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A Cellar Full of Miracles
By Marko Pulji | Published  01/18/2007 | People , Croatian Cuisine | Unrated
Mike Grgich reflects on life, wine and improving with age
A Cellar Full of Miracles

By SASHA PAULSEN
Register Features Editor
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Mike Grgich, owner of Grgich Hills Winery and one of the winemakers who participated in the historic 1976 Paris Tasting.

When the Smithsonian opens its exhibit celebrating the American wine industry, among the items on display will be the suitcase and a stack of books that Mike Grgich took with him when he left his native Croatia in the 1950s, setting out to make his mark on wine history.

Grgich was catapulted to fame in 1976 as the winemaker who crafted one of the Napa Valley wines that bested the French in the blind tasting now called the Judgment of Paris. Although this put California on the international wine map, it's only one landmark in a life filled with honors, achievements and praise, not to mention legendary wines.

Today, sitting near his wine collection at Grgich Hills Winery in Rutherford, the octogenarian, wearing his trademark beret and exuding elfish charm and European savoir faire, reflected on his long career.

"Try today to do better than you did yesterday, and better tomorrow than you did today - and if you are lucky to live a long time, you can do a lot of great things," he advised.

Although hard work has characterized his success, Grgich also pays credit to another element - miracles. "I believe in miracles," he said. "I have seen them several times."

Wine has been part of Grgich's life since he was born, the youngest of 11 children in the small village of Desne, Croatia. His father was a respected winemaker and young Miljenko, at the age of 3, would be put into a vat of grapes and told to "walk around and have a good time. If I was hungry I ate grapes," he said. "Every September my feet still itch."

Grgich added that he slept in a loft over the fermenting tank, and by age 3, he was drinking a mixture of half water, half wine, which, he said, helped sanitize the water.

It was from his father that Grgich learned his lifelong philosophy. Father told son to do his best and learn something new every day, and by the end of 365 days, he'd "be a better person than you were at the start of the year."
Grgich, far right, follows Pastor Manuel Chavez of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Calistoga as he performs the blessing over the winerys sauvignon blanc grapes in September 2006.

Passage to paradise

Grgich went to the University of Zagreb to study enology. "This was when the Communists were in power," he said. "My professor visited California, and we all waited to hear what America looks like. He was supposed to say bad, but when we asked him what California really looked like he said, 'It's paradise.' And I wanted to go to America.

"Icame to the U.S. for many reasons," he said. "The first was liberty."

This was not accomplished overnight.

"It took me four years to come to America," he said. He went first to West Germany and then to Canada. "I set out from Germany with my suitcase and 40 books."

What finally got him a ticket to paradise was an invitation to work for Lee Stewart, the owner and winemaker at Souverain Cellars in the Napa Valley.

He arrived at a time when the industry was just beginning to revive from the years of dormancy following Prohibition. Grgich spent the next 19 years working with the iconic figures from that time, with little notion that he would become one himself.

"I just knew, this is a place where I can learn," he said. After Souverain, he worked with Andre Tchelistchef, considered the father of modern California winemaking - and with Brother Timothy at Christian Brothers. When Robert Mondavi left Charles Krug to start his own winery, Grgich, admiring Mondavi's vision and energy, asked him for a job. Grgich's 1969 cabernet sauvignon, crafted at Mondavi, was named best California cabernet in a wine tasting organized by Robert Balzer of the Los Angeles Times.

Grgich's next move was one that made wine history. He went to work for Chateau Montelena, the Calistoga winery that had been founded in 1972 by Ernie Hahn and Jim Barrett, both from Los Angeles, who invited Grgich to come on board as winemaker and as a limited partner. Owning his own winery, he said, even as a limited partner, had been his dream.

At Chateau Montelena he went to work making the chardonnay that would eventually travel to Paris and in 1976, score 132 points, the highest of any of the wines, red or white, that had been included in a blind tasting organized by Stephen Spurrier, an Englishman, who never doubted that French wines would dominate the California upstarts. The results made headlines around the world, when Grgich's Chateau Montelena chardonnay not only came in first, but two other white wines, from Chalone Vineyards and Spring Mountain, scored third and fourth. And furthermore, Warren Winiarski's 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon took top honors for reds, beating the best of the Bordeaux wines. Clearly, someone in California had learned a thing or two about winemaking.

