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Family tradition continues at Grgich Hills - The Croatian connection
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  06/29/2007 | Croatian Cuisine , Business , People | Unrated
The expatriate has single-handedly revived the wine industry in Croatia

Family tradition continues at Grgich Hills

Mike Grgich

By David Stoneberg

Thursday, June 28, 2007 12:27 AM PDT

Look past the Mike Grgich bobble heads, his trademark berets and the other knickknacks that sell Grgich Hills wines to the public and one finds not kitsch, but a lot of hard work. Years and decades of work, lovingly done with a passion to excel.

Of his life's work, 84-year-old Mike Grgich says he is clearly not done, but adds, "All of my life's work is coming to fruition, unexpectedly."

Grgich, Austin Hills of Hills Brothers Coffee and his sister, Mary Lee Strebl, founded the winery on July 4, 1977. They will mark the anniversary with two events: A private tasting of Grgich Hills' library wines on Monday and a very public 30th anniversary party, "Saturday Night Fever," complete with disco music from the Bay Area's top '70s cover band, "The Cheeseballs," on July 7.

The card advertising the event is a reprint of the "Saturday Night Fever" movie poster. It shows Grgich posing as John Travolta, dressed in a white suit and his daughter, Violet Grgich, in a red dress posed on a 1970s dance floor.

Let go of the marketing hype and Grgich said it is important to mark the anniversary, to celebrate the quality the Grgich Hills team has achieved in 30 years.

"We will have about 30 friends, wine writers, consumers, restaurant owners, professors, all who worked together with us for 30 years," he said earlier this week. "We will taste all the vintages and remind everyone of the old days and how the wines used to be. We will compare them to our new styles of wines as our style is constantly evolving."

For more than the past 20 years, Grgich Hills has included Violet Grgich, who is co-proprietor and vice president of sales and operations and his nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, vice president of vineyards and production.

The Croatian connection

Jeramaz, who was born in Croatia and educated at the University of Zagreb, is just one of the America-Croatia ties fostered by Grgich, who also was born and educated in Croatia.

Others connections include Grgich's life-long love of his native land - he left Croatia because of communism and returned a month after communism fell in 1990; his support of research that eventually proved the Croatian crljenk grapevine is genetically identical to zinfandel; his fund-raising efforts to replace landmines, leftover from the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 to 1995 with vineyards; and his three-story winery that produces 3,000 cases of high-quality red and white wines.

The expatriate has single-handedly revived the wine industry in Croatia, and has received the Golden Kuna Award for his entrepreneurial efforts.

Additionally, the Roots of Peace organization honored Grgich, along with Jordan's Queen Noor, for their efforts to raise landmine awareness around the globe. More than one million landmines have been removed from Croatian fields.

"The whole of Croatia knows about my actions," he said, "And wines are being drunk all over Croatia. Three thousand cases are not much, but they are being consumed over there at a better price than in America. I used to import half the wine to America, and sell half over there, but since tourism has increased, we sell the wines for twice as much money than before."

Grgich adds that one of his purposes of building a world-class winery on the Adriatic Coast was not to make a business out of it, but to demonstrate how to make world-class wines with locally-grown grapes.

Last week, Jeramaz was in Croatia planting vineyards in land that his uncle had bought. Why would he fly thousands of miles just to oversee the planting of a vineyard? Because he cares for the land and both he and his uncle believe in paying attention to the smallest details.

Art and style

Jeramaz said growing grapes and farming, much like making wine, is an art."It is the most beautiful profession I know," he said, "Growing grapes and turning them into wine. If it is a mechanical process, then it is boring. But what we do is anything but boring, just like raising children. We don't get bored with our children after three years; it is the same with the vineyards."

Grgich added, "The art of winemaking is hard to achieve, but it is possible."

His nephew said because of Grgich's efforts in the past 30 years, the company has a strong foundation, an established name and style. Just this year, Grgich Hills bought additional vineyards and is producing wines only made from their own vineyards. Additionally, all 366 acres in the five vineyards are being farmed organically and biodynamically, which makes the vines stronger and adds more flavor to the grapes, which adds to the wine.

Jeramaz said the effort to make great wine is one of teamwork. "It's not about genius or a secret formula, it's about everyday care. You have to be in the vineyard every day and observe. I'm learning every day and every year about the vineyards. I feel like I'm just at the beginning as it makes many years to get the experience that Mike has."

Jeramaz and his wife have six children, ages 18 months to 14 years old. He said he takes his children to the vineyard every day or every weekend. He adds that he thinks one of his offspring, or maybe Violet's son, will continue the tradition of making wine.

"We have a good family team and we want to grow together in this business," Jeramaz said."Our goal is to go on with this name for many generations. In Europe, wineries have been established for 10 generations. I would love to continue this brand for many generations and I believe we'll do that."


Formatted for CROWN by Marko Pulji
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