A LEGEND | LIFETIME PASSION
Miljenko “Mike” Grgich
I realized that you don’t make wine only with your head and your senses. You make wine with your heart.
An inductee to the Vintners Hall of Fame, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich is a legend in the Napa Valley.
Over the past 50 years, Mike’s wines, crafted in the classic Old World tradition, have won a stream of California and international prizes, establishing Grgich Hills Estate as one of the premier wineries in the U.S. and the world. Passionate and relentless in his quest for quality, Mike has also helped pioneer a number of significant breakthroughs in California winemaking techniques, including the use of cold sterilization and malolactic fermentation and the use of oak barrels for proper aging.
Mike’s most celebrated achievement came in 1976 when a Chardonnay he crafted for Chateau Montelena beat the very best wines in France in a now famous blind tasting in Paris. This event that stunned the wine world catapulted the Napa Valley into the front ranks of the leading wine-producing regions of the world.
A Glass Full of Miracles
The Paris Tasting- May 24, 1976
“For years, everybody in the world believed that only French soils could produce great wines,” Mike explains. “We shattered that myth. That was probably the most significant result of the Paris tasting. Our victory pumped new energy into the California wine industry, particularly in the Napa Valley, and it energized winemakers in many other parts of the world, such as Argentina and Chile. They realized that if we could do it, so could they.”
Mike’s success in America grew naturally from his family roots deep in the soil of his native Croatia. Miljenko Grgich was born April 1, 1923, in the village of Desne on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. The family owned a small winery and vineyard, and every year his father made wine, as did his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. As a toddler, and one of 11 children, Miljenko was weaned from his mother to a 50-50 mixture of water and red wine and at the tender age of three he began stomping grapes. Later he went to business college and then, in 1949, he went to the University of Zagreb, where he studied chemistry, enology, microbiology, soil biology, meteorology, irrigation, plants, fruit and grapes, all in preparation for becoming a winemaker.
Mike was miserable, though, under communist rule in Yugoslavia. So, in 1954 in search of freedom, he fled to West Germany and then made his way to Canada. But his dream destination was always America. A professor in Zagreb had told him that California was paradise, and he had long been inspired by stories of self-made Americans like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller. In 1958, Mike finally made it: with one small suitcase he arrived in the Napa Valley.
Immediately he went to work for Lee Stewart, founder of Souverain Winery and an early Napa Valley pioneer. After one harvest, Mike moved to Christian brothers and then on to Beaulieu Vineyard where he spent nine years working alongside the legendary Russian winemaker André Tchelistcheff. In 1968, eager for more responsibility, Mike became chief enologist at the most innovative winery at the time, the Robert Mondavi Winery. “In 1969, I made my first Cabernet for Robert Mondavi,” Mike recalls. “I introduced malolactic fermentation and other methods we had been developing at Beaulieu. Then, in an important blind tasting, fifteen California winemakers proclaimed ours to be the best Cabernet in all of California.”
In 1972, Mike joined Chateau Montelena as winemaker and limited partner. Four years later the success of his Chardonnay at the Paris tasting led to fulfilling his lifelong dream of owning his own winery. In 1977, joining forces with Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. Coffee family, Mike created Grgich Hills Cellar, located in Rutherford, the heart of the Napa Valley. Soon, Mike scored another huge victory in “The Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown.” In 1980, 221 Chardonnays were brought together for a historic first, the largest blind tasting ever held of wines made from a single varietal. And Mike’s Grgich Hills 1977 Chardonnay emerged triumphant with the first place ribbon. Mike soon became affectionately known as the “King of Chardonnay.”
Mike’s influence also continued to spread. In 1996, he returned to his native Croatia and opened a new winery, Grgić Vina, to make fine wines and to bring Croatia the latest in modern winemaking techniques. In one of his proudest accomplishments, in 2001 Mike played an instrumental role along with U.C. Davis Professor Carole Meredith in tracing the mysterious roots of California Zinfandel back to his native Croatia.
In 2006 the winery switched to solar power and in 2007 Grgich Hills became completely estate grown and changed its name to Grgich Hills Estate in recognition of that significant achievement. Today, Grgich Hills owns 366 acres spread among five vineyards throughout the Napa Valley and producing award-winning estate grown wines. Mike’s continued commitment to making wine as naturally as possible has led to farming without artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
In 2012, Mike was the subject of documentary “Like the Old Vine” that premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival. Filmed by Croatian National Television in the Napa Valley, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and Mike’s birthplace in Desne, Croatia, it describes Mike’s extraordinary life, achievements and how his “American Dream” became a reality. In 2013, the documentary was named winner of the Grand Jury’s Special Award at the 20th annual Oenovideo International Grape & Wine Film Festival in Carcassonne-Minervois, France.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC featured Mike in its first major exhibition on food history – “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” that opened in November 20, 2012. A major section of the exhibition focuses on the revolution in American wine in the second half of the 20th-Century. The exhibition features the 1973 Chardonnay crafted by Mike that won the 1976 Paris Tasting and includes the small cardboard suitcase he traveled with when he left Croatia, his winemaking text books and his famous beret.
