A Vintner Looks at 93: An Interview with Miljenko ‘Mike’ Grgich

Few people have had the impact on the wine industry that Miljenko ‘Mike’ Grgich has had, though in all honesty, that isn’t what I admire most about the man.  Rather, I admire him for his kindness, for his tenacity and perseverance. I admire him for his craft and artistry – the extraordinary wines that made him famous, and I admire him for his experiences, those I know about at least. I admire the life he has lived, and I admire the way he has lived it. Most of all, however, I admire him simply as a fellow human being, a lover of life and the wines we pair with it.

Miljenko Grgich is the President and Winemaker at Grgich Hills Estate, a winery on Highway 29 in the Napa Valley, near the town of Rutherford. For years, however, Grgich played the part of the perpetual student, working under masters at some of the best wineries in the Valley, before eventually founding his own operation. But wine, simply wine, is never really the story, is it? Rather, it is the compliment to the experience, and the story in this instance is one so exciting and so inspired that it requires itself a lifetime of wines to pair with it. Fortunately for us, Grgich crafted those pairings, along with the story, which he revealed part of in our interview. What follows, this interview, amounts to a lifetime accomplishment for me as one who writes about wine, but merely one more kindness for a man who has lived a full and fascinating life.  

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I visited your winery a few days ago. I have to say I was struck by the fact that everyone I met seemed to be a family member of either yours or the Hills family.  Your daughter, Violetta, was my original contact at the winery. Maja, I believe she’s your great-great niece, did our tasting when my wife and I dropped in, while her father Ivo, who I think makes the wine, stopped by to chat since the rain was keeping him out of the vineyards that morning. Even at 60,000 cases a year, you’ve somehow managed to keep this a family winery. What’s the secret?

Grgich: I was born to a family that was making wine in the Croatian Dalmatian Coast for many generations. My goal was to have a small family-owned winery in America. Family is an important aspect of everything we do at Grgich Hills. The top management for day-to-day operations is me, my daughter Violet and my nephew Ivo, so we can make decisions quickly.

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Mike Grgich with his daughter, Violet Grgich, and his nephew, Ivo Jeramaz.

Naturally, as we grew, we had to add employees who had skills that we needed but we still maintain a family spirit. We bring together our employees at our annual harvest party, they are an important part of our annual Blessing of the Grapes, and we have a holiday party in December for employees and their families.

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Believed to be the first blessing of the grapes at Grgich Hills.

Your biography on the winery web page says that you’ve been around wine nearly your entire life, being weaned onto it quite young and stomping grapes at the age of three at your family’s winery in your native Croatia.  I’m wondering what your favorite varietals were back in Croatia, and what were the wines that came from them like in your memory?

Grgich: I grew up surrounded by Plavac Mali grapes/Plavac Mali wine which was my favorite wine in Croatia. That’s why, on the first day I stayed overnight in the cabin at Souverain Cellars, I came outside and said to myself, “My goodness, look at all of this Plavac Mali.” Of course, it was Zinfandel and experts told me no one knew where it originated. But, in the back of mind, I thought I knew. It took me about 30 years before I contacted Dr. Carole Meredith at UC Davis. She confirmed through DNA testing my belief that Crljenank vine in Croatia is genetically identical to Zinfandel and Plavac Mali is one of its offsprings.

I understand that you’re making wine in Croatia once again. Will you explain briefly how you came to open a winery in post-Soviet Eastern Europe while living in the Napa Valley?

Grgich: After 36 years in America I came back to my homeland. I met with Croatian President Franjo Tuđman who asked me what I did in the United States. I said, “I make wine.” His response was, “Why don’t you come back to Croatia and make wine here?” So, in my mind I decided that I could help by showing my countrymen what I learned in 36 years of making wine in America. I bought a stony building called ‘karaula’, in Trstenik, Peljesac Peninsula. I had purchased the old press that made the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the 1976 Paris Tasting, as well as the 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay that won the 1980 Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown; I bought stainless steel tanks; French oak barrels and everything I needed for a modern winery and shipped them by boat to Croatia. Winemakers there were still reusing old wooden tanks to ferment and age wine. We were able to make our first vintage at Grgić Vina in 1996.

