Miljenko “Mike” Grgich is retiring as President of Grgich Hills Estate Winery and handing the leadership role at the 40-year-old Napa Valley winery to his daughter Violet.
“It’s time,” the 94-year-old Grgich said at an October board meeting, which sanctioned his plans.
“I was surprised,” Violet Grgich said. “I know it’s hard to let go. This winery is his love and his life’s work.”
She added that her ever-youthful father will continue his involvement as advisor and winemaker emeritus at the winery he co-founded with Austin Hills in 1977.
Hills will remain as chairman of the board and director along with his sister Mary Lee Strebl. “I have known Violet since the start of the winery and have seen her develop into a fine executive. Everyone has complete confidence in her as she takes over as president of Grgich Hills Estate,” Hills said.
Ivo Jeramaz, Vice President, continues to lead the winery’s winemaking and estate vineyard program. Jeramaz, who came to the U.S from Croatia where he had studied engineering, changed his career path and joined Grgich in 1986, learning the art of winemaking from his famous Uncle Miljenko.
“He is the best,” Miljenko said. “He is devoted to our wines, and he has a deep connection to the land, and to the best organic farming practices. This says to me that the quality of our wines will always be the best too.”
A native of Napa, Violet Grgich grew up helping her winemaker father, who had escaped from Communist-ruled Croatia in1954 with $32 American dollars hidden in his shoe and a dream to find his way to California. He lived in Germany and Canada before he was able to immigrate to California in 1958.
Grgich, whose family had made wine in a tiny village in Croatia for generations, studied winemaking at the University of Zagreb, and in the Napa Valley he became one of the pioneers who revived winemaking after Prohibition had decimated the industry.
In 1973 he made the wine that catapulted him to world fame when it won the 1976 Judgment of Paris. French judges awarded his chardonnay the most points of any wine in the competition. The event became a turning point for Napa Valley and enabled Grgich to realize his long-held dream, to buy land and build a winery of his own.
When Violet’s father and his business partner, Austin Hills broke ground on the new Grgich Hills Winery on July 4, 1977, 12-year-old Violet sprinkled a bottle of the famous chardonnay at the periphery of the 20-acre parcel.
She worked at the new winery, doing everything from bottling to washing glasses in the tasting room to lab analysis.
At UC Davis, she majored in music but added enology, biology, and chemistry classes to her schedule. After earning a Master’s degree in music at Indiana University, she returned to Grgich Hills to work full-time, eventually becoming Vice-President of Sales and Operations.
An accomplished harpsichordist, she has performed at the winery and at other venues in the Valley and Bay Area such as Festival Napa Valley and the Berkeley Early Music Festival. She lives in Napa with her husband, Colin, a musician and luthier, and their son, Noel.
“I worried when she went away to study music that maybe she would never come back to work at the winery,” Grgich said of his only child. “But she did, and I am very proud of her. She is smart and works hard and she will do a good job.”
Grgich added that he is also happy to be handing over a family-owned winery that is financially stable and successful. “And now I know that my dream is in good hands,” he said.
“I’m excited,” Violet Grgich said. “Our team is amazingly dedicated and talented, and lives the values that my father instilled in all of us: every day do your best, learn something new, and make a friend — and, of course, make the finest wine. Continuing to grow his legacy for future generations is an honor and a joy. I feel I’m ready.”