"I realized that you don’t make wine only with your head and your senses. You make wine with your heart." -Miljenko "Mike" Grgich
An inductee to the Vintners Hall of Fame, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich is a legend in the Napa Valley.
Over the past 50 years, Mike’s wines, crafted in the classic Old World tradition, have won a stream of California and international prizes, establishing Grgich Hills Estate as one of the premier wineries in the U.S. and the world. Passionate and relentless in his quest for quality, Mike has also helped pioneer a number of significant breakthroughs in California winemaking techniques, including the use of cold sterilization and malolactic fermentation and the use of oak barrels for proper aging.
Mike’s most celebrated achievement came in 1976 when a Chardonnay he crafted for Chateau Montelena beat the very best wines in France in a now famous blind tasting in Paris. This event that stunned the wine world catapulted the Napa Valley into the front ranks of the leading wine-producing regions of the world.
“For years, everybody in the world believed that only French soils could produce great wines,” Mike explains. “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 world, such as Argentina and Chile. They realized that if we could do it, so could they.”
Mike’s success in America grew naturally from his family roots deep in the soil of his native Croatia. Miljenko Grgich was born April 1, 1923, in the village of Desne on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. The family owned a small winery and vineyard, and every year his father made wine, as did his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. As a toddler, and one of 11 children, Miljenko was weaned from his mother to a 50-50 mixture of water and red wine and at the tender age of three he began stomping grapes. Later he went to business college and then, in 1949, he went to the University of Zagreb, where he studied chemistry, enology, microbiology, soil biology, meteorology, irrigation, plants, fruit and grapes, all in preparation for becoming a winemaker.
Mike was miserable, though, under communist rule in Yugoslavia. So, in 1954 in search of freedom, he fled to West Germany and then made his way to Canada. But his dream destination was always America. A professor in Zagreb had told him that California was paradise, and he had long been inspired by stories of self-made Americans like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller. In 1958, Mike finally made it: with one small suitcase he arrived in the Napa Valley.
Immediately he went to work for Lee Stewart, founder of Souverain Winery and an early Napa Valley pioneer. After one harvest, Mike moved to Christian brothers and then on to Beaulieu Vineyard where he spent nine years working alongside the legendary Russian winemaker André Tchelistcheff. In 1968, eager for more responsibility, Mike became chief enologist at the most innovative winery at the time, the Robert Mondavi Winery. “In 1969, I made my first Cabernet for Robert Mondavi,” Mike recalls. “I introduced malolactic fermentation and other methods we had been developing at Beaulieu. Then, in an important blind tasting, fifteen California winemakers proclaimed ours to be the best Cabernet in all of California.”
In 1972, Mike joined Chateau Montelena as winemaker and limited partner. Four years later the success of his Chardonnay at the Paris tasting led to fulfilling his lifelong dream of owning his own winery. In 1977, joining forces with Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. Coffee family, Mike created Grgich Hills Cellar, located in Rutherford, the heart of the Napa Valley. Soon, Mike scored another huge victory in “The Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown.” In 1980, 221 Chardonnays were brought together for a historic first, the largest blind tasting ever held of wines made from a single varietal. And Mike’s Grgich Hills 1977 Chardonnay emerged triumphant with the first place ribbon. Mike soon became affectionately known as the “King of Chardonnay.”
Mike’s influence also continued to spread. In 1996, he returned to his native Croatia and opened a new winery, Grgić Vina, to make fine wines and to bring Croatia the latest in modern winemaking techniques. In one of his proudest accomplishments, in 2001 Mike played an instrumental role along with U.C. Davis Professor Carole Meredith in tracing the mysterious roots of California Zinfandel back to his native Croatia.
In 2006 the winery switched to solar power and in 2007 Grgich Hills became completely estate grown and changed its name to Grgich Hills Estate in recognition of that significant achievement. Today, Grgich Hills owns 366 acres spread among five vineyards throughout the Napa Valley and producing award-winning estate grown wines. Mike’s continued commitment to making wine as naturally as possible has led to farming without artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
In 2012, Mike was the subject of documentary “Like the Old Vine” that premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival. Filmed by Croatian National Television in the Napa Valley, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and Mike’s birthplace in Desne, Croatia, it describes Mike’s extraordinary life, achievements and how his “American Dream” became a reality. In 2013, the documentary was named winner of the Grand Jury’s Special Award at the 20th annual Oenovideo International Grape & Wine Film Festival in Carcassonne-Minervois, France.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC featured Mike in its first major exhibition on food history – “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” that opened in November 20, 2012. A major section of the exhibition focuses on the revolution in American wine in the second half of the 20th-Century. The exhibition features the 1973 Chardonnay crafted by Mike that won the 1976 Paris Tasting and includes the small cardboard suitcase he traveled with when he left Croatia, his winemaking text books and his famous beret.
