine Roulot’s 1973 Meursault Charmes, (whose current release sells for $1,307 a bottle, according to winesercher.com), Drouhin’s 1973 famed Beaune Clos des Mouches Blanc ($289), Domaine Leflaive’s 1972 Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles ($1,043), and a 1973 Bâtard Montrachet, Grand Cru, from Ramonet Prudhon. For comparison, the current release price of Chateau Montelena is $75.
The all-French judges (except for Spurrier and his American associate, Patricia Gallagher) were no novices. All were luminaries of the French food and wine establishment and included Jean-Claude Vrinat, owner of the then three-star Michelin restaurant, Taillevent; Odette Kahn, the editor of La Revue du vin de France, France’s most important wine guide; Christian Vannequé, the sommelier at La Tour d’Argent, another Michelin three-star restaurant at the time; and Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner, and, at the time, the director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, (the fabled “DRC,”) Burgundy’s most revered estate.
The late James Barret, a lawyer and businessman, hired Grgich to be winemaker at Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena shortly after he purchased it in 1972. The story goes that Barret wanted to make a great red wine. After all, Montelena was in Napa Valley, where Cabernet was king. Grgich explained that a red wine project would take years to generate sales because of the time needed to plant the vines and then age the wine. So, for cash flow, they settled on making Chardonnay to start. What a serendipitous start! Though the Napa Valley received acclaim when Montelena won, 70 percent of the grapes for that award-winning Chardonnay came from the Sonoma Valley, according to Dan Berger, the legendary California-based wine writer.
Miljenko Grgich was born on April 1, 1923, in Desne, Yugoslavia, in what is now Croatia. The youngest of eleven, Grgich spent his childhood among the vines which his parents, who were farmers, cultivated in addition to vegetables and livestock. His parents died while he was still a young boy, so an older sister raised him.
He studied viticulture and enology at the University of Zagreb, but had his studies interrupted by the arrival of the Yugoslav Communists. Living in Zagreb in 1949 was not easy. He recalls carrying a mattress he made from cornhusks to give to his sister, so she didn’t have sleep on the cement floor of the cell where the ruling Communists had imprisoned her. Eager to escape the Communists, Grgich left university before graduating after he received a United Nations-sponsored fellowship and visa to emigrate to Germany. From Germany he made his way to Canada after the U.S. declined his application for a visa. He sailed to Canada where he was supposed to cut trees in the Yukon. Luck struck when he missed the train to the Yukon and wound up instead in Vancouver where he heard about the “paradise” of the Napa Valley. He placed an ad in a California newspaper where Lee Stewart, owner and winemaker of Souverain Cellars, read it and offered him a job and—more importantly—sponsored his immigration application.
One of his big breaks came when the fabled Russian-born California winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, hired him as a chemist to analyze wine at Beaulieu Vineyards. After BV, the legendary Robert Mondavi hired Grgich as winemaker where he made Mondavi’s famous 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was selected as California’s best Cabernet at a prestigious tasting organizer by Robert Balzer of the Los Angeles Times.
In 1977, Grgich went into partnership with Austin Hills of Hills Brothers Coffee and Hills’ sister, Mary Lee Strebl. Paul Landeros, an independent viticulturist who worked for both Hills and Chateau Montelena put the two together. He knew Hills, who already owned vineyards, was looking for a winemaker. They broke ground on July 4, 1977. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In addition to the awards Grgich Hills Estate wines have received, Mike Grgich is justifiably proud of his other accomplishments. Thanks to his viticultural training in Zagreb, Grgich almost immediately noticed upon arriving in the Napa Valley the similarity between Zinfandel and Croatia’s Plavic Mali grape. He helped convince Carole Meredith to research Zinfandel’s origins and was thrilled when his visual acumen was confirmed by DNA testing, which showed Plavic Mali and Zinfandel arose from a common ancestor.
With the demise of Communism and the independence of Croatia, Grgich told me a decade ago that a new era for Croatian wines was on the horizon. He went on to make wine from the Croatian local grapes, Posic and Plavic Mali, on the Dalmatian coast. In addition to his enological expertise, Grgich contributed heavily to mine-clearing projects in his homeland. He was especially proud for having been recognized with two plaques in Croatia—one for wine and one for mine-clearing.
When I last met with Grgich, he had just turned 90, and was still vigorous. Though slightly stooped and walking with a cane, he met the Napa Valley wine train that stops in front of his winery. Wearing his signature beret, he would usher people into his tasting room, encouraging them to taste…and also to buy.
Some assumed his beret was to remind people that his wine beat the French whites at the Paris tasting. But his beret-wearing preceded that event by decades and reflects his parsimony. He needed to take multiple trams to school in Zagreb, where, according to Grgich, it rains as much as it does in Vancouver. On one such trip he left his umbrella behind. Too poor to buy another one, he bought a beret instead, which he figured he would never lose since it would either be on his head or folded in his pocket. His original beret is on display today, along with the cardboard suitcase that accompanied him from his home in Croatia to the Napa Valley, in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. There Grgich is honored along with another icon of Americana, Julia Child.
Despite his extraordinary success, Grgich was always a modest man, quick to thank everyone who has ever helped him. He always remembered how, in the mid 1990s, Robert Mondavi invited him back to discuss the monumental 1969 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon when Mondavi was hosting a famous vertical Cabernet tasting. Grgich was embarrassed that Bob, who knew everything about that 1969 Cabernet—and all the others—had invited him back even though he had worked with Mondavi for a mere four years. “That, Grgich told me, “was the kind of person Robert Mondavi was—he was a generous man.”
Grgich always saw the positive, “I failed at many things, but succeeded at more…I don’t talk about my mistakes.” He eventually had a falling out—to put it mildly—with Jim Barrett, the principal owner of Chateau Montelena, who barely acknowledged Grgich’s role in the Paris tasting. But when asked about it, Grgich always took the high road, “I’m thankful he gave me a job and the opportunity to make great wine.”
Winemakers would be wise to follow Grgich’s winemaking philosophy: “Let the grapes speak. You need to preserve what’s in the grape. What’s made by God is always better than what’s made by man.” He continued, “You can measure acidity and sugar. You can’t measure aromas or complexity. You must taste.” He recounted once coming home to lunch just when harvest was about to start and not eating what his wife had just prepared. She was hurt. He explained, “I’ve just been tasting pounds of grapes.”
He often pointed out that in the current environment, “The winemaker wants to speak.” As he explained, drawing on his Croatian background, in English, “I” is written with a capital letter and “you” is lower case. In the Croatian language, it’s the opposite. “In California, the ‘I,’ the winemaker, dominates and wants to prove something. Sometimes the something is good, sometimes not. Winemakers today need to rely on their ‘feelings’ and not just the computer,” Grgich insisted. “Feelings are superior to computers when making wine.” He concluded, “Wines that are balanced—the acid, the alcohol, the aroma—will last long, like a family.”
With his signature broad smile, a sign of a man who is clearly content with himself, Grgich continued, “You need one foot in the vineyard and one foot in the winery and one foot in the marketplace. That’s why I have a cane, so if the merchants don’t sell my wine, I can beat them.”
Full disclosure: some of the material in this column was derived from a previous one of mine published on Wine Review Online on June 25, 2013.
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January 3, 2024