"A miracle," Grgich said modestly.

King of chardonnay

The following year Grgich was able to fully realize his dream of owning his own winery when he and Austin Hills founded Grgich Hills in Rutherford. On July 4, 1977, they broke ground. In 1980, Grgich's chardonnay scored another impressive victory in "The Great Chicago Showdown," a competition of 221 chardonnays. His 1977 vintage took first place and earned him the title, "King of Chardonnay."

Today, the winery continues to thrive as a family-owned winery in an industry increasingly dominated by international conglomerates. After starting with 18 acres, he now owns and farms 366 acres, which produce merlot, cabernet sauvignon, fume blanc, a late harvest dessert wine named Violetta (for his daughter, Violet), and of course, chardonnay. The vineyards are farmed organically and biodynamically, and the wine is all estate grown.

Although Violet Grgich and Grgich's nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, are now actively involved in all aspects of running the winery - with Violet focusing on marketing and Jeramaz on the vineyards and production - it's Grgich's spirit and intuition that continue to guide the winery.

Grgich noted that in 30 years Grgich Hills has never suffered a financial losing year. "I was fortunate that I studied business," he said. He also had early experience in Croatia to help him here as well. At 14, he said, he was managing a grocery store in his village. "I learned an important lesson. When a customer comes in, find out what he needs. It's stayed with me in the wine business. I find out what wine needs to do for (the customers).

"I believe making wine is like a chain of so many links," he said. "It's not just bio(dynamic) or organic or stainless steel or oak. We are making wine better every year."

Giving back

In addition, Grgich has never forgotten his homeland, to which he traces the roots of his achievements. Thirty-six years after he left Croatia, he returned. "In April (1990) the Communists were out. In May I was back after 36 years. I asked what can I do to help." The answer from the new president of Croatia was "Do what you've been doing in America. Make wine."

Grgich searched out a peninsula he felt was the optimum place for growing grapes and founded a new winery there. "It will be the Napa Valley of Croatia," he predicted."My idea was to help Croatia create world-class wines, to draw on my experience, and bring home a world of knowledge" that he's acquired since he left. "It was my gift. After all - I had lived there 30 years."

His return to Croatia also allowed him to investigate an idea that had puzzled him since he'd first arrived in the Napa Valley: the origin of zinfandel grapes.

"The first day at Souverain I recognized the grapes," he said. "Ithought I was in Croatia." The zinfandel grapes resembled the Plavac Mali vines he had tended as a boy. Knowing that the origins of zinfandel were unknown, Grgich was persuaded it could well be Croatia. In an attempt to "open a window" he succeeded in interesting Dr. Carole Meredith of UC Davis in the mystery as well as Prof. Ivan Pejic and Prof. Edi Maletic from the University of Zagreb. Eventually Maletic was able to establish that the DNA of old Croatian vines, called Crljenak Kastelanski, and zinfandel were the same. The Crljanak vine has many offspring in Croatia, including Plavac Mali. "I recognized the roots of zin were in Croatia," Grgich said proudly.

He also has supported Roots of Peace, the international campaign to rid the world of land mines and replace them with vines, and traveled with Roots founder Heidi Kuhn to Croatia to inspect an area that had been cleared of mines with funds donated by Grgich Hills.

The focus of his life, however, remains at the winery he founded 30 years ago as he continues to implement the philosophy he learned from his father, to keep striving, keep climbing, keep getting better. He's planning a 30-year celebration for July 7 this year. "Seven-seven-oh seven," he said. "It's easy to remember."

"Believing in God has meant a great deal," he concluded. "Most of the things that have happened to me have been a great opportunity."

Along with a few miracles.

Source: http://www.napavalleyregister.com/articles/2007/01/18/features/food_and_wine/doc45af80ba86677048461143.txt

Formated for CROWN by Marko Pulji
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