Mike Grgich

Who is Mike Grgich?

Who is Mike Grgich? Arguably, the most influential winemaker in the New World.

Celebrating his 90th birthday on April 1, 2013, Mike Grgich, winemaker and founder of the famous Grgich Hills Estate, may have had more influence on New World wines and their popularity and success than any other man in history. Inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2008, his 50th year of winemaking, Mike is a Napa Valley legend. His most celebrated achievement came in 1976 when a Chardonnay he crafted for Chateau Montelena beat the very best wines in France in the now famous blind tasting known as The Judgment of Paris. This unexpected triumph thrust California wines onto the world stage, legitimizing this region as a serious wine producer for the first time. “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 word, such as Argentina and Chile. They realized that if we could do it, so could they.”

Miljenko Grgich was born on April 1, 1923 in Croatia’s Dalmatian coast into a family of third-generation winemakers. One of 11  children, he began stomping grapes at age three and later went to business college and then 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.

Discouraged by the communist regime in Yogoslavia, Miljenko fled to freedom. After some time in West Germany and Canada he found his way to his dream destination: America’s state of California. He immediately went to work in Napa Valley’s Souverain Winery and after one harvest moved to Beaulieu Vineyard, eventually becoming 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.”

Then came his infamous time at Chateau Montelena, four years after this success he partnered with Austin Hills of Hills Bros. Coffee to fulfill his dream of owning his own family winery in the new world – Thus Grgich Hills in born. And then once again, victorious for his 1977 Chardonnay in “The Great Chicago Showdown”, the largest blind tasting to date, Mike emerged as the “King of Chardonnay”.

In the years since, his influence as gone well beyond award winning wines, international influence and inventive wine methods; Mike continues his Croatian-born commitment to making wine as naturally as possible and continues to lead the industry, and farm without artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. His accolades further include being the subject of documentary “Like the Old Vine” that premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival and 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 exhibit focuses on the revolution in American wine in the second half of the 20th-Century. It 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 wine making text books and his famous beret.

Impressively, at 90 years of age, Mike continues to run Grgich Hills Estate along with his daughter, Violet Grgich, and nephew, Ivo Jeramaz. Mike’s legacy is his passion, and as he says: “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.”

His influence in the wine industry has been far-reaching, and we tip our hat to his famous beret and thankful for all the riches he brought with him as he carried his cardboard suitcase to America 59 years ago.

Vine & Table Featured Grgich Wines:

Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
The long, cool growing season produced an elegant wine with aromas of black fruit and licorice with a touch of black pepper on the finish. Nicely balanced between acid, fruit and tannin, this wine is the perfect partner with roasted beef, cured ham or creamy cheeses.

Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2010
Following the classic style that Miljenko “Mike Grgich” established when he began in 1977, the wine’s crisp, yet rich flavors of tropical fruit, white peaches and hint of mineral are perfect for fresh seafood, roasted chicken, grilled pork or creamy cheeses.


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 Vine & Table #301