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Grgić Vina, produced in Croatia. 

On your winery web page, it says that you were born in 1923, and then jumps to 1949 when you started at the University of Zagreb. That makes you sixteen when World War II breaks out in Europe, and eighteen when it reaches the Balkans if I’m not mistaken.  What memories do you have of the Second World War, and how did it impact your family?

Grgich: Let me tell you just one story that I tell in my autobiography, “A Glass Full of Miracles.” I had been managing a general merchandise store for three years when the war arrived. Our little village was remote but the area we lived in, Dalmatia was annexed by Italy. One of the first things the Italian army did was round up all the men of Desne, my village, including my father. At the time he was ill in bed, but they took him. When I heard that, I ran to find the commander and pleaded with him that my father was dying of cancer and he was not a danger. The commander agreed to let him go back home, but took me instead.  Soldiers marched us down to the river and ordered us to line up in front of deep pit they had dug in the sand by the river and stood behind us with machine guns. The thought came to me, “I am going to die, but how will I know when I am dead?” But something amazing happened, I saw my sister paddling a small canoe down the river. She yelled out “Don’t be afraid, they won’t kill you.” She had heard this in the village and she had come the fastest way she could. A very brave woman.

It was true! Soon trucks pulled up and we were taken to a prison where we had to lie flat on the wooden floor. One by one we were interrogated and after four days, we were released because none of us had any connection with the partisans.

I have bad memories of the war. When the Germans replaced the Italians, the Italians had promoted the idea that Desne was the center of the resistance only so they would not be sent to fight on the Russian front. The Germans decided they would take care of this problem, so they burned Desne to the ground. Only a stone shell was left of the house where I was born and lived as a boy.

Grgich, 6/14/06, 3:39 PM, 8C, 3415x4170, 62%, push6 , 1/12s, R200, G180, B400,

Passport photo taken just before Grgich left Croatia in 1954.

If it was communism that pushed you out of Eastern Europe after the war, it was still wine that brought you to the Napa Valley. Yet, when you arrived, America was still guzzling bad jug wine in a post-prohibition state of hung-over insanity. How hard was it to break back into the world of making wine as a craft, as an art form, and not merely a cheap intoxicant?

Grgich: When I arrived in the Napa Valley in 1958, there were only two-dozen wineries or so. The best known was Beaulieu Vineyard, where André Tchelistcheff was known as the “Dean” of California winemakers. Since Beaulieu was the best winery and was well known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, I wanted to work there. I gathered enough courage and called on Mr. Tschelistcheff, the only winemaker in California who graduated from Pasteur Institute in France. Mr. De Latour, the owner of Beaulieu, hired him to improve the quality of the wine, which he did.

Mr. Tschelistcheff called me to make an appointment for a job opening as a Wine Chemist, which I accepted. I worked with Mr. Tschelistcheff for nine years.

In Napa Valley I learned quality from Souverain Cellars, red wine from André Tchelistcheff and white wine from Robert Mondavi. With all that knowledge I was able to make the 1973 Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena. Fortunately the 1973 Chardonnay was included in the 1976 Paris Tasting. As a result of its superior quality it outscored the best of French red and white wines as well as the best of California red and white wines.

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Article from NY Times about the Paris Tasting.

I’ve always sort of feared that if George Taber, the reporter for Time Magazine, hadn’t been there to cover the event, the whole thing might have been sort of swept under the proverbial rug. Though we couldn’t have realized it in that scenario, it would have set the Napa Valley back decades.  Will you tell me that my fears are unfounded, or have you wondered that as well?

