“In all my life I have been associated with two W’s.” The beret clad Miljenko “Mike” Grgich is standing in front of us, a group of wine press gathered at the Grgich Hills Estate winery in Napa Valley, to celebrate his 90th birthday. “Guess what that is?” One of the W’s is for wine of course. The other? Women. Grgich is quite the charmer, and one of his favorite sayings is “Good wines and good ladies improve with maturity.” He should know. For 40 years Grgich has been making some of the best, if not the best, Chardonnay in the business, wines which have not only matured well but are still very much alive.
Proof of that ageability? Grgich poured tastes of the 1972 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that he made, where he was winemaker and limited partner, as his inaugural vintage for the new Napa Valley winery. Today this wine is a deeper golden than it must have been when first made. It still has a very noticeable minerality to it, and there’s still a zippiness from the acidity and best of all, the fruit is still beautiful. The hint of age is the caramelized finish, one that lingers and fades slowly.
Grgich wanted to show us the longevity of his wines. This was a generous pour, from his own wine cellar, the last case of the ’72 Chard. While Grgich is famous for the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that beat the best of the French Burgundies in the epic Paris Tasting in 1976, the 1972 foreshadowed its success. The winery operations had to be built from the ground up. The ’72 vintage itself was as challenging as any gets in California – with spring frost, intense summer heat and rain at harvest. The wine turned brown for about two months, then suddenly turned clear and has stayed that way (Grgich points out that the movie Bottleshock got it wrong by portraying the ’73 Chardonnay as turning brown, which it never did). But in May 1975 the ’72 Chard won first place in a blind tasting in San Diego, beating three top French Chardonnays.
You may be surprised to hear that he considers the ’73 Chardonnay the second most important accomplishment in his life. The first? His daughter Violet, who has been working with him at the Grgich Hills winery for 25 years.
A humble but heartwarming statement from the man whose achievements in the wine world, since he first began studying enology and viticulture in his native Croatia in 1949, have earned him legendary status worldwide. He achieved his dream of opening his own winery, Grgich Hills in 1977. He won the 1980 Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown with his 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay. That wine was dubbed the “best Chardonnay in the world.” His cardboard suitcase that he traveled with from Croatia, his winemaking textbooks and signature beret are on permanent display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Grgich was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2008. Roots of Peace presented him with its first-ever Global Citizen Award in 2007, honoring his work to raise awareness of landmines in Croatia through the Mines to Vines campaign.
His is a walking, living history. He arrived in Napa Valley in 1958, worked for André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard in 1959 and Robert Mondavi at the fledgling Robert Mondavi Winery in 1968. In 1976 there were 25 wineries in the valley, and now there are nearly 500. His partnership with Austin Hills in the Grgich Hills Estate Winery, founded in 1977, is perhaps one of the longest and most successful in wine country. He returned to Croatia to open Grgic´ Vina Winery in 1996, making Plavac Mali (red) and Posip (white), both native varietals. It was during this time that Grgich helped discover that the origin of California Zinfandel is Croatia.
Grgich shows no signs of showing down. He has guided his winery on the forefront of innovation and technology. Grgich Hills grows grapes organically, runs on solar power, ferments with native yeasts and recycles everything it can. He tells the story of a professor at U.C. Davis, who in the 1960’s (?verify) said that one day computers would make the perfect wine. Grgich thought to himself, “why did I come to the university for this? To learn about wine when a computer would beat me one day? I was discouraged.” Years later that same professor declared that if ever a perfect wine would be made it would be by an artist, a winemaker. Grgich felt vindicated. “I will not die until I make the perfect wine.”
Grgich also tells us, “I am very proud that I have something in the Museum of American History, that I have made something for American history and I hope I have made something for Croatian history.”
Violet Grgich tells me they’ll do a birthday celebration like this for her father every year now. The official birthday is April 1, and the winery is celebrating “90 years of accomplishments.” The big question, what to pour when Grgich turns 100, in 2023. I’m hoping that there will still be a few drops left of the 1972 Chardonnay, to taste 50 years after it was made.