In 2013, the Smithsonian magazine published a list of “101 Objects That Made America” and a book, History of America in 101 Objects, drawn from the 137 million artifacts held by the 19 museums and research centers of the Smithsonian Institution. Among such priceless historical objects as Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit are the two bottles of wine that triumphed at the 1976 Judgment of Paris: the Chardonnay made by Mike Grgich, then working at Chateau Montelena, and the Cabernet Sauvignon made by Warren Winiarski, founder of Stags Leap Wine Cellars.
Mike’s life story is so intertwined with Zinfandel that a documentary on the origins of this Croatian-born grape featured his contributions. Filmed by Croatian National Television, “Dossier Zinfandel” premiered at the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival in November.
Turning 93 years old on April 1, 2016, Mike continues to guide Grgich Hills Estate and to plan for its future. While some Napa Valley wineries look to expand, Mike and his daughter, Violet Grgich, and his nephew Ivo Jeramaz prefer to stay small and to focus on improving the quality of their vineyards and wines, always according to Mike’s unique artistic and intuitive touch. As Mike explains, “There is no sure-proof scientific formula for making great wines. Over the years I have learned to communicate with the wines and how to nurture them. I realized that you don’t make wine only with your head and your senses. You make wine with your heart. You have to pour your heart and your love into the wine. To me, wines are like my children. You have to love them and guide them like children, and you have to transmit to them the richness of your spirit.”
Napa Valley icon Miljenko “Mike” Grgich has released his memoir, “A Glass Full of Miracles,” in celebration of his 93rd birthday on April 1st. The book, published by Violetta Press, was written with Napa Valley Registereditor Sasha Paulsen and chronicles the long and storied life of a young Croatian boy whose search for freedom and the chance to fulfill his American Dream led him through countless hardships to become one of the most revered and beloved winemaking legends in history.
“My life has been filled with miracles’” Mike Grgich says. “How else do you explain that a little boy from a little village in Croatia now has his wine on display in the Smithsonian Institution, in the same place as Abraham Lincoln’s hat and Neal Armstrong’s space suit?”
Grgich, the youngest in a family of 11, studied enology and viticulture at Croatia’s University of Zagreb with the goal of making great wine. While he was a student, a professor whispered to him about California, a paradise where winemakers were free to make the best wine possible. Just before graduating, he fled Croatia to escape communism. With $32 sewn in his shoe, Grgich finally arrived in California after four years of adversity and uncertainty. The book transports readers along Grgich’s journey from communism to freedom, becoming a California winemaker and earning his place as a Napa Valley icon.
An inductee to the Vintners Hall of Fame, Grgich crafts wines in the classic Old World tradition that have won a stream of local and international awards, establishing Grgich Hills Estate as one of the premier wineries in the U.S. and the world.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the famous Judgment of Paris. In 1976, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who ran a fine wine shop in Paris, decided to promote his wine shop by organizing a blind tasting to coincide with America’s Bicentennial celebrations. For the tasting, he gathered together the best French judges, the finest French wines and he added in a few wines from some upstart winemakers in California. The unimaginable happened: the 1973 Chardonnay, crafted by Mike Grgich for Chateau Montelena, won with the highest total score of 132 points! This momentous verdict placed Napa Valley on the global wine map and set the bar for Chardonnay in Napa Valley.
The following year Grgich joined with Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. Coffee company to open what became Grgich Hills Estate. The first vintage that Grgich crafted at the new winery was one of 221 Chardonnays from around the world entered into “The Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown.” The 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay emerged triumphant with the first place ribbon and the Chicago Tribune called it “The best Chardonnay in the world!”
George Taber, the Time magazine reporter who broke the story of the Paris Tasting and later was the author of “Judgment of Paris” about the famed tasting, praises “A Glass Full of Miracles:” “Mike Grgich may be small in stature, but he is a giant in the world of wine. His new book dramatically tells his full story, which is a great tale of a dream come true…there are a lot more aspects to Mike’s life than just Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s a great and fun read.”
As a way of leaving Communist-control Yugoslavia, Miljenko takes a United Nation’s fellowship to study in West Germany. After the fellowship ends, he stays in Germany with the hopes of immigrating to the United States
Miljenko receives a Canadian visa and eventually arrives in Vancouver, British Columbia. His name is anglicized to Mike Grgich and he works at various jobs before doing quality control at a paper mill.
Mike puts a position-wanted ad in the Wine Institute Bulletin for a winemaker position. Lee Stewart of Souverain Cellars answers the ad and gives Mike a job offer that allows him to get an American visa. Mike arrives in Napa Valley on August 15th.
Mike works for Brother Timothy of the Christian Brothers and then joins André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards.
The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, crafted by Mike, takes first place at the famed “Paris Tasting,” beating France’s best white Burgundies.
