By Sandra Silfven.
Winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, one of the towering figures of Napa Valley, is a Croatian immigrant whose hardships and accomplishments would lead him to wow the world with his Chardonnays, and now he can add “author” to his list of achievements.
Grgich, the co-founder of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, has chronicled his life story in the aptly titled memoir, “A Glass Full of Miracles” (Violetta Press, $40), released April 1, to coincide with his 93rd birthday.
“My life has been filled with miracles,” Mike writes. “How else do you explain a little boy from a little village in Croatia who now has his wine on display in the Smithsonian Institution.” And the museum also has his cardboard suitcase, 15 wine books and the beret he had with him when he boarded a ship to Canada in 1954.
Written with the assistance of Napa Valley Register editor Sasha Paulsen and published by his daughter Violetta Grgich, the book is a compelling read filled with the hardships and rewards that so many immigrants to America experienced. It’s a personal story that makes you feel like you are looking through the author’s own scrapbooks of family pictures, and the documents and articles that shaped his life. It also offers a valuable accounting of winemaking in Napa Valley starting in the late 1950s.
Grgich was the youngest of 11 children who lived in a primitive stone house in a tiny village of Croatia where he learned the art of winemaking from his father. To learn the science and technology of it, however, he had to leave his family and go to the university in faraway Zagreb when the land was under Communist rule. He achieved the course work for his degree but had to flee the country before getting his diploma because he had defied the Communists by defending his professor who had been sacked. He fled the country with 32 American dollars sewn in his shoe.
He carried with him these words from his father: “Try to always be with people who are smarter than you and learn from them. What you do every day, do your best.” Which is exactly what he did when he finally arrived in Napa Valley in 1958 where he would work for the giants in the industry: Lee Stewart who founded Chateau Souverain; Fr. Timothy at Christian Brothers; Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards; Robert Mondavi at Robert Mondavi Winery; and Lee Paschich and his partners who offered Grgich a small slice of ownership to be winemaker at Chateau Montelena.
He recounts the advancements in winemaking he made with Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa Valley; the acclaim he brought Robert Mondavi Winery for his 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon; and the back story of the “Judgment of Paris” wine judging in 1976 in which his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay bested the French in a blind conpetition judged by French wine experts.
Grgich was 53 years old when the Paris Tasting brought him fame in 1976. It was then he decided to found his own winery. He formed a partnership with Austin Hills of Hills Brother’s Coffee to open Grgich Hills, with a groundbreaking on July 4, 1977, in Rutherford. He would go on to own a string of vineyards up and down Napa Valley and produce outstanding Chardonnays, along with Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Zinfandals.
He also founded a winery in his homeland and was able to get grape geneticist Dr. Carole Meredith at the University of California-Davis to confirm through DNA testing that the original Zinfandel growing in California originated in his homeland of Croatia.
Winemaker Zelma Long, whom Grgich lured away from UC-Davis in 1970 to work for him as a harvest intern at Robert Mondavi Winery, wrote the Introduction to the book. She recounts his close attachment to his wines, how he did not consider himself the “master” of them, but “a father and mother to them.” She called it a “European sensibility,” like she had observed in France and Italy, and like today’s young winemakers describe when they speak of “raising” their wines.
Zelma Long sums up Mike Grgich in her first sentence: “A remarkable man, an extraordinary life.”
You can reach Sandra Silfven at email@example.com.