In 2013, the Smithsonian magazine published a list of “101 Objects That Made America” and a book, History of America in 101 Objects, drawn from the 137 million artifacts held by the 19 museums and research centers of the Smithsonian Institution. Among such priceless historical objects as Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit are the two bottles of wine that triumphed at the 1976 Judgment of Paris: the Chardonnay made by Mike Grgich, then working at Chateau Montelena, and the Cabernet Sauvignon made by Warren Winiarski, founder of Stags Leap Wine Cellars.
Mike’s life story is so intertwined with Zinfandel that a documentary on the origins of this Croatian-born grape featured his contributions. Filmed by Croatian National Television, “Dossier Zinfandel” premiered at the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival in November.
Turning 93 years old on April 1, 2016, Mike continues to guide Grgich Hills Estate and to plan for its future. While some Napa Valley wineries look to expand, Mike and his daughter, Violet Grgich, and his nephew Ivo Jeramaz prefer to stay small and to focus on improving the quality of their vineyards and wines, always according to Mike’s unique artistic and intuitive touch. As Mike explains, “There is no sure-proof scientific formula for making great wines. Over the years I have learned to communicate with the wines and how to nurture them. I realized that you don’t make wine only with your head and your senses. You make wine with your heart. You have to pour your heart and your love into the wine. To me, wines are like my children. You have to love them and guide them like children, and you have to transmit to them the richness of your spirit.”
A Glass Full of Miracles
Napa Valley icon Miljenko “Mike” Grgich has released his memoir, “A Glass Full of Miracles,” in celebration of his 93rd birthday on April 1st. The book, published by Violetta Press, was written with Napa Valley Registereditor Sasha Paulsen and chronicles the long and storied life of a young Croatian boy whose search for freedom and the chance to fulfill his American Dream led him through countless hardships to become one of the most revered and beloved winemaking legends in history.
“My life has been filled with miracles’” Mike Grgich says. “How else do you explain that a little boy from a little village in Croatia now has his wine on display in the Smithsonian Institution, in the same place as Abraham Lincoln’s hat and Neal Armstrong’s space suit?”
Grgich, the youngest in a family of 11, studied enology and viticulture at Croatia’s University of Zagreb with the goal of making great wine. While he was a student, a professor whispered to him about California, a paradise where winemakers were free to make the best wine possible. Just before graduating, he fled Croatia to escape communism. With $32 sewn in his shoe, Grgich finally arrived in California after four years of adversity and uncertainty. The book transports readers along Grgich’s journey from communism to freedom, becoming a California winemaker and earning his place as a Napa Valley icon.
An inductee to the Vintners Hall of Fame, Grgich crafts wines in the classic Old World tradition that have won a stream of local and international awards, establishing Grgich Hills Estate as one of the premier wineries in the U.S. and the world.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the famous Judgment of Paris. In 1976, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who ran a fine wine shop in Paris, decided to promote his wine shop by organizing a blind tasting to coincide with America’s Bicentennial celebrations. For the tasting, he gathered together the best French judges, the finest French wines and he added in a few wines from some upstart winemakers in California. The unimaginable happened: the 1973 Chardonnay, crafted by Mike Grgich for Chateau Montelena, won with the highest total score of 132 points! This momentous verdict placed Napa Valley on the global wine map and set the bar for Chardonnay in Napa Valley.
The following year Grgich joined with Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. Coffee company to open what became Grgich Hills Estate. The first vintage that Grgich crafted at the new winery was one of 221 Chardonnays from around the world entered into “The Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown.” The 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay emerged triumphant with the first place ribbon and the Chicago Tribune called it “The best Chardonnay in the world!”
George Taber, the Time magazine reporter who broke the story of the Paris Tasting and later was the author of “Judgment of Paris” about the famed tasting, praises “A Glass Full of Miracles:” “Mike Grgich may be small in stature, but he is a giant in the world of wine. His new book dramatically tells his full story, which is a great tale of a dream come true…there are a lot more aspects to Mike’s life than just Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s a great and fun read.”
