When Wine Giants Celebrate: Stories from Mike’s 100th Birthday
Miljenko “Mike’ Grgich had been in the Napa Valley for less than a year when he first set foot in the Greystone building, at that time the headquarters for the Christian Brothers Cellars. In his memoir, Mike recalls walking through the doors “with a feeling of pride and awe… it was like entering a castle.” So proud was he that he snapped a photo of the imposing building to send back home to relatives in Croatia, the splendor of his new campus serving as a sort of proof that he was thriving in America.
The Greystone building, where a young Mike honed his craft, was the perfect setting to celebrate his 100th birthday year, where friends, family, and colleagues of Mike could honor his incredible body of work in winemaking, and pay homage to the man whose wines made Napa what it is today.
On May 19th, 2023, a panel of Mike’s peers was called together at the Greystone to taste 19 wines assembled that represented the breadth of work that Mike has done over his 65 years in the Valley. This illustrious group included Tor Kenward of TOR wines, Joel Aiken, who headed winemaking at Beaulieu Vineyard for over 20 years, Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena, Michael and Tim Mondavi, and Mike’s nephew and winemaker here at Grgich Hills Ivo Jeramaz, who had a chance to sample wines crafted by Mike throughout his tenure at some of the most prominent wineries in Napa Valley, as well as those of his own making at Grgich Hills Estate.
Beaulieu Vineyard, Chateau Montelena, and Robert Mondavi Winery all contributed wines that Mike had a hand in composing, ranging in age from 1965 to 1973. A collection of Grgich Hills’ library wines were also poured, from the very first vintage of Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon from 1980 all the way to the inaugural release of Crljenak Kaštelanski from 2019. The panelists and audience were in agreement on all of the aged wines: no matter red or white, there was not a single wine that was not made more complex and interesting with age.
The panelists’ impressions of the wines were complemented by fond recollections of Mike’s tutelage and guidance.
Bo Barrett, remarking about his first time working with Mike, recalled, “I was a beach bum – long blonde hair in a ponytail, and I showed up with my friends, and I think Mike was determined to get rid of these beach bums, so he sent us out to the vineyard to pick star thistle by hand. I asked for a pair of gloves, and he said: ‘No. No gloves. You pick star thistle every day, you have a pair of gloves that will never wear out.’ He was right because my hands got rough.”
The consensus among all who worked with him was that Mike was a perfectionist when it came to his work. Though he may be Mike’s own flesh and blood, Ivo Jeramaz was not exempt from Mike’s strict approach to winemaking.
“After we started biodynamic, I got two concrete eggs without Mike’s blessing,” Jeramaz said. “Everybody was doing it. You had to have an egg. Mike came in and saw them and said: ‘Get rid of them.’ I didn’t do it right away. The next time he saw them, he said: ‘Get rid of them. You have one week. It’s either them or you.’ It took me five days to sell them very quickly.”
Mike himself was able to participate and try the wines he spent a lifetime perfecting, and though the toll of a hundred-year life has confined him to a wheelchair, he was still brimming with joy: waving at his old colleagues, thanking everyone present, and even singing Croatian ballads about the blessing of life. The following day, the panelists joined more guests for a birthday celebration at the winery, featuring traditional Croatian food and dance, speeches from longtime friends, and of course, Mike’s favorite: a decadent chocolate cake. Warren Winiarski joined in the celebrations on the second day, for a Judgement of Paris victors reunion. The pair of legendary Napa Valley winemakers are pictured below.
Interested in becoming a part of this historic celebration of Mike, his legacy, and, of course, his wine? There’s still time! We’ll be honoring Mike for the remainder of 2023 with all sorts of special events, the next of which is our annual founding party, the Croatian Extravaganza, which will be dedicated to Mike this year on the 46th anniversary of the establishment of Grgich Hills Estate. Tickets are available on our event page HERE.