Wine legend Miljenko Grgich retells past
reprinted from The Desert Sun
First impressions of Miljenko “Mike” Grgich would be of a happily retired man. Donning his signature beret and almost childlike smile, Grgich, now 91 years old, has come a long way from his native Desne village in coastal Croatia.
“I have the joke that the good things in life are two w’s,” he laughs, pausing for the punch line, “Women and wine. It keeps the world going on.”
These days, Grgich spends his time split between the Coachella Valley, more specifically Palm Desert, and Napa Valley, where he built an empire. Behind the smiles and jokes is a man who arguably made California wine country famous. The California wine country.
Casual wine drinkers might not recognize his name, but most are familiar with the 2008 film “Bottle Shock.” While the movie doesn’t explicitly mention Grgich, it was loosely based on a career-changing moment in his life, when the California winemaker crafted the chardonnay that defeated the French wines in a blind taste test during the 1976 competition forever remembered as the “Judgment of Paris.”
“We had about 20 wineries when I came to Napa Valley. After Paris tasting, wineries started to get up like mushrooms after the rain. There are over 500 wineries now. Rich people invest in wine. Paris tasting changed Napa Valley because Napa Valley is considered the best wine region in the world, now,” said Grgich.
At the time Grgich was a winemaker and limited partner at Chateau Montelena. It was his 1973 vintage chardonnay that ranked as the No. 1 white wine at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, a feat that was inconceivable to most wine experts: Napa Valley wasn’t the wine hotspot it is today. Wine meant France: French grapes, French techniques, French everything.
“America used to be a whiskey and beer country. Two years ago it became a chardonnay country, a wine country. More wine is being consumed here and all around the world. Since Paris tasting people have been planting grapes in Chile, Argentina, Australia, all around the world. That echo did spread around.”
Grgich believes his success came through the knowledge great California winemakers shared with him.
“I learned from other people and I was accepting their knowledge. Many people think they know everything so they don’t absorb anything,” said Grgich, who speaks with a heavy Croatian accent. “I’m reflecting the ideas that they taught. I’m very lucky.”
Grgich had left communist Yugoslavia in 1954 for “paradise,” as he enthusiastically calls Napa Valley.
“To get to America, I couldn’t get a visa. It took me four years,” Grgich said. “So I escaped first to Germany and ask for an American visa. Then I went to Canada because I was feeling helpless in Germany. I was promised a visa in two months but it never came.”
Grgich had spent 2½ years in Canada when his nephew, who was living in the United States, offered an opportunity.
“He had connections with the Christian brothers in Napa Valley and they advised to make an application to wine institute looking for work,” Grgich remembers. “One gentleman answered … he needed somebody part-time. And he helped me to get an American visa. It took me four years on my road to get to the paradise of Napa Valley.”
Among his many mentors was the dean of American winemakers: André Tchelistcheff.
“He worked in France and brought French side of wine to Napa Valley,” said Grgich. “After a year in Napa, I said I have to meet that guy, and I called him. I said I would like to meet you because I’m immigrant here and I like to meet you if you can give me an interview. And he told me to come.
“I started talking to him in broken English and he started talking back to me in perfect Croatian. Saved my life. It was a miracle. I worked with him for nine years until he retired and I got the essence of how to make the best wines.”
Grgich also fondly remembers his time working with Robert Mondavi.
“I made first cabernet for him using knowledge from André Tchelistcheff and in a blind taste for The Los Angeles Times; it came in second place. That was the most celebrated wine for Robert Mondavi. So, I started to make a dent in America,” he said.
“I’m very happy to be here and there is a room for people like me so they can have a choice in life. I didn’t have a choice when I came to America. For the first five years, I couldn’t accommodate myself, I left my house, my family, my friends, everyone for freedom. And freedom is a mirage like water or something else because you are not free. But after 19 years, I get my own winery. That was my dream come true.”
These days, Grgich is focused on his own highly successful winery, Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, and is still working to move the wine industry forward.
In 1991, while studying the origins of California zinfandel, Grgich made claims that the vine has roots in Croatia.
“It’s the wine that when I came to America, first day I noticed it,” he said.
“I know that vine because we have it in Croatia. But I read a book about California variety and it says cabernet sauvignon came to America from France, riesling came from Germany and zinfandel nobody knows. I felt when I saw those grapes, I know. Those grapes must have been from Croatia.”
Grgich and other producers came together as the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, focusing on scientific research of the vine.
In the 2012 book “Wine Grapes Masters of Wine,” Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding and Swiss grape geneticist Dr. José Vouillamoz detail the search for zinfandel’s origins dating back to Croatia. And in 2013, documentary film “Dossier Zinfandel” was released detailing Grgich’s contributions to the discovery of Zinfandel’s origins was released.
“It took 55 years of the discussion and research until the movie was made about the search for zinfandel,” Grgich said.
This year, his famous 1973 vintage Chateau Montelena chardonnay made the Smithsonian Institute’s exhibition and the book “101 Objects That Made America.” Chosen among 137 million artifacts, the chardonnay is joined by other iconic objects like Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Julia Child’s Kitchen and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit.
“People say when preparation meets opportunity, there’s luck. And that’s a miracle,” said Grgich.
“All these events for me I feel are miracles.”