Mike and Austin Hills break ground on July 4, 1977 for their new winery in Rutherford, in the heart of Napa Valley.
Forty-one years after he left Croatia, Mike returns to the University of Zagreb at age 72 and receives his degree in enology and viticulture.
Mike opens Grgić Vina winery in Croatia, his homeland, producing Plavac Mali, a red wine, and Posip, a white wine.
Display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC commemorates the importance in American wines of the 1976 Paris Tasting.
Mike receives the “Lifetime Achievement Award” at Florida WineFest.
Two wines from Grgić Vina, Mike’s winery in Croatia, are chosen to represent the country at the United Nations for a month. Mike presents the wines to delegates at a dinner featuring traditional Croatian food.
DNA testing proves that the Crljenak vine is genetically identical to Zinfandel and that Plavac Mali is one of its offspring. This confirms Mike’s long-standing belief that Zinfandel originated in Croatia.
Mike receives the inaugural Ho’okele Award for lifetime achievements in the wine industry at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival in Hawaii.
The Society of Wine Educators honors Mike with its Grand Award for his innovation, leadership and industry achievements. The Croatian Chamber of Commerce recognizes Mike’s exceptional contributions to Croatia with its highest honor, the Zlatna Kuna award. The president of Croatia personally presents the award to Mike.
The American Wine Society presents Mike with its Award of Merit, the highest honor given by the organization, for his achievements in the wine industry.
Mike’s life and achievements are honored at a gala held at the Culinary Institute of America. The proceeds establish the Miljenko “Mike” Grgich Scholarship for Professional Wine Studies at the CIA.
On the 30th anniversary of Mike’s Chardonnay winning the Paris Tasting, Gov. Schwarzenegger in a letter recognizes Mike’s achievements and his contributions to the California wine industry. The United States Congress passes Concurrent Resolution 399 recognizing Mike’s role in winning the Paris Tasting, the California legislature passes a resolution honoring Mike’s accomplishments and the Consul General of the Croatian Consulate in Los Angeles sends official congratulations on Mike’s success both in the US and Croatia.
Roots of Peace presents Mike with its Global Citizen Award for his leadership and unique contributions in raising landmine awareness around the globe.
The University of Zagreb presents Mike with a Diploma of Honor in recognition of his contributions to the university and his homeland.
Mike celebrates his fiftieth harvest in Napa Valley.
In honor of his contributions to the wine industry, Mike is inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame on March 7th.
The California State Fair presents Mike with its Lifetime Achievement Award
“Like the Old Vine,” a documentary about Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, premieres at the Napa Valley Film Festival. The movie was filmed by Croatian Radiotelevision and describes Mike Grgich’s extraordinary life, achievements and how his “American Dream” became a reality.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History featured Mike Grgich in its first major exhibition on food history—“FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000” on November 20. A major section of the exhibition focuses on the revolution in American wine in the second half of the 20th-Century and the exhibition features the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Mike handcrafted that won the 1976 Paris Tasting, which sparked a wine revolution.
Inaugural release of the Paris Tasting Chardonnay, crafted by Mike in the same style as the Chardonnay that won the 1976 Paris Tasting.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts presents Mike Grgich with the esteemed “Thomas Jefferson Award” during its annual Bacchanal Wine Gala on November 9. The Academy celebrated Napa and the historic 1976 Paris Tasting during its gala and auction by presenting awards to Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski, who crafted the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that won the Paris Tasting, and George Taber, author of the Judgment of Paris, which chronicled this historic tasting that revolutionized the wine world. Violet Grgich accepted the award in Philadelphia for her father and introduced Grgich Hills’ 2010 Chardonnay and 2009 Zinfandel at the awards dinner.
Documentary of the origins of Zinfandel features Mike Grgich’s contributions. Mike’s life story is so intertwined with Zinfandel that he was interviewed for a new documentary film about the popular grape, called Dossier Zinfandel, which premiered at the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival in November.
The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay crafted by Mike Grgich is named to Smithsonian’s “101 Objects That Made America. The Smithsonian magazine publishes a list of “101 Objects That Made America” and a book, History of America in 101 Objects, drawn from the 137 million artifacts held by the 19 museums and research centers of the Smithsonian Institution. Among such priceless historical objects as Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit are the two bottles of wine that triumphed at the 1976 Judgment of Paris: The Chardonnay made by Mike Grgich, then working at Chateau Montelena, and the Cabernet Sauvignon made by Warren Winiarski, founder of Stags Leap Wine Cellars.
“Like the Old Vine (Kao Stara Loza),” the documentary about the life of Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, was presented the Grand Jury’s Special Award from the 20th annual Oenovideo International Grape & Wine Film Festival. Oenovideo is the oldest wine and vine film festival in the world.