Grgich: While it is true that if Mr. Taber wasn’t there (and spoke French!) that tasting would never be known. But, Robert Mondavi had been preaching for years that one day California wine would be as good as French and it has been proven in countless other tastings since then. I always believe the truth would soon be discovered and I’m just blessed that it was my wine that broke that barrier.

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Image from Judgment of Paris on May 24, 1976. Taken by Bella Spurrier, wife of Steven Spurrier.

Okay, back to Bottleshock for a moment, I tell anyone who will listen how absurd it is that Barrett, the money behind Chateau Montelena, somehow gets credit for making your wine in the movie. It absolutely drives me nuts. Do you have any feelings about that one way or another?

Grgich: Just like you it drives me crazy every day of my life. I felt the movie was very unrealistic. A wine writer wrote in his article, “Giving Credit to the Guy Who Made the California Wine Industry Famous”, that he believed that “. . . Bottle Shock is part of a 30-year campaign to erase Mike Grgich’s name from history.”

I read that Barrett wanted Chateau Montelena to be primarily a maker of Cabernet Sauvignon, and that the Chardonnay was sort of an afterthought to make a quick buck since you can turn it around for retail so much faster. Is that true? And if so, was it difficult to channel your incredible talents as a vintner into a wine that the management wasn’t all that excited about?

Grgich: When Mr. Barrett and his partners, Lee Paschich and Ernie Hahn, started Montelena, their stated goal was world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, on par with the First Growths of Bordeaux. Mr. Paschich knew I made the 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon for Robert Mondavi that won a blind tasting held by Los Angeles Times of the best California Cabernet Sauvignons.

I had a five-year contract with Chateau Montelena from 1972 to 1977 as Winemaker and Limited Partner. When I started my job at Chateau Montelena I was first asked to make a budget for five years and make only Cabernet Sauvignon red wine. When I presented the five-year budget for the winery producing only Cabernet Sauvignon, there was no income and Mr. Barrett said “No way!” He asked me to propose a new budget that would make sense. I proposed Johannesburg Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet. White wine would give cash flow until Cabernet Sauvignon goes into the market. The plan was approved.

That is how Chateau Montelena became famous for Chardonnay before the Cabernet went into the market.

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Mike Grgich at Chateau Montelena, circa 1976.

Here we are forty years after you crafted that famous Chardonnay, you’re 93 years old, and still one of the most prominent names in the industry.  What do you believe to be the most important part of your legacy? Is it wine? Having made history? Family? Or something else entirely?  

Grgich: I’m very proud to have started something from nothing: there is now a winery with my family name on it and now my daughter is part of the long chain of Grgichs who have made wine. I also am proud to be part of American history. The 1973 Chardonnay that I crafted for Chateau Montelena that won the Paris Tasting is not only in the Smithsonian Institution, it is in their book: “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects” among such priceless historical objects as Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. I truly have achieved my American Dream!

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Grgich’s suitcase that he travel with from Croatia to USA, 1954-1958. Now in the Smithsonian. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.)

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As time passes, and we can always count on it to do that, I encourage my friends who imbibe to survey the annals of relatively recent time, and to consider what the Napa Valley was before it felt the delicate, skillful touch of Miljenko Grigch. He helped to pave the way for the beautiful Napa Valley to become what it is today, one of the best known wine regions in the entire world, and a producer of world class wines.  He also taught us, however, that the best wines come not from a specific region or terroir, nor from a certain varietal, but from the heart of a man and the passion that drives him.  Though time will leave us all behind, Grgich, now 93, has left his own indelible mark on the valley. His organically cultivated vineyards, his tasting room, his family, and the personal mark he left upon history will all live on as an integral part of the Napa Valley.

 

For more information, visit Grgich Hills Estate at http://www.grgich.com, or in person at the Napa Valley winery and tasting room on Highway 29. Photos courtesy of Grgich Hills Estate, unless otherwise noted.

 

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