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Grgich Hills Estate | Napa Valley

Five awesome things about winemaker Mike Grgich: San Jose Mercury News

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich writes about his journey in wine, from his earliest days in Croatia to Napa Valley in his new memoir “A Glass Full of Miracles.” By Mary Orlin

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich is a legend in the wine world. The “King of Chardonnay” won the Judgment of Paris 40 years ago with his 1973 Chateau Montelena. Today, at age 93, he’s just penned a vivid memoir, “A Glass Full of Miracles” (Violetta Press, $40). The book is a great read, full of incredible stories about the Croatian-born Grgich, the youngest of 11 children, and photographs. By age 3, he was helping his family make wine. Grgich survived ordeals during World War II and communist rule, eventually making his way to what his college wine professor called “paradise” in California, to fulfill his winemaking dreams.

If you’re a Napa Valley wine devotee, chances are high that you know many things about this famous winemaker. Here are five things you probably didn’t know.

 

1. The French beret

It’s not a fashion statement. When Grgich began studying viticulture and oenology at the University of Zagreb in 1950, and Croatia was part of communist Yugoslavia, he didn’t have the money to buy a new umbrella when he left his on a streetcar. The cheaper option was a beret. “That beret is very practical,” Grgich writes. “It will protect my head from the rain, and when I’m not wearing it I can fold it up and keep it in my pocket so I won’t lose it.”

 

2. The $32 escape

Anxious to leave Yugoslavia, Grgich was turned down for an American visa, so he got a Canadian visa for lumberjack work. He carried 15 winemaking books in a cardboard suitcase and had a local cobbler hide $32 in his shoes so that border guards would not find the American money. Now that cardboard suitcase, the winemaking books and the beret are in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

 

3. Four before Chateau Montelena

Grgich arrived in Napa Valley in 1958 to work first at Souverain Cellars, followed by a stint at Christian Brothers, then with André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards, and finally as winemaker at the new Robert Mondavi Winery.

4. The Judgment of Paris was not first

The 1972 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that Grgich made — his first vintage at the winery — was a huge success. It won multiple wine competitions, including beating out the well-regarded 1972 Batard-Montrachet white Burgundy at a 1975 blind tasting in San Diego. The Paris tasting was the following year. By the way, the ’72 Chardonnay sold for $6; the ’73 Chardonnay sold for $6.50.

5. The Croatian winery

Grgich returned to Croatia in 1990. He opened Grgic Vina Winery there in 1996, growing and making native Croatian varieties plavac mali (red) and posip (white) near the southern coastal town Trstenik. He also sells these wines at his Napa Valley winery. During that time, Grgich was also involved in zinfandel DNA testing that showed it is genetically identical to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kastelanski. This proved his long-held belief that zinfandel’s origins are Croatian.

— Mary Orlin, Staff

 

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