Miljenko "Mike" Grgich is a larger-than-life figure, still going strong at 88 years old. His odyssey from his native Croatia to Napa Valley, and his growth as a winemaker, is the stuff of best-selling novels.
Mike is the fourth generation of winemakers in his family. Growing up in what was Nazi-dominated and then Communist-run Yugoslavia, with little in the way of comforts, including drinkable water, Mike was weaned from his mother's breast when he was 2 and placed on a blend of 50 percent red wine and 50 percent water in order to stay hydrated and healthy.
Having studied winemaking at the University of Zagreb, he heard that California was "paradise" and became determined to get here. It took a four-year odyssey through Europe and Canada to make it happen. All the while, he kept $32 given to him by his cousin that was sewn into the soles of his shoes (to avoid being confiscated at the Yugoslavian border). He arrived in 1958 with one beat-up suitcase, and the $32, and started out working with Lee Stewart, owner of Souverain Cellars.
Mike proceeded to make his way up the winemaking ladder, working with Brother Timothy at Christian Brothers, then for nine years with the legendary winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, Andre Tchelistcheff, as a wine chemist. They collaborated on such ground breaking experimentation as "cold fermentation" of white wine, malolactic production, and sterile filtration prior to bottling. When Tchelistcheff retired, Mike was offered a position with Robert Mondavi who told Mike he was going to make him into a "little Andre Tchelistcheff" - a more prescient comment in the fledgling California wine industry never having been made.
In his first vintage in 1969, Mike crafted a superb cabernet which in 1972 was rated Best of Class in a Los Angeles Times blind tasting organized by Robert Balzer and judged by 15 California winemakers. This was just a harbinger of things to come.
Subsequently hired by Chateau Montelena as the winemaker, his 1973 chardonnay was one of a number of California wines selected to compete against top French white wines in the 1976 Paris Tasting, organized during our country's bicentennial. In a blind tasting by French experts that turned on its head the wine world's view that only French soil could produce world-class wine, the Chateau Montelena chardonnay scored the highest of all the wines tasted: 132 points!
If you have read "Bottle Shock" or seen the movie, Mike's prodigious efforts in the production of that 1973 chardonnay were amazingly not even mentioned, but the discoloration of the wine and return to a golden hue, reported in the book and movie, never happened in that vintage year. For an accurate portrayal of what really transpired, read journalist George Taber's book, "Judgment of Paris." Needless to say, Mike's triumph, as well as Warren Winiarski's of Stag's Leap with his 1974 cabernet, which won the red wine competition, put Napa Valley on the international wine map.
Mike didn't even know that the wine had been entered and had won until Frank Prial, wine columnist for the New York Times, came out to Napa Valley with a crew to interview him.
From that point there was no looking back. Shortly thereafter, Mike, in concert with Austin Hills, opened his own winery in 1977 - Grgich Hills. The first vintage, 1977, competed in the "Great Chicago Showdown" with 220 other chardonnays from around the world and came out on top. His 1979 chardonnay was served by President Ronald Reagan at a State Dinner in 1982 at the American Embassy in Paris for President Francois Mitterand and his wife. The wine was produced without malolactic fermentation in New French oak using only natural methods without commercial pesticides, fertilizers or fungicides.
Never let it be said that Mike Grgich rested on his laurels. In 1989, he planted grapes in the Carneros region in what consisted of two feet of fine brown soil and virtually pure sand underneath. When grapes planted on AxR1 rootstock showed signs of phylloxera infestation (insects that feed on grapevine roots), he stressed the vines by cutting back the water causing the roots to go deeper into the soil to find water. The phylloxera can't grow in sand, so the vines were allowed to continue to grow and produce grapes.
In 1996, Mike opened a winery called Grgic Vina in his native Croatia to bring modern winemaking techniques to his homeland. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Paris Tasting the Smithsonian unveiled an exhibit of the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay and the 1974 Stag's Leap cabernet to mark the importance of the event to America's winemaking industry. In 2002, Mike's theory that the California zinfandel grape's ancestry is linked to Croatia instead of Italy was confirmed by DNA analysis.
Currently, 366 acres of vineyards are flourishing and more than 70,000 cases of wine are produced annually under Mike's care. All five vineyards have been certified organic and biodynamic. Mike is also quite the humanitarian and has worked closely with "Roots of Peace," donating $50,000 for the removal of land mines in Croatia and the planting of grapevines in their place.
In 2008, Mike Grgich was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame. His contributions to the California wine industry never will be forgotten nor will his sly sense of humor, his humanity and the fashion statement he makes with his ever-present dark blue beret. He is truly a legend with a heart of gold.