Winemakers have much in common with fingerprints, each leaving their own indelible impression on everything they touch, a considerable amount of which isn’t always immediately detectable. Although experts agree on few things in the wide world of wine, almost all concede that wine is born in the vineyard but shaped by the winemaker, often in his or her own image. Sound odd? Perhaps, but then again maybe not, once you consider the incredible case that is Mike Grgich.
A true original in an industry that soaks up creativity like vines absorb sunlight and water, Grgich is a legend among legends and an undeniable master.
Growing Up Grgich
If not recognized by his toothy grin and smiling eyes alone, people often see Grgich coming thanks to his trademark beret, a long-standing wardrobe habit he picked up in his college days while dodging the weather in rain-soaked Zagreb. He is spry for 91, though he is understandably a little less well-traveled than he once was. He is known for having an ornery streak that he himself has on occasion referred to as something akin to “old-world sensibilities”. It’s a cheekiness and a zest for life that almost belies his humble, hardscrabble beginnings, but at the same time hints at what it takes to drive a poor man from a communist country to become the “king” of California.
Miljenko “Mike” Grgich was born on April 1, 1923, in Desne, Croatia. Desne is a small village on the country’s Dalmatian coast, so tiny it boasted a mere 130 inhabitants in the 2001 census. Grgich remained in Croatia through college, when he studied viticulture and enology at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Agriculture, but his studies introduced him to the budding wine scene in California. The path to the United States wasn’t fast or direct, beginning with Grgich’s journey to (then West) Germany, where he studied under a fellowship. From Germany, Grgich emigrated to Canada, where he worked at a paper mill, placing position-wanted ads in a wine bulletin. Souverain Cellars answered, and he was finally off to Napa.
A Pioneer in California Wine Making
Grgich may have been new to California, but he came armed with a formal wine education and plenty of ideas. He’s often cited as a stickler for quality, relentlessly chasing after ways to make better wine. He was an essential part of breakthroughs such as cold sterilization, malolactic fermentation, and oak-barrel aging, all things that epitomize much of the last 50 years of California winemaking. What would that classic California Chardonnay be without the round, supple creaminess that malolactic fermentation provides or the toasty notes the wine absorbs as it sits and matures in carefully chosen oak barrels? Whether a fan of the style or not, no wine afficionado can argue that Grgich’s contributions were anything less than markedly significant.
The Judgment of Paris
In 1976, a British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier organized a blind tasting to be carried out in Paris but featuring wines both from France and California. Largely regarded as a stunt at the time, it was widely expected that the French wines would sweep both the red and white categories, making it all the more stunning when the nine exceeding-qualified judges unwittingly selected the 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay as the champion of the day. The runners-up included such big names as the 1970 Mouton-Rothschild and 1973 Meursault Charmes Roulot — this was no stacked deck.
The repercussions were instantaneous and monumental. Suddenly, California was on the map, and even Spurrier, who himself sold only French wine and had expected the California entrants to do no more than make a respectable showing, found himself enlightened. It also opened up a dialogue between French and American vintners; armed with new-found mutual respect and acceptance, the two countries began corresponding, collaborating, and swapping innovations.
The winemaker behind Château Montelena who steered America to victory? One Mike Grgich….
Grgich has talked about about the judgment’s impact, saying,“For years, everybody in the world believed that only French soils could produce great wines. 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.”
It’s a profound statement that indicates Grgich knows his achievements reflect not only on him, but also on the entire future of winemaking. His success paved the way for up-and-coming winemakers in previously disregarded regions to get their foot in the door, to be taken seriously by the wine-loving elite, and to have a real chance at being heard.
(In 2008, and independent movie called Bottle Shock was produced based on the story of the Judgment of Paris of 1976 and in particular Château Montelena’s involvement. Grgich declined to sign off on the script, citing numerous inaccuracies, and the movie was released without so as a mention of the man behind the magic. In 2006, the United States Congress set the record straight with a resolution that recognized Grgich’s role in the tasting, and the California legislature passed a similar resolution honoring his contribution to the state’s wine industry.)
A Life of Accolades
Having last year entered into his 90th decade, Grgich has plenty of life to look back on, and the successes are many. In 2008, he celebrated his 50th harvest in Napa. Celebrations abounded, culminating with his induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame. No less an authority than the Smithsonian Institution has recognized his importance by displaying the book-filled suitcase he toted with him when he left his homeland in pursuit of the dream.
Somewhere in between lugging that suitcase to the promised land and his pseudo-retirement, he found the time to work at such leading lights as Christian Brothers Cellars, Beaulieu Vineyard, and Robert Mondavi, as well as at Château Montelena, of course, and continuing on to launch his very own winery, Grgich Hills Cellar (now Grgich Hills Estate) in Rutherford, California. The very first vintage beat out 220 other competitors at the Great Chardonnay Showdown in 1980.
Mike Grgich has a laundry list of triumphs impossible to accurately catalog in such a short space, but his legacy is more than a litany of awards and ratings anyway. Grgich is many things to many people: father, mentor, the winemaker behind your favorite buttery Chardonnay, a visionary, a ground breaker. Grgich is all these things and more, but perhaps biggest and broadest is something that far exceeds the boundaries of the wine industry – he’s quite simply the embodiment of the American dream. He had goals, ideas, and plans, and he made them all come true. That, in itself, is worthy of celebration.