Napa Winemaker Turns 90

Croatian immigrant Miljenko 'Mike' Grgich reflects on a remarkable life and his famous Chardonnays

by Paul Franson
mike grgich austin hills
Austin Hills (left) helps celebrate the 90th birthday of his long-time business partner Miljenko 'Mike' Grgich (right).
Rutherford, Calif.—Celebrating his 90th birthday with a tasting and lunch for media members and friends, California winemaking legend Miljenko “Mike” Grgich reminded his guests about familiar facts from his life and added many interesting tidbits.

Grgich, of course, is the immigrant winemaker from Croatia who has worked in Napa Valley for 55 years and co-owned Grgich Hills Cellar (now Grgich Hills Estate) since 1977. He was the winemaker responsible for the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that, along with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon, forever made California a legitimate contender with France in winemaking.

In the famed Paris tasting of 1976, organized by Steven Spurrier to celebrate America’s bicentennial, those two wines beat the best of white Burgundy and red Bordeaux wines, a decision that sent shock waves through the wine world and still reverberates today after many similar comparisons.

Ironically Jim Barrett, who owned Chateau Montelena, died just a short time before Grgich’s anniversary, and he and Grgich remained on strained terms. Without mentioning him by name, Grgich complained during his celebration about owners who act like they’re winemakers, saying it’s a phenomenon that continues today.

Grgich solved that problem by creating his own winery with help from Austin Hills, who provided capital and vines, and seems happy to remain in the background even today.

Born in Yugoslavia
    New Chardonnay styled after 1973

    Grgich Hills Estate introduced a new Chardonnay, the third in its line, to coincide with Mike Grgich's 90th birthday celebration. The "Paris Tasting Chardonnay" measures 14.1% alcohol and 6.9 grams per liter titratable acidity. It was styled to be similar to the famous 1973 Chardonnay.
Grgich was born in Desne, a small town in what is now Croatia, then Yugoslavia, in 1923. As a child, he helped in the family’s vineyard, and then managed its store until the Communists came in 1943. He soon entered business school, graduating to become a bookkeeper of a state-owned co-op.

In 1949, he began studying viticulture and enology at the University of Zagreb, and took a scholarship to study in Germany. Instead of returning to Yugoslavia, however, he immigrated to Canada, and then got a job with Lee Stewart of Souverain Cellars in Napa Valley in 1958.

After a short time there he went to work for Brother Timothy Diener at Christian Brothers Winery, then joined legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard.

In 1969 he joined Robert Mondavi’s seminal winery and then joined Chateau Montelena as winemaker in 1972.

In 1976, the Paris tasting sealed his place in history, and a year later, he and Austin Hills, a member of the Hills Bros. Coffee family and already a grapegrower in Napa Valley, broke ground for their winery in Rutherford. It remains there today, having expanded over time.

Nephew and daughter in charge
Grgich’s nephew Ivo Jeramaz joined the company in 1986, working under Grgich and then closely with him. He is clearly in charge of winemaking and viticulture today, serving as vice president of vineyards and production, and he shares management duties with Mike’s daughter Violet Grgich, vice president of sales and marketing.

In 1996, Grgich opened Grgic Vina winery in Croatia. In 2007, he received a long-delayed degree from the University of Zagreb.

One of Grgich’s proudest moments came in helping professor Carol Meredith from the University of California, Davis, determine that Zinfandel, considered California’s iconic grape, was identical to Crljenak, an obscure Croatian variety.

Other honors followed: His cardboard suitcase, books and beret are in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., along with a bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (and one of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet).

Looking back, Grgich takes delight that U.S. president Reagan served French president François Mitterrand Grgich-Hills Chardonnay in France.

His latest honor was being featured in the Croatian Radiotelevision documentary “Like the Old Vine,” which highlighted his remarkable life.

Once rising to 100,000 cases per year, the winery’s production has dropped to a more comfortable level of 60,000 to 70,000 for optimum quality.

Organic vineyards
Over the years, the winery also bought vineyards that now total 366 acres in Napa Valley, all certified organic. “You need to control the vineyards to make great wine,” claims Grgich.

While Jeramaz notes that better grapes and equipment are available today, the winery has stuck to the vibrant style Grgich has always espoused: emphasizing acidity, elegance and finesse, not voluptuousness. It’s a style that seems once more to be popular for connoisseurs.

In a nod to the past—and future—Jeramaz uses large (900- to 1,500-gallon oak casks for fermenting some of their Chardonnays to avoid excess oak flavors, but those casks contain cold plates to control temperature, and they stir the lees to create richness.

The winery practices organic grapegrowing, another old-fashioned technique that’s new again. Grgich delights in a movable coop that Jeramaz introduced for chickens that eat bugs and renew the soil, saying, “And I eat the eggs!”

Grgich-Hills’ 50-year-old 5-acre Zinfandel vineyard in Calistoga, Calif., grows on St. George roots, and the crew limits each arm to one bud to reduce yield from the productive rootstock.

Even more surprising, the winery has 100 acres of Chardonnay planted on AXR-1 rootstock in Carneros. Though the vineyard is infected with phylloxera, Grgich says he’s lost only two vines to the pest.

The secret is a unique site: about 1 or 2 feet below the rich clay topsoil, the property is sandy loam. Grgich withheld water from the vines, forcing the roots deep into the sand, where Philomena can’t survive. Even now, because the site drains so well, they can carefully manage irrigation for maximum quality.

The same situation applies to the winery’s vineyards in nearby American Canyon.

The winery has adopted sustainable practices, from solar panels on the roof to recycling paper, bottles, cork and other products.

Today Mike Grgich lives in Palm Springs, leaving its fortune primarily in the hands of his daughter and nephew. He says his nose, the source of much of his good fortune, can’t take the pollen and other allergens of Napa Valley any more. Aside from a hearing aid and a cane, Grgich remains as impish as always.

Bottle shock in 1972 Chardonnay
He couldn’t help taking a swipe at the movie “Bottle Shock,” a fanciful version of the Paris tasting that omitted any mention of him, though it showed a man in his iconic beret in profile in one scene.

He noted that the 1973 wine that won the tasting didn’t have bottle shock, but the 1972 did. It turned brown after bottling, and Grgich was afraid for his job. “It was the only wine I ever made that did that,” he claims.

Fortunately it cleared up, and tasted 41 years later it hardly shows its age. Like his other wines, it has aged well due to its balance, including crisp acidity and relatively moderate alcohol levels.

Mike Grgich has seen many changes in wine during his long involvement in the business, but it’s surely satisfying to see more and more other winemakers emulate his style and ideals. That may be his greatest legacy after all.

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