Napa Valley


GRGICH, MIKE Winemaker-Vineyard

Miljenko Grgic experienced his first great victory on May 24, 1976 in Paris at the history-making blind tasting of best French against best Californian wines. Nine of the most qualified French wine experts and judges were assembled by Steven Spurrier,      a respected British wine merchant living and working in France, to  blind taste six of California's best Chardonnays against four of France's most famous white Burgundies. Blind tasting means that the identity and origin of the wines are unknown to the judges. The white wine winner, defeating esteemed centuries-old Burgundy properties, was 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Croatian immigrant, MiIjenko Grgic, was the Montelena's winemaker. That was his contribution for the American Bicentennial, and a great tribute to his native Croatia where he was born and educated. Thousands of American newspapers and magazines proclaimed and celebrated the Grgic victory announcing a new age of American wine.

The youngest of eleven children, Mi1jenko Grgic was born April 1, 1923 into a winemaking family in the village of Desne, Croatia. The family, like most of the villagers, owned a small vineyard and winery. "When I was two and a half years old, I was getting wine whit some water in it, " Grgic says. At the age of three, Mi1jenko was stomping grapes besides his father who was already teaching him the skills of how to make wine of his own.

"Love for fine wine brought me to the University of Zagreb, Croatia" recounts Grgic. "I graduated in 1954, majoring in enology and viticulture."  When he needed only to pass a final exam to earn his master's degree in 1954, Mi1jenko fled to Germany without telling even his parents. From there, 18 months later he immigrated to Canada, landing in Halifax in 1956. Knowing very little English and almost penniless, he rode the train for five days to Vancouver, British Columbia where relatives arranged to find a job for him.  Finally, in 1958 he was granted an American visa and joined his relatives in Aberdeen, Washington Grgic's dream was California, vineyards, and winemaking. His relatives in Seattle and his American-born nephew who was a Catholic priest, made some connections for him in Napa Valley where he arrived in time for harvest, on August 15, 1958. He went to work right away for Lee Stewart at Souverain Winery and six months later for Christian Brothers in their Champagne-making operation.

In 1959 the first major step of his lifelong dream was realized when he joined Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard. "He was doing very important research into yeasts, into malolactic fermentation, into spoilage. At Beaulieu Vineyard, Mike Grgich spent nine years as chief chemist in charge of quality control, at that time a crucially important job to protect wines from bacterial problems. He recalls that 1960's were exciting years in the progress of California winemaking, and how at BV many new things were accomplished in the winemaking process. Another important achievement was, Mike says, that "BV wa's one of the first wineries to use millipore filtration for all wines, which made the wines biologically stable forever. This was very important in the development of great wine in Napa Valley." Mike and Andre also succeeded in finding a special strain of yeast that worked well for the Beaulieu wines. Through experimentation with American and French yeasts, they found the yeast called "French White", which produced exceptional wines.

In 1968 Grgic was offered the position to be quality control chemist and winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, just three miles down the road from BV. His new salary was $1,000 a month. There, Mike had an opportunity to experiment with the most modern winery equipment in California - from roto tanks and centrifuge to vacuum filters. As chief enologist, Grgic was working together with Michael Mondavi and supervised all winemaking. After almost fifteen years of pioneering and mastering the technology of winemaking while working with and for somebody else, in 1972 Grgic turned over a new page of his life. He started the art of winemaking. He left Mondavi and accepted a challenging offer from Los Angeles attorney James Barrett and partners Paschich and Hahn, to launch the new Chateau Montelena winery. As a limited partner, winemaker, and vineyardist, Mike's job was to redesign and refurbish the 90-years old and neglected winery, and to install new equipment. His first wine at Montelena, a 1972 Johannisberg Riesling, earned the first prize at the Los Angeles Times testing in 1974. "We have been producing four wines every year," Mike recalls: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Johannisberg Riesling, and Chardonnay. Our first desire was to become a house of Cabernet Sauvignon only. Surprise came very soon when our Chardonnay won many first places in reputable tastings. In a blind Bicentennial tasting in Paris in May of 1976 our Chardonnay took first place over six California Chardonnays and four French Chardonnays." His 1973 Chardonnay stormed Paris in 1976 and he has been winning first, best, and gold medals and prizes ever since, especially after he established his own cellar. He always wanted to have his own winery. This dream came through in 1977. He sold back his limited partnership to the other owners of Chateau Montelena and in 1977 broke ground for Grgich Hills Cellar. His business partner was Austin Hills, a coffee taster and owner of vineyards in Napa Valley. The Hills family once owned the Hills Brothers Coffee Company, which was founded in 1878 in San Francisco.  He invested in Napa Valley vineyards, and along with Mike also in Grgich Hills Cellar, located on Highway 29 just north of Rutherford. Mi1jenko Grgic had the skill and expertise to make great wines, and Hills, owner of established vineyard had a back ground in business andfinance. Grgich Hills wines have been impressive since the very first vintage of 1977. The 1977 Chardonnay was declared the best in the world at the "Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown". When it was over, the winner and still champion was Mi1jenko "Mike" Grgich (Grgich Hills 1977 Chardonnay Sonoma). Columnist and wine expert James Laube reported in The Wine Spectator (Dec. 31, 1992) how Mike Grgich uncorked 21 vintages of his Chardonnay for a tasting at the 1992 California Wine Experience. "Few California vintners can put on a show of more than 20 vintages of Chardonnay and hope to smile when it's over", he remarks and reveals that out of 21 vintages eleven scored each 90 or more points (outstanding), and nine 85 or more points each (very good). "Not only are his Chardonnays stylistically unique and appealing, but they continue to amaze with their ability to age gracefully, while many other California Chardonnays lose their zest within a few years of release," Laube stated. The Grgich Hills' 1979 Chardonnay was served at the White House on October 13, 1981, and 1978 Chardonnay was served to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 at the White House in 1983. At various wine competitions and exhibits in 1988-1989, the 1986 Chardonnay received six Gold Medals. Grgich Hills Chardonnay has become a standard by which other Chardonnays are judged. Mi1jenko Grgic is truly "The King of Chardonnay. " Among his staff members are his daughter Violet, his nephew, Ivo Jaramaz, and several veteran employees. A luscious dessert wine, Violetta, is named after Mi1jenko's daughter, Violet. Made from grapes harvested very late in the season, and kissed by Botritis Cinerea (the noble mold), this wine is reminiscent of fine Sauternes in the nose and has a wonderful balance of sugar and acid.

