Tony Butala, winemaker and singer with Miljenko and the author, in 2015 at the 35th Anniversary of “The Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown” victory celebration at the Grgich Hills Estate.
By Steve Rukavina, 19 May 2016
The man from Dalmatia who shook up the famous winemakers of France in 1976 is honored again at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Miljenko Grgich, the “King of Chardonnay,” was honored again by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History this past Monday, May 16, 2016. It was a pleasure for me to attend and hear more accolades about the famous Croatian winemaker’s achievements. Violet Grgich, represented her father well in Washington, DC by describing his love affair with grapes and sharing more secrets and nuances about his commitment to excellence in making such world class wine.
Next week, on May 24th, will be the 40th Anniversary of the famous “Judgement of Paris” and writer George Taber calls it ” the historic 1976 Paris tasting that revolutionized wine.” How did the youngest of eleven children from a Croatian family in Desne Croatia, go from being an obscure winemaker in Napa, to being an overnight sensation by winning the Paris wine tasting with an American Chardonnay? It’s quite a story.
In 1976, Miljenko Grgich was the winemaker for Chateau Montelena winery. He really believed that their Chardonnay was world class and could compete with the French Burgundies, considered the best in the world.
Steve Spurrier, an Englishman running a boutique wine shop in Paris, came up with the novel idea of arranging a blind tasting in 1976 to honor America’s Bicentennial celebration and to pair the finest French wines against the up-and-coming winemakers from California. Who would have guessed that this blind tasting in Paris would catapult Miljenko Grgich into the international wine spotlight? It was surprising to hear directly from Miljenko that he did not even know that winery owner Jim Barrett had entered their 1973 Chateau Montelena into such an important Paris tasting and thought Jim was more on a wine romp through France.
The results on May 24th at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris were truly astounding. The winner among reds was the 1973 Cabernet from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, the Napa wine made by Warren Winiarski. Next, it was by an even bigger margin that Miljenko’s 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena topped world class French Meursault-Charmes for highest honors with white wine and the world renowned Batard-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet wines ranked a distant seventh and eighth.
The panel of nine French judges led by Pierre Brejoux had chosen Miljenko’s Chardonnay over the world’s best French Burgundies. It’s interesting that only one of those judges had ever tasted a Californina wine before that tasting. The French people and wine experts blamed Steve Spurrier, the Englishmen for this debacle and still did not want to admit the California wines could be judged superior to their French wines even though it was a blind tasting with all French judges. Yes, the man who wears a French beret and his wine had beat the French and the “Judgement of Paris” had now confirmed Miljenko Grgich and Napa Valley as world class winemakers. As Miljenko proudly told me, “it was so historical that an American Chardonnay had beaten the best French Burgundies.
You can imagine Miljenko’s surprise when a Western Union telegram arrived at the winery on May 26th, saying “Stunning Paris Tasting on May 24th Took First Place Over 9 Others,” and Bo Barrett there that day in 1976 said that Miljenko broke into a Croatian jig and so too did the rest of the staff. The next day, Miljenko was even more surprised when Frank Priall from the New York Times called and said he wanted to send a three person team to interview him. The famous wine journalist from the New York Times goes on to write, “The fact is that the best American vineyards and wineries can produce extraordinary wines. George Taber of Time magazine, the only journalist who attended the Paris tasting that day and author of the wonderful book “Judgement of Paris” wrote in 1976, ” The unthinkable happened; California defeated Gaul.” Famous American wine critic, Robert M. Parker, Jr. wrote in 2001, “The Paris Tasting destroyed the myth of French supremacy and marked the democratization of the wine world. It was a watershed in the history of wine.”
Miljenko, now age 93, still considers this Paris victory, such a big accomplishment and with it that his 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay wine, beret and suitcase from Croatia are in public display at the Smithsonian Museum. Also, the “History of America in 101 Objects” chose the Julia Child’s kitchen with and including that 1973 Chateau Montelena masterfully craft by Miljenko and these “101 Objects” were chosen from out of 137 million artifacts and items available through the Smithsonian collection.
In 1976, Miljenko became the co-owner of the Grgich Hills winery and finally working for himself and did not waste any time in achieving another milestone victory with his Chardonnay. His victory with his first vintage of his 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay in the 1980 Chicago Chardonnay wine tasting and chosen from the best 221 Chardonnays from all over the world, was another hugely significant wine accomplishment. He’s extremely proud of the fact that the Chicago success was under the Grgich Hills name and trademark. This Chicago achievement again propelled Miljenko Grgich, even more into the spotlight as a shining star of American viticulture and a premier world class winemaker.
Miljenko stressed with me that his overnight success was not luck that “fell out of the sky” but was a lifetime of pursuing excellence step-by-step everyday. His dad’s words about doing your best and trying to learn something new everyday, associating with people who know more than you and making a new friend everyday, was great advice that helped him throughout his winemaking career.
Violet, Miljenko’s daughter, proudly announced Monday that Miljenko’s biography is now published and “A Glass Full of Miracles” is a must read for any proud Croatian who wants to enjoy a remarkable story about someone who escaped communism and became an inductee into the Vintners Hall of Fame. You can get a copy of this 416 page book full of historicand colorful pictures at www.ViolettaPress.com.
Miljenko is extremely proud of his role in helping Professor Carole Meredith from UC Davis in tracking down the origins of Zinfandel to the coast of Croatia. It took a Croatian wine enthusiast like him to collaborate with a famous American grapevine geneticist to discover Zinfandel’s counterpart, “Crljenak Kastelanski” on the Dalmatian coast near Split, to solve the mystery and find Zinfandel’s true roots. Miljenko is also, pleased that he has been able to share many of his winemaking secrets with Croatian winemakers and was proud to return to Croatia after a 35 year absence to visit a free and democratic Croatia and then purchased a winery in Trstenik, where one can find and enjoy his world class Grgic Posip and Plavac Mali wines.
In closing, I believe Miljenko Grgich is the most famous Croatian American of all time. He never forgets to talk aboutCroatia when interviewed about his Grgich Hills wines and anyone who talks with Miljenko for even ten minutes, will know and hear that he’s a proud Croatian. It’s a long way for Miljenko, from Desne, Croatia and through Zagreb and Canada to Napa Valley and into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame. It’s a truly amazing life that Miljenko Grgich has led with so many glasses,full of miracles that have been part of his historic and successful winemaking career. For a Croatian American like myself, to be able to go to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC, to see a Croatian’s achievements being honored and on display is incredibly inspiring.