[cool-timeline layout=”horizontal” category=”timeline-stories” skin=”default” designs=”design-3″ show-posts=”20″ order=”ASC” items=”” icons=”NO” story-content=”short” date-format=”Y” based=”default” autoplay=”false” start-on=”0″]
When Miljenko “Mike” Grgich joined forces with Austin Hills in 1977 to form Grgich Hills Cellar, the original label design proposed a rearing horse clenching a baton in its mouth, a colorful feature of the Hills’ family crest. After some friendly debate over the label and how it should be redesigned to reflect the philosophy of the newly formed winery, the winning argument concluded with the point that “Horses do not make wine. Grapes make wine!” and thus, the current design was agreed upon.
Produced by Wine Country artist Sebastian Titus, the highly recognizable label features a prominent cluster of grapes. White wine labels feature yellow chardonnay grapes and red wine labels feature red cabernet sauvignon grapes. In the lower right and left hand corners the partners share equal billing through the depiction of the red and white checkerboard crest of Croatia, Grgich’s homeland in former Yugoslavia, and the familiar rearing horse of the Hills’ family crest.
By 2005, Grgich Hills purchased enough vineyard acreage to source from its own vineyards. The label was amended to add the word “Estate” in recognition of this important milestone and in 2007 the name was officially changed from Grgich Hills Cellars to Grgich Hills Estate.
With 366 acres under our control, we source all of our grapes from our five estate vineyards. As an “Estate Grown” winery, we are better able to control the farming and can utilize our organic farming practices for all of the grapes. Our goal is to create a balanced eco-system in our vineyard and allow the grapes to thrive with our natural farming.
In 2013 the Legacy tier was introduced with the inaugural vintage of the Paris Tasting “Commemorative” Chardonnay. This tier celebrates our most rare and lauded wines and was introduced at Mike Grgich’s 90th birthday party on April 1, 2013.
The Chardonnay is joined by our Miljenko’s Old Vine Zinfandel, Yountville Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon, and Violetta Late Harvest. These bottles boast this unique label based on a woodcut image of Mike Grgich and a traditional Croatian gold braid design.
In 2014 we introduced our Miljenko’s Selection which features single vineyard wines which truly express the Napa Valley’s unique microclimates and terroir. The first wine in this tier to be released was the 2012 Miljenko’s Selection Carneros Chardonnay followed by our Napa Valley Essence Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, and Miljenko’s Selection Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon.
These wines are exclusivley sold at the winery and many are reserved just for members of our wine club.
The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay crafted by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich that was the champion of the 1976 Paris Tasting is part of the exhibit selected by the Smithsonian Institute as one of “101 Objects That Made America.” Chosen from 137 million artifacts in the Smithsonian collection, the Chardonnay is joined by other iconic American objects such as Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit.
The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects chose Julia Child’s Kitchen, which includes the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay crafted by Grgich, in a major exhibition on the revolution in American wine in the second half of the 20th Century, and the book features a photo of the winning wine. The author, Richard Kurin, is the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture, selected objects from the entire collection held by the 19 museums and research centers of the Smithsonian Institution.
Looking over the list of 101 treasures from the Smithsonian’s Collection, Grgich commented: “When I was growing up in the little village of Desne in Croatia, I never would have dared to dream that my wine would be in the same book as America’s “Declaration of Independence,” or in the same museum as Nikola Tesla, the famous inventor who is also from Croatia. When I arrived in the United States, I thought I was the luckiest man alive to have my dream come true of making wine in California, but this recognition far exceeds my American Dream.”
Ivo on Farming Practices
Flavors from Soil
The flavor of wine captured in the wine glass starts with the grapes which are fed by the nutrients found in the vineyard soil.
Organic Farming and Terroir
The concept of terroir is rooted in the idea of place. Organic farming allows the land to be unadulterated, thus the wine will show the true essence of the vineyard.
Fighting Diseases with Healthy Soil
Only healthy soil can promote healthy vines. Farming organically ultimately helps prevent against disease in the vineyard.
Great wine begins in the vineyard. As a farmer you want to do right by the land and be proud of what you grow and produce.
Long term vineyard health
A healthy, organically grown vineyard is far more profitable in the long-term. Vineyards that are not chemically farmed can survive longer, providing fruit for decades.
Healthy Microbes, healthy Plants
Healthy microbes in the soil prepare necessary nutrients that feed the vines. Happy, healthy vines reward us with wonderfully tasting grapes.
We see pollution everywhere these days. Organic farming reduces contaminated water runoff as well as CO2 emissions.
Feeding and Encouraging Microbes
You have to feed cows every day, it’s a no brainer, but we never think about feeding microbes. So you have to feed them and in return they work with plants.
Awards & Accolades
[cool-timeline layout=”horizontal” category=”awards-and-accolades” skin=”default” designs=”design-3″ show-posts=”20″ order=”ASC” items=”” icons=”NO” story-content=”short” date-format=”Y” based=”default” autoplay=”false” start-on=”0″]