When Croatia regained its independence, Mi1jenko returned to Croatia in 1990 to celebrate its Independence and to visit his relatives. "I always had a dream to come back if Croatia ever gained independence," repeated Mi1jenko to many friends he met again after 40 years. Mi1jenko made several post war trips to Croatia, always looking and studying what he could do to help rebuild his homeland. "I decided I had something to donate, and that is the knowledge that I have picked up abroad over 44 years", he concluded. When he decided to open a small model winery of his own in Croatia, he found and purchased in 1995 a stone building in the village of Trstenik on the peninsula Pe1jesac. Originally, the "karaula" was built by the military as a border post and was later used as a resort. The building was completely renovated in 1995 and outfitted as a modern winery. He purchased the best equipment and shipped by boat to Croatia: stainless steel jacketed tanks (made in Santa Rosa, California), an automatic bottling line, a micro-filter for sterile bottling, a complete laboratory setup, and an air-conditioning system for the entire winery to assure proper temperature control. New oak barrels were also imported from France to stock the aging cellar. The winery was given the name GRGIC VINA. Mi1jenko Grgic now intends to create the same world-class wines in Croatia as Mike Grgich did in California. The first harvest took place in 1996, producing a white wine called Posip (800 cases), and a red wine called Plavac Mali (1400 cases). The wine Posip was made from famous grape of the name Posip, which has been grown for centuries on the island of Korcula in the Adriatic Sea. The 1998 Posip, with 13.0% alcohol and .70 total acid, earned Gold Medal (Velika Zlatna Medalja) at GAST 2000 Sajam in Split, I March 2000. The 1997 Plavac Mali, released I March 1999, with 13.8% alcohol and .65 acid, has already captured many top prizes, including Gold Medal and Best Croatian Wine Medal at Vinovita International Fair in Zagreb 10 May 2000.

Is California Zinfandel originally Croatian Plavac Mali? In 1994, in celebration of its silver jubilee year, the International Wine and Spirit Competition inaugurated a new trophy award for Zinfandel. The 1989 Grgich Hills Zinfandel was selected as "The- Best Worldwide". The JWSC competition is in fact the Olympics of the wine and spirit industry, where the world's most experienced tasters are judging the best entries from over thirty different countries. When Mi1jenko Grgic came to California in 1958 and obtained his first job in Napa Valley with Souverain Winery, he noticed a remarkable resemblance between the Zinfandel grapes grown in California and the Plavac Mali of his native Croatia. Thirty-five years later, when returning again to Croatia in 1993, he took with him some samples of Zinfandel leaves, grape clusters, and canes to compare them with Plavac Mali. He was convinced that the two were actually the same grape. The University of California at Davis is being engaged in research to verify the origin of the Zinfandel. "If there is any significant difference between the flavor of Plavac Mali and California Zinfandel, the Croatian version seems slightly more elegant," reported Terry Robards from Croatia in his big discovery article "Zinfandel - the mystery solved" (Wine Enthusiasts, August 1996). "Obscured by history, politics and long-held misperceptions, the true origin of America's Zinfandel grape remained hidden - until now", says Robards and opens the mystery door of his and Grgic's discovery on Zinfandel. "Now the mystery apparently has been solved. An array of newfound evidence indicates that Zinfandel came from what is now Croatia." And MiIjenko "Mike" Grgic shows: "This is the area where Zinfandel was born." Robards noted how Mike Grgich, a native of Croatia who left in 1958 for California, uses the word Zinfandel interchangeably with Plavac Mali, Mali Plavac. "Mali Plavac, Plavac Mali, you can say it either way, it's Zinfandell. "..says' Miljenko. Yes, Mike from California is again MiIjenko in Croatia, MiIjenko Grgic from Croatia is Mike Grgich in California, Plavac Mali from Croatia is Zinfandel in California, and Zinfandel from California is again Mali Plavac in Croatia. MiIjenko Grgic (Mike Grgich) points out that the primary motive for opening his small "hobby-sized" winery in Croatia was to bring modern technology and winemaking skills with him from California back to his homeland Croatia in order to make world-class wines again from local grape varieties.


Ljubo Krasic

Outstanding Croatian